The Day Pretension Came to Vita Brevis
Only once has someone left a negative comment on Vita Brevis. It was a fairly new reader who, after praising a couple of poems, mocked and belittled one poet’s work, implying at the end that it was pretentious.
The comment was held for moderation since it included a blacklisted word–which put me at a difficult crossroad: it was up to me to decide if I should approve it or not. I didn’t know how to handle the situation, and I’m still not sure if I handled it the right way.
I had two options: I could approve the comment and cement Vita Brevis as a free and uncensored environment that welcomes all critics, or I could delete it, robbing the poet and the community of another form of feedback. Both have their pros and cons, and both have lasting effects.
The way I saw it, this comment was much more than just a WordPress user insulting a poem. It was a warning to all of the emerging poets here at Vita Brevis that this is a toxic environment and that, at any moment, someone could insult you and your work to reduce you, at least in the critic’s mind, to nothing.
I couldn’t allow that. I’ve spent a great deal of time configuring every aspect of this community to invite new poets to give publishing their work a shot. From the about page to the guidelines and (especially) the rejection letter, I’ve tried to remove as many barriers to submission and re-submission as possible. To me, this comment undermined everything that Vita Brevis stands for.
So, I deleted it, nudging our community in a small way toward censorship but constructiveness instead of uncensored criticism and the dissuading power within it. And I don’t regret it.
The Strange Nature of “Pretentiousness”
In a great Guardian article, Dan Fox points out an interesting feature of persuasion: it never self-identifies. It always happens “over there’. It’s how someone else writes. It’s how someone else speaks. It’s a label we more often throw onto others than ourselves.
But I think it serves a second purpose too: not only does it knock down the accused–it builds up the accuser. If you have the capacity to know what is or what isn’t pretentious, then you must be seeing things a bit more clearly. You must be consulting your superior aesthetic sense. And that’s evidence that you’re above the creation and thus its creator. Right?
No. I don’t think so at all.
Daring to explore something, even if it means going against your preconceptions, is always more virtuous than dismissing it–especially with the thought-exterminating remark “It’s pretentious”.
Make no mistake, some poetry can be pretentious. Some people can be pretentious. That’s to be expected in any domain of life. No one is unerring. But dismissing something at first glance because it seems pretentious isn’t proof of an onlooker’s superiority–it’s just about the easiest thing someone can do.
Much harder is finding something of value in the poem or art piece, or at least trying to understand why others might find it valuable. Then, even if the final analysis remains, “This is pretentious”, at least the critics haven’t convinced themselves that with a flick of their wrists they could reduce an artist to a pile of rubble. That they are the ultimate aesthetic conscience, deciding what is and what is not worthy. That would be a bit pretentious, after all.
Is there a Glass Ceiling on Themes that a Poet can Tackle?
Why should profound themes be outside of the reach of anyone–especially emerging poets, like the contributors of Vita Brevis, with a heart set on putting them to words?
In reality, these profound topics aren’t out of a poet’s reach. Anyone can think or write about anything they want. That’s an essential freedom that can’t be stomped out by outside influence. That’s how Tchaikovsky produced gorgeous symphonies through his misery. That’s how Nietzsche wrote paradigm-shifting books while his own body imprisoned him. That’s how Viktor Frankl retained his humanistic love in the face of the great evils at Auschwitz. That’s the residence of the soul for many religions, the mind for the dualists, the divine spark for the Stoics, and the self-corrective force of humanity for the humanists.
If it sounds strange that I’m comparing the freedom of topics that a poet can cover to these weighty individuals–maybe even pretentious–then I’m on the right track. The way I see it, it is that important. And it is that relevant. We’re talking about art, after all, which the existentialists viewed as the social and moral conscience of humanity, that some phenomenologists (like Heidegger) viewed as a uniquely human method of grasping truths so deep that only an individual’s subjectivity can convey them–chiefly through poetry.
Art can endeavor itself to tackle topics that nothing else can–sometimes messily and sometimes elegantly. And that’s profound. It’d be a crime to limit that.
Maybe I Did the Wrong Thing
But a world where critics don’t exist might not be the utopia that artists (and editors like me) think. After all, some of the greatest artists in history produced their works in this environment exactly, straddling the best they could the thin line between pretension and brilliance, harsh critical reception and praise. In the same way the Taoists and humanists say death enlivens life, maybe the damning feedback of critics nourishes art. And maybe I robbed Vita Brevis of that strange, garden-path luxury.
But I’m ok with that because I also know that creating a safe environment encourages people to explore and take risks with their work. This is essential to learn how to more cleverly and expertly create something. And frankly, that’s all I want to do here.
In the end, I’m glad that this person left the comment. It gave me the chance to do what many of you poets do–take something negative and senseless and turn it into something useful and insightful that teaches us a bit more about our world and ourselves.
About the Author
Brian Geiger is the founder and editor of Vita Brevis, a popular online poetry magazine, and Mental Life, a humanistic publication that merges psychology and philosophy. He’s currently studying to become a psychotherapist.