Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Eating My Prejudices

One of the best things an artist can do is make me eat my prejudices. This doesn’t mean writing tolerance-propaganda; art designed to coerce usually puts me on guard and actually turns me against the thesis. Rather, I adore things of a type I usually dislike that are done so well that I am forced to concede. By rendering me a happy hypocrite, my whole stand softens.

I’ve never liked poetry. For the two halves of my life it’s either looked gimmicky or simply like poorly paragraphed prose. I lack the ability to scan, which deadens some of the effect, and even in Shakespeare’s sonnets I never saw much enviable application of language. Intellectually, striving for rhythm only gets in the way of clear description and establishing atmosphere. It forces patterns where my storytelling instincts never needed them. Where there were great storytellers, like Homer and Dante, I was mostly putting up with secondhand meters to get to the meaty stories – and most poetry was not trying to deliver a Homeric narrative. So much of what I consumed was vague and interpretable, hiding in the safety of audience projection. As Christopher Miller used to tell my classes, “Poetry is the only art form that muddies its waters for the illusion of depth.”

You can tell this guy loved what he did.
Reading Alexander Pope was an acrid pleasure. He used sonnets to turn phrases like wild. He made points far more concisely than any prose about his work did. And even if I couldn’t read the iambic pentameter like I was supposed to, a definite voice rose from the lines. Once I reached his Essay On Man, in which this crippled genius used beautiful language to tell the rest of the world to suck it up, I was entirely won over. His stiltedness was elegant, at once erudite and plain, quotable and reasonable. No Homeric narrative, total indulgence, and total quality. Stanza by stanza, he made me grateful to have my nose rubbed in the things I disliked.

I call this feeling “selfenfreude.” If schadenfreude is the joy at someone else’s failure, selfenfreude is the joy at my own. There’s a pinch in my diaphragm as I recognize I ought to resist, and summon dogmas to swat down what I’m feeling. Every other organ is hums with amusement. I’m uncertain exactly how to activate selfenfreude, but it encourages humility and correcting my errors. I’m trying to keep it around.

I'm just saying: this is a lot like The Panther and the Lash.

Alexander Pope, Langston Hughes and Samuel Coleridge’s poetry did it to me. F.E.A.R. was that first-person-shooter that made me think (and jump in my seat, tearing a surgical stitch). As someone who cannot stand musicals, it’s a particular pleasure that my favorite Futurama is “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings.” In all these cases my defenses were already down; these weren’t like arguments where I could dig in my heels. I’ve enjoyed your poem, your game, your increasingly ludicrous opera. You’ve convinced me, not through your demonstration, but by getting me to demonstrate it for you. You made me eat my own prejudices.

It’s difficult evidence to refute, and it’s why I keep going back to niches I’ve disliked. Whether it’s time travel fiction or vegan lasagna, if I can find something that works on me it, it enters the remix of possibilities. So what if I hated Pride & Prejudice? It’s a small fee to pay in order to discover new territory of feeling.


  1. I don't like poetry either. I at least appreciate the great masters, i realize that i might enjoy it if i get into it, but there's something refrains me from that.

  2. I think that most people who don't like poetry are reading the wrong poetry. I don't mean that in a condescending way or anything, just that there's so much out there that saying "I don't like poetry" is like saying "I don't like food."

  3. And I've never read Pope. But if he could win your respect, then I think I should check him out.

    Sometimes I'm embarrassed by my dislikes. I know I shouldn't be, but I have this idea that I should find something positive in everything, that it will expand my mind. But there are things I hate - can't get around it. There are one or two jazz artists (Sun Ra, Monk) that I think genuinely had this ability, who came closer than most to seeing like god, but for me it remains an ideal.

    A couple of great phrases in this post: 'eating my prejudices' and 'selfenfreude'. So what if you hated Jane Austen? Exactly. Even if we can't see with the eyes of god that doesn't mean we can shoot each other down over matters of taste.

  4. Your comparison with food is very accurate, Valeria. Actually, I know lots of people who refuse to eat certain kind of food even though they've never eaten it and don't even know what it tastes like.

    So what makes me not to read poetry? When I think it about, i think i came blame the ultra fast modern days. I kind of think that poetry needs a slow and steady reading to fully feel it, but who has the time to do that?


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