The Continuing Transvaluation of All Values

I find myself obsessing over this comment of Ron’s:

Specificity is perhaps the simplest test of a good writer

wondering, as I do of most sweeping general statements that declare aesthetic value, if in fact this is in my estimation true.

It certainly is a hoary old modernist nugget, this concept that “god [gawd] is in the details” — a quotation some attribute to le Corbusier. Apparently it was actually said by Mies van der Rohe — not that there’s a huge difference between one lover of grids and giant clean structures composed of rectangles and another. No matter which of these architects said it, the quotation is ironic coming from their mouths, given that both of their projects are about the erasure of cluttery historical detail.

Ron’s project isn’t, of course; rather it’s about the attentive, inclusive embrace of all sorts of details, and in my mind it is those details that make Ron an interesting writer (as well as his having permanently branded the word “fellaheen” on the most visible forefront of my internal lexicon). But is specificity the test of all good writers, or more exactly, of all good writing? There are plenty of horrible poems (and remember, I have no universal tests for what makes something good or bad. If I use an evaluative adjective, it simply means “I think so.”) that are absolutely specific. At the moment, I am thinking that “Red Wheelbarrow” is a horrible poem, mainly because (and my nausea with it starts right at that first line) “so much depends/ upon” it, both within the context of the poem (which might at this point as well be an Impressionist calendar) and outside it, in its “legacy.” Williams never specifies what that “so much” is, and if he did the poem would be pretty prosaic, probably — even more horrible than it already is. Still, the poem is a famous example of trailblazing specificity.

And actually, it isn’t trailblazing at all, except in the western world which was finally learning how to appreciate “the Orient,” whose poems of extreme specificity the hoary modernists would plunder and ape, claiming those poems’ effects for their own.

Here’s another example of what I think is bad specificity. I picked a Sharon Olds poem because she is a brand name I can be trusted to dislike. This is an excerpt from a longer poem.

High School Senior (from The Wellspring)

For seventeen years, her breath in the house

at night, puff, puff, like summer

cumulus above her bed,

and her scalp smelling of apricots

–this being who had formed within me,

squatted like a bright tree-frog in the dark,

like an eohippus she had come out of history

slowly, through me, into the daylight,

We can see clearly the specificity of this poem — the length of time is seventeen years (would the poem be better if it was seventeen years, three months, six days, two hours, etc.?), her breath is like summer cumulus (would it be better to know exactly what month in summer?), her scalp smells of apricots (eww! would it help to know if the apricots were grown in California or Turkey?) and the being who had formed within her squatted like a bright tree-frog (would this icky foetal metaphor be more effective if we knew whether “bright” here referred to luminosity or color tone, and whether the tree-frog was of a poisonous variety, and whether it was of the species, Agalychnis callidryas, Hyla regilla, Hylidae cinerea, or Litoria caerulea.? If I had written this poem, which obviously I wouldn’t have, but if I had, I would have chosen the latter species for prosodic reasons, but that’s I guess where Sharon Olds and I differ.) The word “eohippus” is plenty specific, sure, but I really don’t think that’s a very nice thing for a mother to compare her daughter to. If my mother had compared me to an eohippus I would probably be in even worse emotional shape than I already am.

All this to say that “specificity” per se does not, for me, a good poem make. It’s not that g*d is in the details but that the goddesses revel in certain details, n’est-ce pas?

Here’s an example of details that the toy goddesses probably get a lot of joy from, part of a poem by David Trinidad:

Of Mere Plastic

for Wayne Koestenbaum

The Barbie at the end of the mind,

Beyond the last collectible, is dressed

In “Golden Glory” (1965-1966),

A gold floral lamé empire-styled

Evening dress with attached

Green chiffon scarf and

Matching coat with fur-trimmed

neckline and sequin/bead

Detail at each side. Her accessories;

Short white gloves, clear shoes

With gold glitter, and a hard-to-find

green silk clutch with gold filigree

Braid around the center of the bag.

It closes with a single golden button.


I don’t think it’s possible to get much more specific than this, at least in description. Because the Barbie at the end of the mind is ideational, and clearly not a real tangible Barbie, her actual “specificity” is of course arguable. But I don’t know, I think this is a pretty great poem. Ron, what do you think? Do you like this poem better than Muriel Rukeyser’s? I know I do.

Still, though, I don’t think we can use specificity as a test. The first good but nonspecific poem that came to my mind was a sestina of Auden’s that I unfortunately could not find online, nor could I find my anthology from my childhood, Major Poets, in which that sestina appears. I found another poem, though, that makes the same point:

Epitaph on a Tyrant

W. H. Auden

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

The nonspecificity of this poem is its strong point and its raison d’etre, because there are any number of possible tyrants who might deserve this poem as their epitaph. It sends me searching my knowledge of history for who he might specifically be referring to, but in fact it isn’t important to know. It isn’t even important to know exactly what kind of perfection he, whoever he may have been, had been after. It is almost like a riddle, this poem, a little brain activator. It raises questions — why did the little children die when he laughed? Why was his poetry easy to understand? What is the relation, if any, between tyrrany and poetry that is easy to understand? These reverberating puzzlements make this poem a good poem for me, one worthy of my attention, even if this poem conforms to neither of my customary (and therefore, I think, wrong) definitions of poetry: “language that calls attention to itself” (obviously that’s cribbed from Jakobsen) or “an assault on language.”

Some writers actually make their mark by vacillating between extremes of specificity and nonspecificity. This is similar to a filmmaker who chooses to use a variety of lenses, from super-zooms to ultra-panorama. Barrett Watten is one of those writers who could not pass the simple test of “specificity.” In certain of his works there are instances of a high impact, unforgettable specificity, like this from his poem “Relays”, which appeared in the Tuumba chapbook, Complete Thought:

To my right an enormous, out-of proportion Pekinese with red, fluffy fur has just disappeared around the corner of a [NB: nonspecific] building. Everyone laughs.

[It occurs to me, though, having typed this, that this is an example of flawed specificity. Pekinese are never red, but more normally white and brown or white and black. And instead of being fluffy, they are silky. What Barry was thinking of here, I believe, was Pomeranians. As a staunch lapdog coveter, I should know.]

While elsewhere in the same poem, he writes

Rolling with unwieldy vagueness, the motive is an endless wave.

This line brims with exquisite metatextual hyperawareness, but whatever it may be, it is not “specific.” I keep thinking o f another Watten line that I think is from Under Erasure, but I can’t seem to find it, so I’m not sure how it’s lineated or if I’m quoting it exactly, but it’s something along the lines of

Models twist and turn in front of a camera,

It is exactly the nonspecificity of this line that makes it interesting. If he had said “Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford,” it would have fallen into the pit of mere reportage. As it is, we don’t even know if he means “fashion models” — I picture something like 3-d computer models or better yet, models of thinking, in which case the camera would be the agent of hyperawareness.

I feel I need to continue to be on guard against generalizations of aesthetic value. I mean, I can make ’em, but I better be well-prepared to break ’em.

Keep transvaluing those values, people. That will keep it all interesting (deliberately “nonspecific” statement).

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