Saturday, June 23, 2007

DPP history

One person I contacted to see if he wanted to participate in the Daily Poem Project final vote expressed skepticism about the idea of voting on poems, which should not be subject to such competition. Here's what I wrote in response:

A bit of history: the DPP game first started in a course called "Quality" two summers ago. The game fit well in the course, because it made the student and the teachers (a colleague and I) really think, in a practical way, about what literary quality is.

I did it again last summer when I was teaching a poetry seminar. It was a nice supplement to the course, and it made sure the students were reading LOTS of poetry and not just the poems assigned for the course. Some students even ended up writing about the PD poems!

This summer, it's a complement to a poetry and songwriting workshop. In that context, it's good to make sure the writers are reading a lot, and also looking at the work with a critical eye. And I thought it was fun to run a parallel vote on my blog.

So the larger purpose is not the end result, the "Poetry Idol" side of it, but the context in which it takes place, and the purpose it serves in that context.

That said, on my blog it is just a game, a way to approach poetry playfully.


I would add one further point now: when I submit my work for publication in magazines,
my poems are competing against the poems of other poets. The whole publication game is one big competition, since editors are deciding which poems are best, in two senses: the ones they think are the best, and the ones they like best.

In fact, all the poems under consideration for the Daily Poem Project are already at least triple winners of competitions: the poets decided to submit them for publication, editors (of journals or books) decided to publish them, and the folks at Poetry Daily chose them for the website. By the time we get to considering them for DPP, they have already beaten out vast number of other poems and shown that they can stand up to such a competition.

So at first, I defended the DPP against my friend's criticism by arguing that the pedagogical context justified the game. But now I would also defend it by saying that it is a minor extension of a vast "Poem Project" that sifts out the good from the bad. The DPP as a metaphor for ... canonization? :-)


Daily Poem final update: 20 votes have now been cast, and suddenly one poem is threatening to run away with the vote. But I won't say which one yet! And don't let that keep you from voting!


Brian Campbell said...

Maybe we should have a competition of poetry editors. Who is the best editor? Who makes the best choices? ;)

mrjumbo said...

I'm going to assume everyone here understands that quality is not absolute, and particularly in a literary context it's not only subject to personal taste but also can be assigned on myriad scales.

It's similar in the real world: Is Everest more breathtaking than the Grand Canyon? Yellowstone prettier than the Matterhorn? (In what weather?) I think parents feel some of the same emotions about their children: They're each unique, but none is less valuable than the others.

But the quality exercise--having to pick one, just one, to carry the burden of your vote--suggests an interesting problem. It's not so much a vote to determine which poem is best as it is a vote to determine whether we share a common scale for evaluating quality. Will there be a consensus?

And sure, this is an unscientific sample, and it's a small and highly self-selecting pool of voters.

But I'd say as a sometime participant that the results show what ought to cheer most of us: There's seldom a consensus. In most weeks it seems to me the "winner" has not taken a majority of the votes. Quality in poetry IS a highly subjective judgment. Which seems about the way it ought to be.

(An interesting test, though harder to set up, would be to single out the worst of several mediocre poems.)

In that context, Brian makes an intriguing point: If each of us likes different poems best, week after week, how's an editor to choose?

Andrew Shields said...

In the 12 weeks of the voting, only two poems managed a majority of the votes cast in any given week.

"Whether we share a common scale for quality": that is the precise purpose of the exercise.

Donald Brown said...

The comment that poems shouldn't be subjected to competition is rather naive, as your comment about publication decisions indicates. Every poetry prize manifestly arrives through competition.

Certainly the judging is very subjective and I'd be surprised if there was wide consensus. However, the value of the exercise to me is not to see if we "share a common scale for quality," but whether or not one can articulate one's responses to a poem. In other words, rather than simple "thumbs up or thumbs down," a comment on the poem should indicate to some degree what kind of scale of value was employed in reaching a decision. The fact that voters mostly didn't take the time to praise their favorite or justify their choice was a bit disappointing to me.

I'm not skeptical of competitions, but I am skeptical of judgments with no comment.

I like the idea of picking the worst poem!