On Preciousness

Last night, while graciously celebrating the glorious birth of Sarah Vap, I got into a conversation with another dinner guest, Mary Kay, about the nature of preciousness, especially how it relates to art.

I told Mary Kay that lately I was becoming worried that my poetry was seriously flirting with ideas of preciousness, which is something I'd purposefully avoided in the past. Let me put it this way: the word "tender" keeps finding its way into my new poems. I mentioned this also to Suzanne a few days ago, and she noticed something similar coming to her own work. It's a scary thing, preciousness.

Essentially, our culture ascribes value (qualitatively) to many things—precious gems and precious metals, for example. Here, the value of precious is obviously economic, describing an item's monetary value. Precious is also an emotional term, as in "Look at that room full of precious babies!" In this context, precious indicates that an item has a value. Although it isn't monetary per se, the value is still economic because it describes a relationship between that item and all other items. This is essentially what money does in our culture.

Anyway, by noting that something is precious, we immediately and irrevocably create its opposite. What is the opposite of precious? I just looked in a thesaurus, but it claims there are no antonyms for precious. But there are: whatever is the opposite of precious has no value, is something we want as far from us as possible, etc. By making something previous ("valuing" it), we simultaneously ostracize ("devalue") something else. Precious, then, only exists by its virtue of devaluing all other things.

For example, and this is the example I used in the conversation with Mary Kay last night, if someone cries, "That is the most precious baby I have ever seen in my life!" it elevates the (probably) aesthetic value of that baby above all other babies. It indicates that a hierachy exists among babies. The baby who represents the qualities furthest from the most precious baby then personifies the anti-precious baby. A polarization occurs. A polarization always creates a spectrum into which all other terms can be valued as "precious," "anti-precious," or any value in between. But because the spectrum has ends, unlike a continuum, there is a positively-valued end and a negatively-valued end.

Mary Kay raised a lot of great questions about preciousness, which kept me thinking about it all day. I think it's American nature (as opposed to human nature) to create binaries and enforce them—our political spectrum does not allow for the successful integration of a third term, we cannot conceive of gender as having more than two values, etc. We like our binaries. We pathologically need our binaries.

So, back to poetry. Precious poetry, I'd say, in its most obtrusive form, is poetry that overvalues something—typically an experience. The worst perpetrator of preciousness in poetry? GREETING CARDS. Here, the entire verse is dedicated to objectifying a life experience: birth, death, marriage. There's a sense of "treasuring" the experience. That use of "treasure" as a verb is no accident: it indicates that an experience should be recognized to have a value above other experiences. Or, flatly, to identify its preciousness.

I imagine the impulse toward preciousness in my mind to be that irresistible desire to hold something very tiny in your cupped hands.

Precious poetry is usually not very good poetry because it overestimates the value of a particular aspect of itself. Although much great poetry is molded in overvaluing experience, preciousness, I think, also indicates a deeper emotional connection to the poem, whereas most "effective" poems are able to either maintain objectivity or so deftly create subjectivity that the reader does not evaluate the experience (or other aspect) of the poem.

Sometimes I think Adrienne Rich's poetry can be precious (but I love her, for the record). I think Bishop's poetry is never precious. Glück is never precious, either. Stein plays with preciousness. Sharon Olds writes precious poems.

I'm still working this through in my head.

1 comment:

  1. Charles,
    This is a very interesting argument. I've been thinking about this, and I'm fairly sure the issue lies in two parts.
    First, the semantics of the word "precious" are paramount. I think you did a pretty nice job of analyzing the different uses of the word, but I think also that the word "precious" is devalued by being used on babies as a synonym for "cute." Consequently, I think pejorative comments on "precious" poetry have to do with its being similarly "cute" in an infantile fashion. It is without threat, without challenge, without flaw in the sense that it refuses to recognize the intrinsic dialectic of experience (Hi, I'm an American and I like binaries...to an extent.)
    Also, I think the word is relative to the user. I've heard Wallace Stevens' work termed precious by a very distinguished and learned professor. Ultimately, I suppose the use of the word is valued by the spectator's subjective understanding at what "gets at things" because only such a movement is challenging. For instance, in opposition to a perhaps more common stance, I find Ashbery guilty of being precious more than someone like Stephen Dunn. On the contrary, I'm sure that my poetry is considered precious, or at least something similarly negative, by a lot of contemporary readers.
    Anyway, I look forward to hearing more. I'm pretty intrigued by this post. Best, Ryan
    P.S. Congratulations on the success of your defense!