The cart was the bland, buff-colored sort librarians push through the stacks, this one briefly abandoned in a quiet, carpeted corner of the library. On it was an allegorical object lesson in aesthetics. On one side, liberated from confinement in the special collections department, sat a chastely covered first edition of Ideas of Order, Wallace Stevens’ 1936 collection, his second. I lifted and held this Platonic ideal of “bookness,” thanks to Alfred Knopf, its publisher. I’ve never been able to appreciate Stevens as much as he deserves, but it was still a kick holding this austere volume. On the other side were stacked three recent volumes of American poetry, all paperbacks and all, a quick look assured me, not worthy of a second look. The tacky covers, fraudulently inflated blurbs and eccentric line breaks told me what I needed to know. Hastily judgmental? You bet.
I thought of Nabokov. When Fyodor, ventriloquizing his creator, says in The Gift, “You see, the way I look at it, there are only two kinds of books: bedside and wastebasket. Either I love a writer fervently, or throw him out entirely,” we ought to remember Koncheyev’s reply: “With such quantitative scantiness we must resign ourselves to the fact that our Pegasus is piebald, that not everything about a bad writer is bad, and not all about a good one good.” Koncheyev’s counsel is sound, regardless of how badly we are tempted to second Fyodor’s judgment. How much time should we devote to looking for the good or passable in the lousy or mediocre? When has a reader fulfilled his obligation to a writer? I don’t expect an answer. I’m jealous of my time and prefer not to squander on the second-rate or worse. After a lifetime of concerted reading, I should be able to trust my judgment and not be beholding to fashion, whim or my own laziest failings.
A reader wrote me on Monday and asked if there are “any pop culture writers worth reading.” Pop vs. “literary,” high vs. low culture, is not the point. The important literary distinction is well written vs. poorly written. What I call “literary distinction” a poet friend who wrote me over the weekend calls, more simply, “poetry”: “It is my contention that the world we live in is a conspiracy dedicated to the expunging of all poetry from its core. How clever of it to enlist so many poets and novelists and arty types into this cause.”