Another View of the Review

The last negative review I wrote was over twenty-five years ago, when I trashed an  AC/DC album in my high school newspaper, so I might not be the best person to contribute to a discussion of the importance of the negative poetry review. I’ve always been more interested in reviewing works that I find interesting rather than pummeling those that I don’t, although I enjoy a carefully written disemboweling as much as the next person. (In the interest of disclosure, I should also add that I’ve reviewed some of Kent Johnson’s books very positively.)

Having said that, I think that both Kent Johnson and Jason Guriel are missing an important change that has occurred over the last few years. Guriel writes “[w]hatever the reason for our anxiety, the negative review, when it appears in magazines like this one, is often more of an event than it ought to be” (emphasis added).  As a possible solution to that (perceived) problem, Kent suggests that “maybe it's time that magazines, of all aesthetic shapes and circulation sizes, resurrect the venerable practice of ‘unsigned’ reviews” (emphasis added).

Here’s my problem with those claims: these days, almost none of the reviews I read are in actual dead-tree magazines. Instead, I look on blogs, listservs, and online journals.  I’m not sure if my tendencies are typical, but it’s clear that online sources have fundamentally improved the genre of the poetry review.  This entire exchange is an example of that: Guriel’s review appeared on The Poetry Foundation’s website; Kent’s essay was originally a posting in the comment section of that article.  And from my perspective,  the discussion in the comment section is even better than Guriel’s article. Michael Theune notes that  Poetry has published at least six of the poems in D.A. Powell’s Chronic, which Guriel panned, and Theune suggests that the editors of Poetry and Guriel should have “a little back-and-forth” about their seemingly divergent views of Powell’s work.  Poetry editor Don Share says he’d be happy to do that, either in the comment section or on Harriet. Joe Amato offers a thoughtful and lively review of Guriel’s review, and the conversation takes off. Yes, some of the comments are tendentious, even nasty, but overall the discussion is sharp and lively. That’s pretty typical on many of the Poetry Foundation pages, as well as any number  of blogs.

I don’t want to sound like a techno-Pollyanna, but I’d argue that blogs and the comment sections to both online journals and the blogs themselves have seriously weakened the Olympian pronouncements that characterized too many reviews for too long a time. In their place we see discussion, debate, ad hominems and ad feminams , misreadings, reconsiderations, polemics and flames.  Yeah, it’s messy, but (I think) much more intellectually and aesthetically stimulating.  I’m almost certain that Kent would agree, since he’s been a very insightful and provocative commenter on a number of sites. That’s why I’m a little surprised that Kent invokes William Logan, since it seems to me that Logan’s reviews have long since calcified into a schtick that’s equal parts Simon Cowell and Grandpa Simpson. 

I’d contrast that with (to cite only one example) with Ron Silliman’s take-down of Andrew Motion’s The Mower. What I find interesting is that Silliman’s review is the starting point for a wide-ranging conversation that (among other things) calls Silliman’s readings into question, suggests possible meanings in Motion’s use of the word “Hovver” and speculates on the constructions of poetic reputations in the UK and US. I could list any number of things I think are problematic about contemporary poetry, but the lack of negative reviews is not one of them.

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