A Sortie with the Sorting Hat
A Little Learning

Spare Aaron the Rod

"You know my methods. Apply them!"
-- S. Holmes, to Dr. John Watson, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Aaron Haspel is defending himself in typically capable fashion against divers calumnies launched by some who disagree with one or more of his critical judgments. The scoffers' most recent targets include Aaron's suggestion of a simple test to tell poetry from prose ("poetry is what scans") and the righteous lambasting he handed out to Wordsworth last month.

Jan Schreiber's recent consideration of Yvor Winters, to which I linked below, includes several remarks on Winters' critical approach that apply with comparable force to Aaron's. Examples:

The undeniable delights associated with certain admittedly non-rational poems did not constitute a counter-argument for this critic, who viewed delight with scant charity among the array of poetic values.


He wrote habitually in a tone of irascible self-confidence, but he often wrote with insight, and his judgments offered a needed corrective to the pieties of his time. Even his misjudgments were salutary for many readers: they demonstrated that genius never deserves to be taken on faith but must justify itself, and that many texts admired uncritically out of reverence for tradition might or might not bear rigorous scrutiny but should at least receive it. For ordinary readers, students, and aspiring poets, that was a liberating perspective.

That works for me, but there is ample evidence that others beg to differ.

Call me naive, but I am constantly surprised by the splenetic, even vicious, rhetoric that culturally oriented weblogs vent at one another. You have not swum in invective until you've spent time, for instance, looking at some of the more adamant poetry weblogs, especially those who engage in the interminable "formalist" vs. "post-avant" grudge match. Or perhaps you would rather revel in the mire that is the "functionality and comfort for the occupant are irrelevant/indispensable to architecture" discussion. The particular points of view matter not a whit: each is happy to explain colorfully and at length why the other is a benighted troglodyte, or worse.

I suppose the depth of conviction on display is heartening -- as Aaron observes "Polibloggers vastly outnumber artbloggers because people are less interested in politics, not more. Art is just too damn personal." -- but it's hard not to worry that someone's eye could get poked out. So play nice, kids. And remember: just because a fellow can defend himself is no excuse to pick on him.


david giacalone

It's more than a little ironic that barbaric lawyers have put so much attention on Civility Codes over the past couple of decades, while the "cultural elite" continue to wallow in and sling invective. This seems to be a problem for all of academia -- self-esteem and reputation are too-closely connected to the acceptance of this or that theory, definition or perspective.

Lance Boyle

A maybe apocryphal story about Bob Thomas of the Golden Toad is that he won the Berkeley fiddle contest by agreement of all except that he played a three-string viol from long ago and far away. Since everyone knows fiddles have 4 strings he was disqualified.
Approaching the whole subject with an eye toward its heart we find only dancing, and dancers are notoriously indiscriminate as regards instrumentation. Melody, rhythm, and emotional accuracy, there are no other criteria.
"Prose" and "poetry" are categories of the bored and the mercantile, useful in their way, after the real work's done.


It's all politics. The winners write the (literary) history books so everyone wants to be the winner. The formalist vs. avant garde debate is for the most part aligned with the cultural war ongoing in the country at present. I'm not saying all formalists are right-wing and avant garde left-wing, but I think the loudest among each faction is. I now refuse to join in the screaming match (not that I'm any good at it anyways.) I love Frost but also appreciate Ashbery (although L-A-N-G-etc poets aren't my cup of tea.) I wonder what Shakespeare's literary theories were? We know only what we know about them in his writing. So maybe the best way to win is just to work hard at the work.


George wrote: Call me naive, but I am constantly surprised by the splenetic, even vicious, rhetoric that culturally oriented weblogs vent at one another.


Consider yourself so called. Your view is naive because it seems to fail to recognize that behind that "splenetic, even vicious, rhetoric" is NOT an argument against certain positions taken in such arguments, but an argument against the hidden agenda behind those certain positions.

Do you imagine, for even an instant, that behind, say, the lunatic position that architects and architecture should pay more attention to "functionality and comfort for the occupant" than to the aesthetic design of the building, resides a concern for matters architectural?

No such thing.

There are two hidden agendas behind such a position. The first can be discerned behind the railing and gnashing of teeth of the sensible-shoes bourgeois types against what they sophomorically call "egotecture", and against what they also sophomorically call "starchitects" (i.e., those who build "egotecture"). What's behind, and in fact really provokes, such railing and gnashing of teeth is that sensible-shoes bourgeois types are ill-equipped to understand, and therefore incapable of understanding, the primacy of aesthetics in architecture, which is, and has always been, the very thing that distinguishes architecture from mere building. And so what the sensible-shoes bourgeois champions is the only thing he's capable of understanding: bourgeois creature comfort -- physically, intellectually, and emotionally. And as is typical of the bourgeois mind-set, what a bourgeois champions and considers to be of prime importance is what he imagines *all* persons should champion and consider to be of prime importance.

Woodenheaded and contemptible thinking, plain and simple.

The second hidden agenda is a lot nastier. It can be discerned behind the railing and gnashing of teeth against "egotecture" and "starchitects" by
the bitter, failed artiste and/or intellectual. What's behind, and in fact really provokes, that railing and gnashing of teeth is unadulterated, unmitigated ressentiment; a hatred of the respect, admiration, even awe-laden accolades heaped upon the heads of men (or, occasionally, women) of authentic architectural genius, and upon their buildings; even a hatred of the very existence of genius itself. These bitter, failed types invariably champion architectural mediocrities and the mediocrity of their buildings under the idiot (and false) pretext and rationale that those buildings better meet the needs of those who use and inhabit them. Or, worse, champion charlatan architectural "reformers" such as the Yuppie and cult favorite, Christopher Alexander (an "architect" who has not so much as a single building to his credit), who declares architects unnecessary, all persons capable of being their own architect if only they'd follow his (Alexander's) equalitarian, Age of Aquarius, "mystic crystal revelation, and the mind's true liberation" teachings.

Once again on the part of such champions, contemptible thinking, plain and simple.

And seriously pathetic, as well.



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