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notes & queries > Error of Judgement (part two)

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message 1: by Philip (last edited May 09, 2014 10:35AM) (new)

Philip Lee | 80 comments Mod

Error of Judgement

and the uses of bias in poetry (part two)

Judges in any of the arts, if they're up to the job, have to employ quite a number of skills. In poetry, they must be schooled in literary criticism, have a wide range of reading experience, be socially aware; and as well as having their own preferred tastes they must be open to and knowledgeable about other genres, trends and movements in the discipline, some of which they may not personally like very much. I add this caveat because some judges will use the phrase, "I know what I like" - which I take to mean, they may not always be able to account for their tastes. The absorption of all these skills is both time consuming and esoteric, therefore judging is often done on panels wherein each member brings varying types and levels of expertise. This means that some younger, or at least less experienced judges, may be included - which broadens their base. Finally, judges will inevitably come in for criticism themselves; so, like politicians, they have to be somewhat thick-skinned.

Reviewing my list of judges' skills in the light of this essay's topic, error and the uses of bias in poetry, I would like to focus now on the need to appreciate where bias can be appropriate in poetry, and where its appearance has no more basis in truth & beauty than racism, misogyny or any other disagreeable attitude. That is, where bias is used as a literary device; where it reflects a wide or narrow range of reading; where its social function must be determined; and where it may contribute to a poem's style. To illustrate the list, I now give a couple of examples.

Yeats, even in his most serious work, often takes an Irish Nationalist stance. I'm thinking of poems such as "Easter, 1916" and "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death".


Yeats isn't criticised for his support of the cause, indeed his pro-Nationalist stance is seen as fundamental to the Celtic Revival, of which he was a key figure. On the other hand, Eliot's "Gerontion" is often cited as an example of racism in mainstream literature. The four lines in question are not enough by themselves to condemn him as promoter of race hate, and their significance is usually played down as an example of a structural, unreconstructed anti-semitism rife in the early twentieth century. Here they are,

My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.

The whole poem is here,


Bias in Yeats adds to his gravitas. In Eliot it lingers like a bad smell. At no time in the future will the average reader nod in approval and say, “At least he had no time for that scum!”

Why does bias work in "Kitchen Floor" while it prevents "Two Approaches To Gardening" from being any kind of poem at all?

Some kinds of bias do not offend, and so we can identify with the speaker in KF without having to take sides. Only an extreme libertarian who thought drug addiction was not a problem would say, "He's happy that way. Leave him be. Stop worrying about him." Applying the same to TATG, however, is not callous. It's natural to think of weeding as a complement to pruning, logical to negotiate how to fertilise a garden and debate whether or not to keep bees. It's magical to join one's spouse in a glass of wine in the evening and plain good manners to show some interest their calls - however long they may last. Bias, then, only works when it conforms to social awareness, the third of my points.

So what about these verses as literature? Does the bias in KF have literary merit? I have already argued the gruesome images here - from the finger painting with drool to the slug that morphs into a mildewed butterfly - have beauty to them. They enable us to see the addict with compassion. But we don't get images of the wife in TATG, only put-downs. She wears a straw hat in the rain. She protests about pruning. She “scrabbles”. She wants bees (but won't look after them). She drinks & talks too much. She's had as much as could be given and still wants more. She cries. She wants unqualified companionship. These are not crafted images but listed whines.

So we come to the function of the texts as documents. The judges in a competition must be well read enough to recognise when a writer is getting something off their chest, and when they are creating an actual work of art. OK, it's sometimes possible to do both, but since most artists seldom work on a single level anyway, a big part of the craft is to interweave meanings. For poets, words contain whole treasure chests of ambiguity, and therefore offer the best opportunity to play with meaning. Perhaps the most ambiguous words of all are the personal pronouns, especially those of the first and second case. Therefore any text with the words “I”, “we”, “me”, “us” and “you” (the latter standing for both subject and object) is immediately predicated by the question, who is meant?

In KF, both "I" and "you" are deployed as nominal speaker and receptor of a monologue, with the reader as voyeur. In fact neither speaker nor receptor are delineated beyond a vague relationship, with sibling status being the most likely. This frees up the story aspect of the poem so that we don't need to see beyond a kinship that has been affected by one party's drug addiction. Beyond a gentle hint, there is no prompt to see the couple as stereotypes such as mother and son, sister and brother. Their very neutrality also means we don't suspect the speaker of exaggerating or dissembling. The possibility, then, that "I" and "you" are real people - for example, the writer and her brother - recedes into an unimpinging distance.

With TATG, however, the possibility that "I" and "you" are the actual writer and his real wife never leaves a foreground in which no distancing device is used beyond the space between the reader's eyes and the page or screen. This sets up a tension which is not resolved anywhere in the text. Realising that we're dealing with a single, biased viewpoint – a depressing case of misogyny, in fact - we search for any indication a 'story' is being told, of which this is only a part. But no, our search is in vain and the text appears to be fully self contained. Socially, then, this document amounts to a bit of dirty washing hung out on its final line.

Of course, the other main criteria judges use is personal preference. Here, as I said above, we're delving into the I-know-what-I-like zone where all kinds of subjective drives and motives may operate. When judging the work of a poet with the stature of Eliot, a few examples of racism or snobbery will be weighed against a large body of acclaimed poetry. Our aim here, though, is not to judge the poet, but a single work. In the case of TATG, presented as a single work for publication in a stand-alone slot, the judge must be aware that choosing such a text sends a message. And that message - a very sad and self-congratulatory triumph of verbal/mental wife-beating - would not be acceptable to many readers no matter how refined and polished it is. So yes, it is little wonder how thick-skinned judges have to be given the depth of the error they may slip into eyes open, or even closed.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Beauty in grace,
grace in beauty -
art is bias.

When you discuss old poets, you find a lot of beauty in grace.

message 3: by Marti (new)

Marti Martinson | 49 comments to recognise when a writer is getting something off their chest, and when they are creating an actual work of art

I think it was Robert Frost who said something like "grief, not grievances" in poetry.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Marti wrote: "to recognise when a writer is getting something off their chest, and when they are creating an actual work of art

I think it was Robert Frost who said something like "grief, not grievances" in poe..."

How can you tell the difference?

message 5: by Marti (new)

Marti Martinson | 49 comments For me, grief would be all first person: I grieve, I hurt, I cry, I yearn.....

Grievance? "You b#st%rd, you f&ck@ng hurt me...." Wanting someone decapitated may indicate grievance. Yes, that was rather flippant, but vengeance is a fair indicator of grievance. The first poem from poemhunter, the one with the murderous teacher.....yeah, grievance.

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Marti wrote: "For me, grief would be all first person: I grieve, I hurt, I cry, I yearn.....

Grievance? "You b#st%rd, you f&ck@ng hurt me...." Wanting someone decapitated may indicate grievance. Yes, that was r..."

I still cannot tell the difference between the use of grief and the deployment of grievance in poetry. They are very tightly bound in my opinion, and value judgements on either one devalues the importance of the Other.

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

To me, poems simply have to be clever.

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