Charles North

The Indulgence Principle

Years ago, I came up with the idea of writing something on “critical fallacies,” all the wrong-headed ways critics (reviewers, academics, etc.) approach poetry. I only got as far as making lists of suggestive titles. For one thing, Theory had already reared its head and, in addition to scanting poetry, was busy diverting attention from what I.A. Richards termed practical criticism. For another, I was more interested in writing poems. I almost included a Critical Fallacies Lineup in my second set of Lineups (1987), but it didn’t make the final cut.

Recently I came across an old notebook list that has, among a lot of others, The Conceptual Fallacy, The Manifest(o) Fallacy, The Development Fallacy, Poetics Justice, The Attention Principle (a few "principles” found their way in: actually this one got mentioned in one of the first prose pieces I ever wrote—on Harold Bloom misprizing John Ashbery), The Da Capo or Sisyphus Principle (after Santayana),The Droll/Jolly/Temperate Principle (after Frank O’Hara), The Exploration/Scientist Fallacy, The Humility Principle, The Designated Hitter (or Managed Care) Fallacy, The Fabergé Fallacy, The Indulgence Principle,  The Richard Tuttle Principle, The Principle of Grudging Admiration, The Importance of Being Earnest.

I still find the titles and implicit issues, at least as I perceive them, provocative. One that seems to me basic is the Indulgence Principle, which takes its cue from Pound’s observation that “No man writes very much poetry that ‘matters.’” Pound doesn’t name names, but certain poets rocket to mind, for example Wordsworth, whose handful of great poems shine out against pages upon pages of dull verse, or, even more obviously, Thomas Hardy. Even a poet as self-conscious as Elizabeth Bishop has slight or merely well-crafted poems that are not the reasons her poetry will endure. It’s difficult to think of anyone short of Sappho who isn’t remembered for that fragment that represents his/her finest, the rest being background: failed experiments, partial successes, unnecessary repetitions, wrong turns, unwitting self-parody: together, the production of an ongoing writing life that proceeds with no advance assurances regarding which efforts will wind up at the top, at the bottom, or in the middle when that writing life is eventually summed up.

Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, maintains that “our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous undercurrent of feeling; it is everywhere present, but seldom anywhere as a separate excitement.” Whether this lets Wordsworth, for one, off the hook or not, it does provide ample room for mediocrity and worse. What Coleridge was, of necessity, less aware of than we are is the extent to which poems, together with all the poet’s operations and decisions concerning them, have unconscious roots (apart from opium dreams).A poet’s attachment to what he/she writes, including judgments about whether to finish a poem, publish it, collect it, etc., is inevitably shrouded in mystery, at least to some degree. However self-conscious, the practitioner side can’t be trusted; it has too much unconscious investment in what it produces.

This unconscious factor seems to me a plausible if not entirely satisfying answer to the question, How could someone who wrote that have written this? Pound goes on to say (A Retrospect) that when the poet isn’t producing “this highest thing, this saying the thing once for all and perfectly...he had much better be making the sorts of experiment which may be of use to him in his later work, or to his successors.” We might say, all well and good if the poet, man or woman, knows when this highest thing is occurring. Experience says otherwise. Allen Ginsberg, asked in an interview how much of his daily note-taking made its way into print, responded, “Oh, one percent.” From my own experience that’s not so surprising; yet neither is a one percent solution sufficient to ward off the mediocre. There is a reason poets have been visited (or left to palely loiter) by the Muse, and why prayer, for a poet, is appropriate both at the beginning and at the end of a poem.

Not that the experimenting isn’t vital. Experience says, at least my experience both reading and writing, that poets need to write badly, as well as middlingly and well, in order to produce the “highest thing”—if indeed they are capable of it at all. A part of the writing life, apart from experiment, would seem to be getting lower things out of the system. Another part is ongoing production involving, at its very core, trial and error. Still another involves discovery, even if what is discovered frequently finds its appropriate setting only later on, and in many cases can’t be acknowledged as a discovery until then. Poets do learn from their mistakes just as all human beings do; they also continue to make them—and occasionally to avoid them. One of my favorite contemporary poets once related the following anecdote. After writing at fever pitch one evening he felt, quite simply, that he had produced his best poem ever; he had finally done it. The following morning he threw it in the basket.

This is one side of the Indulgence Principle: indulging poets the bulk of their (inferior) work in order to have their very best. (Of course, as Eliot would add, only those poets who have a very best deserve indulging.) As such, the principle is an appreciative one, generous without being mindless. Rather than prescribe or exclude, it displays gratitude that certain poems have coalesced out of the welter of language and experience with the power to interest or move us in ways almost no other experience seems capable of.

The other side of the Indulgence Principle is equally important, though less often acknowledged either by critics or by poets themselves. Equally appreciative and generous, this side grants a poet the right not to please a reader in every respect: it recognizes that the “highest thing” is not only rare but inextricable from all the rest. We are used to accepting a writer’s or artist’s subject matter as given. Accepting certain qualities of style as “givens” is frequently harder. There are, long out of the woodwork by now, many who are put off by John Ashbery’s ironic self-indulgence to the degree that they cannot see his originality and importance—indeed, that he is probably the most important poet in English in the second half of the century. Others can’t read Faulkner or Henry James and are similarly barred from those writers’ brilliances. Among modern poets, Marianne Moore is finical, Auden cerebral (or superficial); Hart Crane emits alcohol fumes; William Carlos Williams has “no ideas”; Laura Riding is “claustrophobic,” Bishop control personified; Frank O’Hara (and James Schuyler and David Schubert and John Wheelwright) has a precious streak; Kenneth Koch relies on formulas; Barbara Guest is airy; Robert Creeley is narrowly focused. Among poets of my own generation, friends included, everyone who comes to mind could be said to be this or that, or too this or too that, self-indulgent, self-involved, narrow in range, cerebral, intent on a persona, intent on getting a laugh, determinedly “unserious,” eclectic, prosy; and on and on. And yet I have named, and left unnamed, the contemporary poets who matter the most to me.

What the Indulgence Principle represents is a willingness to take poems on their own terms, insofar as that is humanly possible. It encourages reviewers and critics (and teachers of poetry, who present poetry to readers in the only place many of them will ever encounter it) to display the reasons why persons not obliged to read poems find some of them such stunning human achievements. In granting poets their blind spots, stylistic tics, excesses, and the like, it doesn’t cede the right to find fault, or to dismiss outright the work of those who are merely mediocre or merely imitators. But the judgments made in its name are premised upon appreciation rather than grounds for exclusion. The other approach—I should say approaches—diminish our artistic lives and probably our lives in general, and the Indulgence Principle, if it had the power, would disbar those who fail to take note.


(from No Other Way: Selected Prose.  Brooklyn:  Hanging Loose Press, 1998)