Saturday, July 22, 2017

O Standards, Where Art Thou?

     In the days before I discovered girls, I received many exhortations from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, friends, friends’ parents, and miscellaneous other persons whom I regarded with a modicum of respect to try my hand at this or that undertaking. Their urgings encompassed everything from painting to pole vaulting. “I don’t think so,” I would normally demur, usually because I was engaged in something else and determined to finish it properly. “But you might be good at it,” they would reply, “and you won’t know unless you try it.”

     After I’d acquired some verbal facility, I came to call this the Asparagus Antiphon. (No, I didn’t care for asparagus then. I feel the same today. But I digress.) The parallel isn’t exact, of course. A child isn’t “good at” a vegetable; he either likes it or dislikes it. But the emotions pertinent to it are a match.

     Most kids don’t learn the fine art of changing the subject nearly as young as I did. It proved an excellent counter to the Asparagus Antiphon, even before I’d named it that. I got exceedingly good at it – so good that those who’d decided to hector me about attempting gymnastics, prestidigitation, the tuba, or what have you were mystified by how fluidly the conversation had left the track they’d embarked upon. It won me the peace I needed to persist at whatever challenge I’d already accepted until I “got it right.”

     Though young, I’d grasped something that many persons never do: that an enterprise of any sort, to be worth your time and effort, must have standards: criteria by which to determine whether you’d “got it right.” I was determined to know what standards apply to whatever I was about to attempt, and to meet them squarely. That’s much easier if you’re allowed to concentrate than if your attention is scattered over a large number of subjects.

     Today, to insist that there are standards for performance in certain endeavors is tantamount to blasphemy.

     This morning’s sweep of news sites, opinion mongers, and beloved blogging colleagues brought me, as it eventually will, to the lair of the esteemed Charles Hill. He quotes an amusing piece about a not-so-amusing subject: poetry:

     There’s zero barrier to entry with poetry — the rules for writing sonnets are right there, and not even the American educational system has so far managed to destroy literacy completely. If you want to go mano-a-mano with Shakespeare, your word processing program even comes with a dictionary and a thesaurus. There are 350+ million people in America today; Elizabethan England had maybe 3 million. Just as a matter of simple probability, there should be some world-class sonnet-writers around right now…
     …but, of course, there aren’t, because sometime in the later 19th century our universities started awarding degrees in English Literature.

     The insight in the final lines above is enormous: Many of the persons who pursued those degrees had no poetic ability and no taste. But they were determined to get degrees, and it’s a lot easier to sell pretense and flummery in “English Literature” than it is in mathematics or physics.

     Charles comments thus:

     I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I have Facebook friends who will point me to contemporary verse without even the slightest hint of irony.

     (Note the subtly ironic term “Facebook friends.” In my experience – limited, to be sure – prefixing “Facebook” to a relationship term nullifies it completely. Compare this to the practice of prefixing an abstract noun with “social” and thus inverting its meaning. But I digress.)

     Time was, poetry had certain rules: criteria whose satisfaction was demanded of anything that was represented as a “poem.” If you wanted to be deemed a poet, you had to know the rules for the forms you proposed to practice, and you had to abide by them. Of course to be regarded as a good poet, rule conformance, though necessary, was not sufficient. You had to display something more: originality, elegance in phrasing, and some sort of substance. The point of your verse could be humorous, as in the odes of Ogden Nash, or it could be formal and grave, as in the works of Emily Dickinson, but it had to be there, or your verse would be dismissed as “doggerel.”

     The demise of the formal rules of poetry happened long ago. People who wanted to be least, to be thought of as poets...found all those niggling little requirements “too much trouble to bother about,” so they simply vented onto paper. After all, it’s the substance that matters, right? The profound insights; the great emotions; the expression of immutable and eternal truths! Or maybe not. Surely we should be inclusive of poetry that flows spontaneously from the lips as well. Why leave the hallucinators and the schizophrenics out of the fun?

     Free verse...blank and blank verse...verse composed of neologisms...verse rendered in shrieks and howls...the damnedest unversed verse the Universe can contain has rained down upon the noble field of poetry like a cascade of vitriol. With the dismissal of all the standards that once applied to poetry, poetry has been robbed of all point.

     And now there are no more poets, and no more poetry.

     The current, multifarious campaigns against standards of all kinds are destroying the very concept of achievement. If there are no standards for acceptability and quality, there is no way, apart from the most arbitrary and subjective of judgments, to grant laurels to any human product, whether of the hands or of the mind. When everyone is a poet, no one is, for poetry as a category of items distinct from all others has been rendered meaningless.

     The true horror is in this: There are persons whose conscious intent, whether overt or covert, is to destroy the concept achievement and all recognition thereof. They’ve had more success in some fields than in others. For example, what’s happened to poetry, painting, and sculpture hasn’t yet happened to archery, basketball, or real estate development. That chafes them greatly, for any field in which the participants can be differentiated from one another is an obstacle to the Harrison Bergeron future at which they aim. (In that vision, each of them imagines himself to be the Handicapper General. Yet another instance of Commissar Complex. But I digress.)

     I do only a very few things. I’m determined to do whatever I do as well as it can be done...or failing that, as well as I can do it, given my personal capacities and gifts. That requires that each of my undertakings pertain to a set of standards: rules for inclusion in the field, and criteria by which to judge achievement. Thus I have no interest in fields that have abandoned all standards. They’re the natural habitat of poseurs and pretenders: “artists” uninterested in hard work or critical judgment, and “critics” determined to place themselves on the same plane as the “artists.”

     Standards are what make possible justifiable human pride: yet another of the barriers to their hegemony the would-be commissars are determined to destroy. It stands in the way of their preferred substitute: the “self-esteem” they promote relentlessly in our “schools” that forbids all notions of right and wrong, or better and worse. (And as I sense that this is about to mutate into a tirade of a completely different sort, I believe I’ll close here. I wouldn’t want to digress.)

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