To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem’s perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.
You may recognize those lines. They are quoted from a fictional professor of the English language by doomed student Neil Perry in the movie, Dead Poets Society. (The clue that it’s a fake is the opening split infinitive.)
It is the crux of a scene in which Robin Williams’s anti-establishment English teacher, John Keating, is attempting to instill freedom of thought in his poetry appreciation class. He tricks Perry into reading the first few lines of a banal poetry textbook aloud, before declaring the words to be “excrement” and vivaciously instructing every student to rip the pages from his book.
As my beloved beer industry evolves, and as beer drinkers become more aware than ever of styles, ingredients and so on, I’m reminded slightly of the salutory lesson of Dead Poets Society. The film goes a little far with its implication that suicide is preferable to artistic frustration, but the central message – that the merit of art is in its enjoyment, not its critical appreciation – resonates with me.
I’m all for the educated appreciation of beer, although it’s far from necessary for the enjoyment of the drink. I support the efforts of the Cicerone Program, that now lists almost 77,000 people as having passed at least one of its four levels of beer knowledge accreditation. I read and enjoy magazines such as All About Beer and Draft, and I have a shelf groaning under the weight of a growing number of excellent books about beer.
But I get a little nervous about any perception that there are beers you “should” or “should not” like. There’s a bit of a vibe gnawing at me that if a beer has a perfect score on a rating website, or if it sells in such small quantities that people line up outside the brewery for it, it must be “great” and you should like it.
Rather like the fictional Pritchard method for plotting the greatness of a poem on a chart, if we plot online rating on one axis, and scarcity on the other, can we easily measure the greatness of a beer?
Of course not.
Writer Aaron Goldfarb recently remarked that small batch double IPAs and barrel-conditioned Imperial Stouts inevitably seem to top the charts these days. He argues the point that just because a beer is rare, it shouldn’t automatically be considered better than a beer in more abundant supply.
Which is not quite the point I want to make. My argument is that the appreciation and enjoyment of beer is subjective, and that subjectivity is a valuable liberty. It depends on context, it depends on individual preferences, it depends on emotional connections to people, places and traditions. Just like John Keating’s visceral instructions to his class to be confident to draw their own conclusions about a poem, so I implore you to be free to like or dislike a beer as you please.
I make no bones with the idea of online ratings, reviews and recommendations. I travel a lot, and heaven knows how I’d get on unless my phone could give me a few pointers about hotels, restaurants and bars I should look out for. (Or, indeed, which ones to avoid!)
But I’d rather we don’t create a world where it’s okay to turn one’s nose up at somebody else’s beer choice. I think we should all be free, as the Dead Poets Society was, to live deliberately, live deep and to suck the marrow out of life. Or, at least be free from the judgement of others while sucking the beer from a glass.
That’s my particular vision. If it rings true for you, great. Just please don’t get up on your desk the next time you see me. It would be terribly awkward and probably a little embarrassing for us both.