Over at the Guardian Blog, Shirley Dent has made a call for balls. Leaving aside the fact that this is a strange choice of anatomical metaphors for a woman in the twenty first century (guts? spine? nerve?), she makes some good points.
In a recent "debate," I encountered this "Oh yeah, well that's just your opinion" relativistic argument. For some reason, this feeble line of thought seems only to get trotted out as a reason for not voicing negative opinions; nice opinions are okay (or nasty opinions, if they happen to be directed towards nasty opinionaters). Naturally enough, no one has anything resembling ultimate authority and there will always be a strongly subjective element to criticism, but as Dent says, concrete knowledge is necessary for a critic's--or anyone's--opinion to carry weight and water. In poetry, this means not only knowledge of what's current, but what's past and the vast array of techniques and devices that poets around the world have employed. When you see many people using the same borrowed trope, dollars-to-doughnuts it's a cliche. When something sounds like fortune cookie prophecy or the banal consolations of a self-help book, you have triteness and sentimentality. When you see someone using diction, syntax and rhythms that very closely resemble another poet's, the writing is most probably derivative. When there is a complete absence of figurative language and soundplay, chances are you're in the realm of expository utility prose. These are fairly objective judgments, which is to say that evidence can be summoned to back them up. If you fail to recognize these things, you're probably ill-equipped to be a critic and your opinion--terribly sorry!--isn't worth as much as that of someone who does recognize them.
And some people simply have bad taste. We recognize and acknowledge this without flinching in the realms of home decor (commemorative plate and spoon collections) and music (Billy Ray Cyrus), so why not in poetry? If kitsch (Maya Angelou) exists, and genius (Hopkins) exist, it stands to reason that there must be shades and degrees of each in between. Most people can agree most of the time on what writing is brilliant, but for some reason we're supposed to pretend that mediocrity and awfulness are completely foreign to both readers and writers of literature. Which is bullshit (or bollocks, to return to Dent's metaphor) because writing is not a rarefied endeavour. Like anything else, it can be done well and very well, poorly and very poorly. And far more of it is done poorly than well--because it's actually quite hard to do. And some of what is done poorly is lauded as brilliance, for one constellation of reasons or another, most of which have little or nothing to do with writing as such. Acknowledging these things and pinpointing where and how and how far a book goes awry is useful. Doing so with style and wit, moreover, is engaging. A very old principle: instruction through delight. Horace, who wasn't above the odd barb, said that. If you haven't read him, you might want to. It'll help you form intelligent opinions on poetry.
UPDATE: Steven W. Beattie weighs in on this.