Jason Koo: Negative Capability
But how do you measure yourself, as a poet,
as a teacher? There are no analytics
for these vocations, as there are for basketball.
Universities keep searching for better
evaluations and keep just making them
worse, keep pandering to the student
as customer rather than trying to give
teachers essential feedback they can use
to get better as teachers. The best feedback
always comes in the form of answers
to specific questions about a class,
such as the ones I ask students to answer
in their reflective essays prefacing
their portfolios, but my university’s evals
make the comments optional and open
to whatever they want to say, i.e. rant about,
and the most helpful communication,
you would think, occurs between two people
who know they are communicating
rather than a report one person is making
about the other in the form of numbers
from 1 to 5 that “disagree” or “agree”
to varying degrees with questions neither
person has approved and might not
even be interested in the answers to.
Even with the evals we have, there are no
numbers I can put in a bucket at the end
of every class to record how I did relative
to every other day, whereas LeBron
literally has buckets he can put in a bucket.
I’ve always thought it must be hard
to be a professional athlete in America,
despite all the luxuries it affords, especially
one of LeBron’s stature, because every
one of your professional performances
is mercilessly evaluated, everything you do
is translated into numbers, numbers
pored over and broken down by stats geeks
who could care less about you personally,
their sole interest being whether your numbers
justify what is spent on you or whether,
perhaps, another player or two less famous
might provide the same numbers
at less cost. Absurd, perhaps, to criticize
LeBron for not holding himself accountable
when he is held accountable by the media
and analytics experts every day, how many of us
could stand that kind of relentless scrutiny
of what we do? Imagine even one local paper
covering my performance every day as a poet.
Did not write today, nothing to report.
Did not write today, nothing to report.
Wrote a little in his notebook, a to-do list
of what he needed to do today as well
as what he needs to do tomorrow, also scratched
some things off a list he’d made several
weeks ago that he hadn’t done that ended up
on his to-do list today, yes, that means
he scratched them off twice. None of these
things involved the writing or reading
of poems. Should we even evaluate this guy
as a poet? He seems to be rather a kind
of daily accountant. BREAKING: quoted
large chunks of Heidegger today in something
resembling a poem although the best lines
seem to be Heidegger’s. Does that count?
Unfortunately we are not poetry experts
and have no analytics to back up our claims,
but this production seems rather dubious.
Plus it is endless. After the questionable gains
he made yesterday, spent an inordinate amount
of time on social media today instead of writing.
Woke up at 10 AM and did not have time,
he thought, if thinking is something
he does, to write today, so he masturbated
in bed instead. Did not write today, nothing
to report. Did not write today, nothing
to report. Did not write today, see previous
report. Would all that constant scrutiny
help me as a poet? Perhaps. I would definitely
write more, but writing more does not
necessarily mean writing better. And what
does it mean to write better, how does one
evaluate that, except internally? There is no
competition you can measure yourself against
save for the subjective sense of great writers
who have come before you or great writers
out there right now, or the meaningless
measuring stick of publications and awards.
Really it always comes down to your own
internal sense of a standard, what you have done
to that point and how good you think it is,
not what readers or other poets say, not
where a poem or book was published, not
what awards were won. And there have been
so many examples of long stretches where
you weren’t writing at all followed by great
bursts of productivity, where all that non-
writing time seems to have loaded up
material and pressure, just as there have been
so many examples of writing every day
that led to hack productivity, just words
on a page with nothing compelling to make
anyone, most of all you, want to read them.
As a writer you have to be thinking
about originality, how you can break
new ground for yourself if not for anyone’s
canon, how you can move into subject
matter or formal techniques you haven’t
tried before, or, looked at another way,
how you can more fully tap into the well
of who you are, put your sense of the world
on the page. An athlete, luckily, doesn’t
have to think about this, though one might
work on developing new aspects to one’s game,
as LeBron developed his post-up skills
after discovering he needed these when facing
championship-level defense in the playoffs,
or reinventing oneself to adjust to changing
defenses or the decline of physical skills,
as when a young flamethrower in baseball
becomes a master of changing speeds and pitch
location when he loses mph on his fastball.
But there are tangible results to the work
one puts in as an athlete to develop or reinvent
one’s game, one can judge based on numbers
recorded in performance, but what results
does a poet see? More smiling, happy faces
in a workshop? More, or better, publications?
More awards? Shining reviews? One is taught
not to trust these things (though now I
wonder where or when one is taught this),
as trusting them too much can lead to
complacency about the very originality
one is pursuing. It is a life of vagueness,
the life of a poet, which perhaps Keats was trying
to redeem with his impressive-sounding
“Negative Capability,” which all poets love.
Double this with the life of a teacher, or perhaps
triple it with the life of a teacher of poetry,
which almost all poets are, and one can easily see
we are moving in a sea of vaguery, vague
after vague of vaguery no clearer for cognizance
of one’s French etymology. How does one
measure oneself as a teacher of poetry?
By how many good poems each student writes?
By how much better a student’s poems get
from the beginning to the end of a course?
See previous report on how one evaluates
writing “better.” A student might not be able
to apply what you taught her about writing
“good” or “better” poems until years after
you taught her. You might even be dead.
Still, the only way that student’s poems
could be judged “good” or “better” in the end
would be if she published them, i.e. got
them judged by some other authority,
otherwise she and you would never really
know if she had gotten “good” or “better”
or if you were just imagining things
in your pretty little subjective heads.
See previous report on how trustworthy
publications are to a poet who aspires to be
“good” or “better.” Or maybe this isn’t true,
as the more I think of it the more I don’t
think it is, maybe all that matters is this poet
sends you poems years after she took your class
and they’re better than Emily Dickinson’s,
you’re sure of it, you don’t give a damn
what anybody else says or if she cares to publish
them or has and the bog’s rejected them.
Would the development of this über-Emilying
Emily Dickinson under your tutelage
be enough to measure your success as a teacher?
Even if your other students hated your guts
and wrote the most putrid poems possible?
If so, would that kind of teacher be better
than one who created four Carl Sandburgs?
Or a Marianne Moore and a T. S. Eliot?
How many “good” poets equal a “great” one?
How many “okay” poets equal a “good” one?
Is the impact of one great poet creating a world
that sets forth the earth as an earth greater
than the impact of two good poets creating
a world setting forth the earth as an earth
twice? If so, is it greater than that of three?
Of four? Of five? One can easily see our said
sea of vaguery. Or perhaps as a teacher
you’re just trying to help students become
a poet, no matter if they’re “good” or “great”
or “better” or “okay,” just as a teacher
of law is just trying to help students become
a lawyer, so they can go out there and practice
law and make a living. Should you be
deemed a success if you taught a room full
of twenty students not intending to be poets
and all of them, in the end, became poets???
Named one of the “100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture” by Brooklyn Magazine, Jason Koo is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets and creator of the Bridge. He is the author of America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009). He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute, he has published his poetry and prose in the Yale Review, Missouri Review and Village Voice, among other places. He is an assistant teaching professor of English at Quinnipiac University and lives in Williamsburg.