Hello Kent Johnson:

You raise a number of important points in your piece about negative reviewing. However, I think you’re patently wrong about the overarching issue. Negative and positive reviewing are just flipsides of the same coin, guards of the same sand castle, doctors of the same symptoms. Both the blandly positive review and the crotchety negative review do exactly the same kinds of things: they use evaluative judgments to keep poetry focused on a formalist normalcy. The very binary positive/negative implies that the critic either accepts the work or denounces it. This is a very simplistic reaction to poetry. And inevitably it leads to reviews that either take to task a poem for not fulfilling the expectations or praise a poem for fulfilling expectations. This is totally upside-down logic. It’s the logic of temperance: the underlying assumption is that we must keep excess out of poetry, we keep infections from spreading. The result: dull poetry and dull criticism. I don’t know why you set up movie reviews as an ideal: part of the thumbs-up-thumbs-down, audience testing culture has no doubt led to the utter bankruptcy of the movie industry. You seem to want to set up negative reviewing as rebellious or heroic. it is nothing of the kind. Just more humanist policing. 

I’m also not sure why you are so attached to the crotchety review. You say that William Logan has been writing the “most entertaining poetry criticism for years.” If by “entertaining” you mean “pointless” and “reactionary” you have a point. If you mean “tired policing of poetry” you have another point. If you also mean “cranky ideas that never led to an interesting discussion” you have bingo.

You are entertained by Poetry Magazine “post-Lilly makeover” because of the quarrels on its pages. It does indeed seem like one of the central editorial goals of post-Lilly Poetry Magazine has been to stir up quarrels with negative reviews or straight-out quarrel baiting (I bit when I got agitated over CK Williams’ patent provincialism in one issue.). More than anything it seems to be a way to get people interested in a journal which still seems guided by the flaccid ghost of Robert Lowell.

But what comes out of these quarrels? More quarrel. A lot of time is spent getting angry about non-issues. No new ideas, no new frameworks for reading poetry, no new ideas about poetry have come out of these quarrelsome exchanges. Which only benefits the status quo. And at this time, the status quo is rich, institutionally strong but utterly out of ideas, utterly incapable of getting anybody interested in poetry, utterly incapable of reacting with anything save defensiveness against new ideas.

You mention Robert Bly’s rages in The Fifties and The Sixties. It is true that his attacks on New Criticism were scathing. But they were often insightful, and, more importantly, they offered new frameworks and ideas for reading and writing poetry—foreign poets in translation, “deep image” poetics, Jungian stuff, anti-imperialistic politics. That’s something the Logans and Chiassons of the world do not do in their tirades. They offer no new ideas because any such ideas are threats to their homely views of poetry. Their main goal is to control excess.

The positive version of such reviews is not a whole lot better. One of the most prominent contemporary reviewers of poetry is Steven Burt, a Harvard professor whose reviews were recently gathered in a book called Close Calls with Nonsense. In this book he praises poetry that is “at once innovative and traditional.” That is to say, they never stray into “nonsense,” they remain “human” rather than deviant, grotesque, distorted. This reading is of course performative—it establishes a norm, and by implication renders the non-conformist into deviants. The entire book is very much a “Cliffs Notes guide to contemporary poetry.” It seeks to alleviate anxieties readers might have about contemporary poetry: for example, Burt explains that “artifice can carry meaning in itself.” Don’t be scared, in other words, of what might seem chaotic or foreign. Everything is still just a poem.

That is also not what I’m looking for in criticism. If contemporary poetry does not harass us, make us uncomfortable, pushes us to new views and vision, it’s just a useless armchair game for the well-to-do, a means of feeling sophisticated. Ugh. What I want poetry to do is come up with new ideas, to inspire us to question assumptions. I can mention two internet examples having to do with Lara Glenum: Jasper Bernes review of her book The Hounds of No, which draws attention to the relationship of her excessive imagery and that all-American imagination at work in Abu Ghraib; and Juliet Cook’s recent review of Glenum’s Maximum Gaga, which sought to think through the ways Glenum’s bodies critiques the “human” (exactly that “human” that Burt praises in his book). 

Such criticism is as vital as ever. Perhaps more vital. Changes in printing and production, as well as changes in attitudes toward starting new presses and journals have created a situation that may still overturn the old hierarchies in which professors chose their pet students for publications in university presses, a system that inevitably led to stagnant conformity. There are now tons of different ways of getting one’s work into print and circulation. However, it seems the criticism has lagged behind. Brilliant work lingers in utter obscurity because it’s hard to get the word out there and if one manages to get a review it most likely will either be blandly praised (and thus defused) or criticized. But most likely it will just be ignored. The result? The same old hierarchies persist. People end up reading books published by University of California Press because they publish  fancy looking books and they’re a university press, they have the old-fashioned caché.

End of Transmission.

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