Note: The following letter responds to an editorial comment and three reviews by Jason Guriel, published in the March, 2009 issue of Poetry. Because portions of this letter were initially posted at Poetry’s online version, it could not be included in the print version of the magazine. In any case, the issues broached here regarding practices of reviewing in the poetic field are of broader concern than Guriel’s particular piece. KJ


March 2, 2009

Dear Editors,

No question we should have more "necessarily skeptical" reviews, as Jason Guriel argues (“Going Negative,” March, 2009). And Guriel's own contributions in that vein are quite good, continuing the tentative return to smart crankiness in the prose section of Poetry--a development that's been one of the more appealing aspects of the magazine's post-Lilly make over. Though in truth, Guriel's pieces come across as a bit decorous compared to other things the magazine's featured of late: the pointed roastings in a “Humor” issue some years back, Kleinzahler's tirade, the scathing review of Jeff Clark, withering pieces by Dan Chiasson and Michael Robbins, just off the top of my head.

There used to be a good measure of such derisive fare some decades back: in Bly's The 60s and The 70s magazines, for example, or in Sulfur (in the latter, Weinberger's famous ravaging of Seidel, for instance, or the collective dismemberment of Sven Birkerts after he dared disparage Ashbery). The journal, really, that has most kept the curmudgeonly spirit alive is the otherwise horrible The New Criterion, where William Logan has been writing the most entertaining poetry criticism for years. So here's a vote for Guriel's call that the "negative" spirit continue-- only that it continue with a much more forceful satiric push. There's never been a great age of poetry, after all, where poets weren't taunting and lampooning one another...

Now, to take up an issue that seems to bemuse Guriel, I do think there's a fundamental reason why timidity and obsequiousness tend to dominate poetry criticism these days, and it's a pretty uncomplicated one: Reviewing tends to be done by poets, and poets use the mode of criticism, more often than not, as a form of ingratiation with their associates. As U.S. poetry (mainstream and post-avant) has become more tightly tethered to academic careerism, sycophantic tendencies have naturally become more ubiquitous, and one outcome of the trend is that the "review" and the "blurb" have begun to blur in purpose and effect. (Question: If one were to conduct an exhaustive study of all poetry reviews published by poets under 50 since the start of the new millennium, what percentage would be heavily laded with exuberant praise? Answer: The study’s never been done, but bottom dollar that it’s over 96%.)

So when Guriel wonders why it's no big deal when movie or music critics pan movies or music, yet why it's so rare that poets pan the work of their contemporaries, the answer seems somewhat clear: The fields of criticism in the other arts operate with a relative degree of autonomy from the fields of cultural production they critique (most movie critics aren't directors, for instance), while poetry, poor sister, has no substantially independent field of criticism that shadows it. Or to put it another way, critics in the other arts can and do operate like writers for Consumer Reports, and they readily lambaste poor products in their purview; ladder-climbing poets inhabit the cubicles of the very industry whose products they would and should lambaste, but if they do, they know the whistle-blower tag may ensue.

Fawning, toadyish criticism, then, is likely to remain the default setting so long as "negative" reviewing constitutes a potential hazard to the position and advancement of the poet-reviewer. (Interestingly, by the way, it's in top-tier journals like Poetry where negative reviews are most likely to appear, since the capital accruing to the poet-reviewer compensates for the risk.) Given this, maybe it's time that magazines, of all aesthetic shapes and circulation sizes, resurrect the venerable practice of "unsigned" reviews. There’s no question readers, in the main, would be tickled and intrigued.

But that is not, by any means, to propose there should be a devaluing of conventionally signed criticism. Obviously, the orthodox mode will continue to be the norm. It’s good to remember, though, that anonymous reviewing was the standard before the 20th century, and a few major publications--The New Yorker, Publisher's Weekly, TLS, for instance--partly continue the practice, or did so until fairly recently, so the notion's hardly original. (In fact, as John Mullan shows in Anonymity: A Secret History of Authorship, roughly 70% of published novels and poetry in England and America during the last three decades of the 18th century were anonymous or pseudonymous, and in the first three decades of the 19th a good 50% were, as well. The notion of authorial indeterminacy has gone out of fashion, unfortunately, across the genre board!)

What I'm suggesting, and for reasons stated above, is that poetry publications begin to reserve a space for some percentage of "unsigned" reviews and essays. These could appear anonymously, pseudonymously, heteronymously (wonderful to think of a Pessoa-like critic figure tearing up the scene), or under collective banner (wonderful, likewise, to think of sub-rosa MFA-student collectives submitting their jaundiced-eyed considerations).

Some editors, understandably, might balk at the idea, inasmuch as anonymity could be a temptation to cronyism, or provide convenient safe haven to those driven by superficial, vindictive agendas. But guarding against such things is precisely the job of editors, and certainly the bulk of reviews in “non-attributed” mode would best be substantive in nature and free of ad hominem attack. Still, a range of editorial parameters is possible. Some editors might be fine with brief, even satirical, anonymous submissions; others might want, for example, a confidential disclosure of identity before publishing more conventionally wrought pieces; others, in Augustan spirit of drollery, may wish to attribute reviews according to the tenor of each (Hazlitt, Derrida, de Beauvoir, Juvenal, etc.). Well, that last is just a quirky idea that pops to mind… But a variety of creative policy practices can be imagined.

In any case, that a "satellite economy" of apocryphal reviewing, orbiting the conventional, staid, and significantly self-censoring body of poetry criticism would be a healthy and revitalizing development, I have no doubt. There’s long been a surfeit of courtly critical bouquets bedecking our name-driven field. It’s time to proffer some darker, drier, and thornier ones. More enigmatic ones…

Kent Johnson


Read responses to this letter here.