I just ran across one of the most idiotic sentences that I’ve ever read: “There are 15 or 20 better poets in America than Tony Hoagland, but few deliver more pure pleasure.” (This the first line of Dwight Garner’s review of Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.) What, I wonder, are we to think about those “better poets” who deliver less pleasure? (Perhaps some of these better poets deliver no pleasure at all.) Is Garner really going to argue that pleasure is a lesser value than … what? Edification? Mystification? Philosophical profundity?
No no no. Pleasure must be the primary value or all the rest is nothing but various denominations of intellectual scrip for use among one or another of our poetic elites (all wannabes, of course: these elites are elite only in their own minds). And if this is true, then aren’t all the poetic OK corral shootouts really just arguments over what each of us happens to like? And isn’t the point of criticism, even the low-level criticism of book reviews, to explain why this or that poet is so pleasurable to read?
To be fair, Mr. Garner does exactly that. But for cryin’ out loud, does he have to apologize for it? Does he have to saddle poor Tony Hoagland with the shadows of those unnamed 15 or 20 better others who can’t quite deliver the goods? What is it about Hoagland that makes him a guilty pleasure? That is, who out there is making Mr. Garner feel somehow wrong about declaring how excellent he thinks Tony Hoagland really is?