Small Stakes?

Which Ivy-educated post-avantish blogosphere luminary is so taken with his newest collection, he’s given to handing signed copies out to the homeless in his California city? Which one-time “major prizewinner” has been putting more money and effort into rehauling her decolletage than her poetic line? Which inveterate prankster and magus of the Midwest concocts schemes for revivifying the neglected art of poetry criticism when not, etc. etc.

I applaud, that is to say, Kent Johnson’s characteristically provocative bid to stir up the somnolent waters of poetic discussion by encouraging a more freewheeling, less  responsibly moribund approach to reviewing.  Let a thousand flowers bloom, why not, and god knows most anything would be preferable to the anxiously stillborn and proto-blurb-laden notices haunting the pages of Ploughshares or Quarterly West.  And at the same time, the logic of the anonymous review is not too terribly far off from that of the blind item.  Would its loosening of strictures really encourage more serious thinking about poetry, or simply more noise?  I mean this as a genuine question.  While the gaggle of creeps and cretins surrounding the most salient contemporary project of critical anonymity, that associated with Alan Cordle’s “Foetry,” gives little encouragement, I take Kent’s point that editorial judgment will, as ever, bear the burden of quality assurance.  Still, we might recall that the anonymous practices of yore had their personal and professional costs.  Walter Lowrie, in his “Short Life of Kierkegaard,” sums up the last days of a onetime Copenhagen wag, his reputation destroyed in the wake of the notorious Corsair affair:  “P. L. Møller betook himself to Paris, and in France he died before long in abject misery, befriended only by two women whom he had seduced.”

The sad tale of P. L. Møller aside, the discussion surrounding the Guriel article puts me a bit in mind of debates that swirled in my central New York hometown during its fitful decline from manufacturing hub to crack haven. One local visionary liked to tout the potential of a mag-lev high-speed train from Syracuse to Rochester as the secret to putting the region back on its feet. One can appreciate the undeniable charm of such monorail mania without endorsing its inattention to the larger structural features of the situation. I worry, in other words, that heterodox reviewing practices represent a kind of poetic mag-lev train. What really gets us down, when we get down about poetry criticism, is how little any of it seems to matter for anything beyond professional advancement. If it did, how could it mostly be so dreary? That most reviews are blandly positive is just one facet of this problematic; Guriel demonstrates that vapid negative reviews are no more satisfying, as does the career of William Logan, who has toiled in the fields of criticism for decades while remaining wonderfully innocent of the nature of genuine poetic achievement, even if, like John Simon, he occasionally succeeds in transmuting bile into wit. 

The poetry criticism that has meant the most to me has been almost universally appreciative, whether Ashbery on Stein, Robert Hass on Rilke, Joan Retallack on Cage, or Paul Muldoon on Frost.  While justified smackdowns can pack an amusing wallop, and a body of prickly criticism clear space for novel aesthetic maneuvering, it’s most often when an author feels a deep kinship to a subject that the responsiveness characteristic of the most illuminating and instructive criticism can take hold. I don’t think such acts of critical engagement are incompatible with the more riotous sallies that Kent envisions, and it may be that creating more critical hubbub will only encourage the intellectual and emotional investments of readers and writers.  But I do want to insist on the value of perceptive and informed appreciation, individual acts of attention all the more vital against  the dark canopy of our historical moment.


Read more responses here.