Fishing For Praise


Before I begin, a poem:

My Fish

My fish is red with spots of blue
That’s vaguely Suessian, it’s true.
His flaring fins, unblinking eyes,
Give him an air of mild surprise.
He eats his little fishy flakes
And little fishy farts he makes.
He watches as I type these lettas,
He’s, taxonomically, a Betta.

Right, so, what did you think? A little weak isn’t it? I spun that off in, maybe, five minutes. My fish, Filigree, is in fact watching me type and I suspect even he thinks that was a pretty lazy effort. Animals know these things- well, okay, we assume they do. It’s easy to anthropomorphise, to impose our perceptions on others but that’s lazy too. Filigree and I share a desk but we don’t share the same worldview. He doesn’t understand the written word any more than I understand what it means when he blows little bubbles at the waterline of his bowl. Is he happy? Is he gassy? Is it a form of expression, an attempt at communication? It certainly gets my attention because every time he blows a bubble there’s a weird, audible ‘click,’ but if there’s more to it than just random air, I don’t know. I do enjoy it though. It’s a simple, unsophisticated act of creation.

But hold on a sec. My little poem was a simple, unsophisticated act of creation: a little bubbly bit of language. It’s odd that my first thought is to not only criticise myself but to assume that Filigree is doing the same. Mind you, I critique his bubbles- positive critique, they’re charming- but it’s a critical response nonetheless. Why do I think he’s doing the same? That’s lazy anthropomorphism again so maybe the question is not why do I think my fish is judging me but why am I even engaged in or expecting any criticism at all?

We judge, we criticise, we assess. It’s what people do. It’s a valuable thing, criticism—but it’s far from being an easy thing to do properly. Carmine Starnino, poet, poetry critic, polemicist (sadly, I didn’t know what that word meant before this week), and our most recent Morris House speaker, takes it all quite seriously: “To despise criticism…is to despise the forces that make poetry possible.” he says in the prologue of Lazy Bastardism, his recent published collection of essays. It presents a thoughtful if unrelenting look at the “state of poetry” from his informed, critical perspective and calls out poets whom he feels undermine the genre and produce “bland, much-recycled truisms”. His critics may or may not agree but I think it’s fair to say, at least, he stands within a long tradition in which criticism itself is made artful.

There’s nothing new in that: Robert Buchanan and Matthew Arnold were doing much the same thing in the late 1800s. These days, however, when culture is arbitrarily quantified in terms of thumbs and stars, articulate, scholarly criticism is something we may not be used to seeing. I’m still making my way through Lazy Bastardism, because the ironic life of an English major means having next to no time to read anything that’s not on a syllabus, but Starnino’s essays bite and do so with wry humour and a simmering passion for poetry. His words clearly come from a place where anything less would be, well, lazy.

I’m afraid to consider what Starnino would think of my poem about Filigree but I offer it up to serve a point. Criticism is as natural to us as water is to a fish. We’re constantly making choices– what colours we wear, what movies we watch, where we choose to eat–but I think how we shape our responses to the world, how we gauge our tastes and expectations, defines the size of the bowl we swim in. Literature and poetry– any art we encounter, really–carries with it the unspoken expectation that it will be, at the very least, noticed. For some that’s enough but it means living in a pretty small bowl that confines us and limits understanding between people. I want to interact with the art I encounter; I want to know what the hell people are saying when they show it to the world. There’s value in a dynamic, if sometimes indirect, relationship between artist and critic and each owes the other an honest, reasoned, thoughtful dialogue.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to talk to my fish about his bubbles. I think maybe he’s trying to tell me something.

-Jeff Parent