Why Reading Sharon Olds Makes You a Better Person

1 August 2018

A final note on universality

There is something greater at stake in arguments for any kind of universality than simply whether meaning is accessible for audiences outside the author’s intended range. In claiming universality for certain texts, some argue, we necessarily privilege certain voices over others and so reinscribe dividing lines that have historically pushed female, non-white voices to the margins. Ben Lerner expresses this concern eloquently in The Hatred of Poetry (2016) as follows:

The lyric–that is, the intensely subjective, personal poem–that can authentically encompass everyone is an impossibility in a world characterized by difference and violence. This is not to indict the desire for such a poem (indeed, the word we often use for such desire is “Poetry”) but to indict the celebration of any specific poem for having achieved this unreachable goal because that necessarily involves passing off particularity as universality.1

By this line of argument, calls to universality create a value-laden dichotomy between texts that are universal and texts that are not – and those that are not are necessarily voices that speak from positions of marginalisation. Accordingly, arguments for universalism perpetuate the marginalisation they seek to dismantle. Arguing that the universal is not only ‘impossible’ but potentially harmful, Lerner goes on to quote Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda:

What we want to avoid at all costs is… an opposition between writing that accounts for race… and writing that is “universal.” If we continue to think of the “universal” as better-than, as the pinnacle, we will always discount writing that doesn’t look universal because it accounts for race or some other demeaned category.2

Indeed, it may be the case that it is impossible to make claims to universality without at best whitewashing and at worst reinscribing histories of oppression. On the other hand, certain claims to universality may be necessary not only to explain the appeal of great works of art, but to reframe them as points of connection rather than points of divide. For her part, Olds certainly intends a certain accessibility, if not universality, in the voice of her poems. She writes of her work that ‘it doesn’t feel personal. It feels like art – a made thing – the ‘I’ in it not myself anymore, but, I’d hope, some pronoun that a reader or hearer could slip into.’3 The argument outlined here may imply a loophole in the seeming paradox that the call to universality entails a reinscription of the status quo. We may, in other words, be able to conceive of (emotional) mechanisms that are universal, while recognising that particular texts exploit such mechanisms in ways that have both universal and reader-specific effects. If it is possible to make claims to universality without perpetuating the divisive literary status quo, it is only by emphasising that universals lie in readers and not in texts.

* * *

The claim that art makes us better people is of course not new, with a history spanning back to at least Aristotle’s Poetics, even if it has lost popularity under the scrutiny of postmodern discourses that reject some of the quasi-essentialist ideas I have endorsed here. But there is something worth reviving in the notion that reading poetry can, in empirically-grounded ways, make us better people, and the fact that the claim may be trite doesn’t make it untrue. The more we understand about emotion from a psychological and neurological point of view, the better we can understand why it is that human beings are universally drawn to create and consume poetic works. In Olds’s case, the poetry is not (only) compelling for its poetic virtues, and it is certainly not a ‘me, me, me kind of poetry.’ On the contrary, Olds’s work in Stag’s Leap is an us, us, us kind of poetry. It consciously runs against the grain of our hardwired (shared) relationship between valence and appraisal. In so doing it allows us richer avenues for emotional experience, and a way of altering the links between our feeling and behaviour. In these ways it may make us more empathetic and, in a small way at least, better people.

  1. Lerner, 62.
  2. Lerner, 63.
  3. Macdonald, Olds’ Worlds.
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