I managed to get an entire three weeks into the semester before it happened. The professor asked the class for their opinions on the quality of a poem and, as if on cue, the girl sitting one seat to the front and left of me declared, “It’s impossible to really judge the quality of poetry.” I’ll be generous and assume she thought this comment was beneficial to the class discussion, and not merely an attempt to announce her status as an ‘enlightened’ artist (or whatever they call themselves). Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there is no consistent, purely objective way to qualify poetry, and it would be difficult to look at John Keats and T. S. Eliot and say that one has better poetry than the other. But is there any truth in saying that judging the quality is impossible? Since derisive laughter doesn’t translate well to the written medium, allow me to explain why that statement is just silly.
Let’s start with the assumption that it is impossible to judge the quality of poetry. If any two poems were to be compared, it would then necessarily be impossible to state that one is better than the other, because that would be a matter of judging quality. Therefore, either all poetry is of equal quality or close enough to equal that the difference is impossible to judge. If this is true, then the first man to walk into a bathroom and scrawl “Here I sit/broken-hearted/Tried to shit/but only farted” is as great a poet as any that ever lived. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourselves. First let’s look at a sonnet by Claude McKay, an African American writer of the Harlem Renaissance, writing about the fight that his people will have to endure to receive basic human dignity:
If We Must Die
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Let’s compare this to Ogden Nash’s, Celery:
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.
I don't think I am wrong to believe that McKay's poem is better than Nash's. While I agree that there is always uncertainty when evaluating the quality of subjective art forms, that does not mean that there is no difference in quality at all.