All rock critics like Elvis Costello because all rock critics look like Elvis Costello.
–David Lee Roth
Were you a grade-school liberal like me? Anyone who isn’t a socialist at 10 has no heart, anyone who still is at 20 has no brains. I grew up in New York’s legendarily Republican Dutchess County, of which Gore Vidal remarked, after a losing run for assemblyman, “Every four years the natives crawl out of their holes and vote for William McKinley.” Maybe so; what they don’t crawl out of their holes to do is vote for Gore Vidal. Dutchess was FDR’s home county, and he never came close to carrying it in four tries. A straw poll of my 6th grade class revealed that I was the only kid who supported McGovern. What I lacked in numbers I made up in energy, plastering McGovern posters all over the walls of the elementary school. My Nixon hatred confirmed, by junior high I knew all the Watergate players, not just the big boys like Haldeman and Ehrlichman but the whole supporting cast — McCord, Segretti, Egil Krogh, right down to Frank Wills, the security guard at the Watergate Hotel who blew the whole thing open. My chess club adjourned early one sultry night in July 1974 to tune in Nixon’s resignation speech, which I watched with undisguised, not to say lip-smacking, relish.
I understood no more of politics than my Nixonite classmates did. I hated Nixon because my parents hated Nixon and I was too young to have learned to hate my parents; I liked my parents. But I was plenty old enough to hate my classmates, and took a none-too-secret pleasure in the fact that my politics differed from theirs. They were nothing more than a way to be superior.
In high school I refused to listen to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd: that shit was for the heads who wore cutoff jean jackets and smoked in the parking lot. I went in instead for Devo, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, Clash, a few deservedly forgotten groups like the Fabulous Poodles (“Mirror Star” anyone?), and of course, as Professor Lee Roth would have predicted, Elvis Costello. Later on, when my ex-stoner buddies sat me down with the headphones and forced me to listen carefully to Zep and Floyd, I was astonished to discover that it was good, really good, and that my own tastes at the time had held up spottily by comparison. The jean jacket boys were right, and I was wrong. It bothered me, as it would bother anyone. Only after several years of conscientious deprogramming could I listen to these bands without prejudice.
When I started to read poetry I stayed away from Keats and Shelley and Christina Rossetti: that shit was for the girls who liked rainbows and ponies, not that I had anything against rainbows or ponies, just the girls who liked them, who wouldn’t go out with me anyway. Even now I can’t read any Keats besides the Grecian Urn, am notoriously unfair to Shelley, and can admire one or two poems by Rossetti only from a discreet distance.
I have spilled my share of pixels here defending objective values in art. Some art is good, some bad, and confusing them is like thinking that the earth is flat or that there’s a fortune to be made in buying real estate with no money down. I am very far from recanting but I have nagging doubts. Elsewhere, discussing public and private reading, I instanced someone whose favorite song is “Desperado” because it happened to playing when he kissed a girl at the junior high school dance. The example is tendentious; in truth most “private readings” are far more subtle and insidious. You admire someone, and he plays you music, and shows you pictures, and lends you books. You admire the exhibits, but to what extent can that be disentangled from your admiration of the exhibitor, if at all? I have a taste for poems about the relationship between the abstract and the particular; on what grounds can I claim it is any more universal or important a theme than the tribulations of love or the inevitability of the grave?
I exhibit certain poems here, and convince certain readers who might not see them otherwise that they are good. But you will never share my tastes exactly unless you’re exactly like me, and God forbid. Yvor Winters, as any steady reader here knows, is my favorite critic. Do I like him on the merits, such as they are, or do I like him because, of all poetry critics, he’s most like me? David Lee Roth might know. I don’t.
(Update: Rick Coencas comments. George Wallace points out that it was Egil Krogh, not Emil as I originally had it; I would have known that in 8th grade. Eddie Thomas has some especially interesting remarks. Eloise of Spit Bull comments. Jeff Ward comments.)
I suspect I had it easier musically growing up in the desert-like late ’80s, between New Wave and Nirvana; I could simply reject everything produced in my own dire era and enjoy jean-jacket rock and twee postpunk on equal terms, without prejudice. Switching from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath to New Traditionalists caused no cognitive dissonance.
Lord, I hope you’re not like Yvor Winters. Reading him is like eating mud: it’s probably got a few vitamins and minerals, but is it worth all that effort? Bleh. He doesn’t read a poem so much as solve it — like he got lost on his way to math class. And there’s his prickly self-regard and anal exactitude. He’s Ignatius J. Reilly, PhD.
Oh I dunno, David; Winters is a good deal wittier than you give him credit for, especially in his last book, Forms of Discovery, when he was dying anyway and minced no words. If you read his remarks on Yeats that I quoted here you’ll see what I mean.
If by "solving" a poem you mean construing it correctly, then I suggest that solving poems is indispensable to reading them well. Winters and I are scarcely a minority of two in that opinion. I.A. Richards, in Practical Criticism, notes that the vast majority of howlers in the protocols derive, not from the students’ insensitivity to poetry, but from their inability to understand the words on the page.
You might be right, Aaron. Just don’t expect me to admit it. 🙂
Not to pick a nit or anything, but isn’t the correct name Egil Krogh, rather than "Emil"? [Yes, it is.] His having two avian-sounding names seemed so appropriate at the time, as if he were a character out of Volpone.
More to the point: keep up the fine work proselytizing for Yvor Winters. I’ve just finished reading In Defense of Reason and it’s made a believer out of me.
This is a depressing piece.
When I was a kid I used a Mickey Mantle model bat even though it was too heavy for me. It was as a kind of aspiration. I wanted to be like the Mick.
Yet (except for one part of the piece) you are saying that in our choice of art aspiration is a less important quality than congruity. If that is true, too bad. I would rather try to like the work of someone better than myself than someone like myself.
Refusing to give art a chance because of who likes it is a common sin many of us made, especially in High School and College (in Duchess Country, BTW). I couldn’t stand plenty a band because of the people who listened to them.
What I wonder is how your autobiagraphical moment in any way is proof that there are objective values in art (if such a thing as objectivity ever could exist). If anything, your story is pretty good proof that art is a fairly subjective experience. This what makes art chaotic, beautiful and, to some, a menacing and frightening experience. Imposing "objective" systems on subjective things is a pretty basic human response, but I think art resists it. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why Plato wanted to ban so much of it.
(and how can you think that the Elvis Costello of, say, "This Year’s Model" hasn’t held up better than the best those ponderous but talented proggers Pink Floyd could cook up?)
Now, please, subjective motives in personal taste have little to do with the "objectivity" of the quality and nature of art. The mere fact that Aaron’s tastes are shaped by his personal experience does not bear at all on the question of whether his analysis of poem X is valid, or whether poem Y is objectively superior to poem Z. This only speaks to Aaron’s own subjectivity, not the subjectivity of the entire field, anyway…
I am objectively superior to all of you.