MARK WALLACE'S RESPONSE TO "SOME DARKER BOUQUETS"

 

A call for “necessarily skeptical” reviews sidesteps the issue of what makes for the best reviews: that they are informed, descriptive, substantive, insightful, and make plain the values of the reviewed text and the values of the reviewer. I read reviews to decide whether to read a book. I like reviews best that describe a book accurately, whatever the reviewer thinks of it. Style and wit help too, obviously.

There are more books of poetry that deserve substantive reviews than get them.

Certainly there needs to be room for negative, balanced, and positive reviews. But none of those approaches are valuable in and of themselves. Evaluation of the book is part of a review, but reviewers should also reveal their values and offer some evidence for their positions. Sometimes I have picked up a book more eagerly after reading a negative review of it: the reviewer’s values have convinced me that probably I would like the book. Similarly, a positive review can turn me against a book by praising ideas I myself wouldn’t praise.

What we need are publications that allow reviewers to develop their own perspectives and ideologies while at the same time requiring that a review be informed and substantive.

Undoubtedly, poetry is different than some artistic fields in not having as many reviewers whose self-interest lies mainly outside the production mechanisms of the field. Kent traces the reasons for that well. No one can make a career as a journalist who reviews poetry. I would add that the problem is exacerbated by the status of the poetry review within both the world of literature and academia. No one can become a famous literary critic by writing poetry reviews, and in fact nobody can keep a job as an academic mainly by writing poetry reviews. Reviews are considered secondary not only to the books they review but also to academic critical articles. The result is that no one who reviews poetry can become like Pauline Kael in film or Gary Giddins (one of my favorites) in jazz. Poetry reviews aren’t valued enough by anyone.

Still, informed insiders can often be insightful, certainly more than hostile outside reviewers who are ignorant (perhaps willfully) of a text’s methods or intent. Whatever its perspective, misinformation can’t help a field that’s already misunderstood. And it’s not clear that the existence of reviewers dependent on commercial publications would improve anything about poetry. Industries of more popular arts are notoriously indifferent to the opinions of powerful reviewers.

Some points Kent makes seem asserted (forcefully) more than proved. If there were more anonymous writers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was it really for the same reasons as Kent is calling for anonymity now? And what exactly did that anonymity change about poetry? Was it better than the poetry of other eras? Based on what elements of the poems themselves does he say so?

Ultimately I have no objection to occasional anonymous reviews. They’re unlikely to change the world of poetry much but they could be fun. Still, anonymity is rarely as complete as the people who use it might imagine. Those who become prominently anonymous (like Kent himself) are quickly no longer that anonymous.

While Kent calls for an era when writers can feel free to say whatever they want, other writers complain that we are living in that era. With individual blogs (anonymous and otherwise) and blog comment boxes, people really do say anything they damn well please about poetry while bypassing the need to be authorized by literary institutions. We can debate the value of that commentary, but anyone who thinks there’s a shortage of insults, lampooning, vigorous argument or anonymous satirical tongue-lashing might want to recognize that discussion of contemporary poetry is actually full of those things.

 

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