Reviewing Poetry (or the Negative Positive Knee-Jerk Jamboree)

In assessing literary journalism’s dearth of negative poetry reviews, Kent Johnson hits a lot of nails on the head: most poetry critics are practicing poets themselves; as such many are prone to use reviewing as a place for toadyism and ladder climbing rather than to confront real critical issues; less timid criticism was more prevalent when jobs and publication were not as much at stake. Check, check, and check. 

Yet Johnson leaves plenty of nails unhammered.  For one, in what context does a review occur?  This isn’t merely a question about venue (though that’s an important question: I think any critic worth their salt would consider the differences in audience, style, ethos, etc. between such disparate publications as Poetry, The New York Times Book Review, and Rain Taxi, for example, and write accordingly), but a question about the larger social context as well: who’s reading the poetry being reviewed, and how are their lives potentially affected by its presence?  Those questions aren’t as easily answered as we might like. For another, in what ways specifically is a negative review “better” than a non-negative review? Johnson unfortunately seems to suggest that no great poetry has ever arisen without concurrent “taunting and lampooning,” a contention I find absurd; when he calls William Logan’s curmudgeonly reviews “entertaining” I agree wholeheartedly, but then I wonder if we mean the same thing by it.

The obsequious, back-scratching, and self-serving tenor of too many approving reviews is certainly worthy of scrutiny and complaint, but it’s puerile and simplistic to think that one’s only recourse is to be scathing, satirical, or dismissive. As a reader and as an editor, I want mostly to know that a reviewer has taken time and care with the art under consideration. If it deserves derision, I want that cut with something more interesting than mere wit—I want to be reminded of what’s at stake. And if it deserves praise let’s indeed get beyond the blurb-friendly milk of human kindness, and begin the hard work of excavating a space to consider why significant new work truly matters.  It’s poetry, after all, and it’s likely to be passed over without anybody working up a sweat.

For some of these reasons, I’m not so convinced that a phalanx of unsigned reviews would do much to improve the situation, and Johnson puts it mildly when he says that “anonymity could be a temptation to cronyism.” Furthermore, in citing publications that have used or still use this tactic, he neglects to mention that these reviews are typically very brief, and meant either to address a specific audience and purpose better served by leaving ego out as much as possible (as is the case with Publisher’s Weekly and it’s in-advance-of-publication reviews, useful more to publishers seeking spin and booksellers seeking ordering advice than to readers) or to conform to a house style and thus “speak” for the publication the way newspaper editorials do. 

Still, it’s an interesting notion, perhaps more as art project than as critical response—as Johnson, himself the author of several beautifully provocative texts that call authorship into question, alludes to when he suggests we might publish these anonymous reviews under the sign of Juvenal, Derrida, and the like.  And I couldn’t agree more that a “satellite economy” of reviewing is needed to counter the pitfalls of the mainstream: Rain Taxi, the journal I edit, is intended as one such piece of machinery in that orbit (though ours prefers to foreground a principal of selection rather than a savagery of response to comment on the mainstream book review industry’s shortcomings). In calling for “more enigmatic” bouquets to be thrown at every new bride of a book, Johnson speaks closest to my desire that reviewing go beyond the thumbs up/thumbs down binary and say something that causes one to think.


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