This month we published We Need to Talk: A New Method for Evaluating Poetry by Michael Theune and Bob Broad. In this post the authors explain how their book invites us to explore the value of poetry in a new way.
It is difficult to overstate the role evaluation plays in contemporary American poetry. Contest judges, anthologists, editors, critics, workshop leaders and participants, readers, and last but certainly not least, poets themselves – always judging which word, image, form, line break, ending, &c, &c, &c is best – all engage in assessment. And yet, there is generally little examination of the dynamics of evaluation and the criteria at its core.
It’s not that people engaged in contemporary American poetry don’t want this. Many do. But axiological inquiry is stymied both by the misconception that there are only two ways to approach value – via false objectivity or else acknowledging that value is sealed away in subjective solipsism – and by the traditional approaches of the humanities: that to more closely consider value one should read more carefully and think more deeply about the issue.
Our book, We Need to Talk: A New Method for Evaluating Poetry, approaches value differently and recommends a new kind of axiological investigation for poetry. We Need to Talk understands value to be contingent, that is, comprised of the ever-shifting – but not unknowable – elements produced by numerous forces, both textual and contextual, from the social and political to the aesthetic and the personal. Additionally, We Need to Talk recommends exploring value in a new way: by empirically studying the conversations of poetry assessors.
Such conversations occur frequently in contemporary American poetry. Teams of anthologists and journal editors engage in them, as do panels of contest judges. So do MFA faculty as they determine which applicants will be accepted for their program. The typical poetry workshop is one long conversation. The material is there to be collected, and then studied. And the results – certainly not guessed at, but rather empirically present, and often very surprising – demand articulation and publication.
We Need to Talk doesn’t offer facile answers. Rather, it offers a method by which anyone interested in contemporary American poetry can more closely examine what they really value in the verse they admire. Still, this is significant. Whenever evaluative decisions have consequence, it is incumbent upon the decision-makers to be as aware as possible of the values upon which their judgements depend. Then, they can share those values, clarifying their work. Or else, if their revealed values are not those they wish to adhere to, they can work to change them. Either way, the method at the heart of We Need to Talk promises to have a salutary effect on the processes of assessment ubiquitous in American poetry today.