MAUREEN MCLANE'S RESPONSE TO "SOME DARKER BOUQUETS"

 

I‘d like to go all negative on Kent, as he seems to relish any lively fracas, but alas, regarding his analysis of the often soppy, intermittently snarky state of poetry criticism, I can only say, Yeah, that seems about right.  So rather than dispute or debate I’ll mainly just dilate—a few thoughts follow from Kent’s proposal, Jason Guriel’s unwitting prompt, and my ongoing musings on that mode of primate grooming and punishment known as poetry criticism.

It’s not clear to me that poetry criticism is particularly egregious, compared to, say, the criticism of fiction (analogies to movie criticism seem to me misdirected along several axes).  Nor is it clear that poetry criticism is more pathetic now than, say, two hundred years ago, when criticism of the sort we recognize as such (reviews of new work, considerations of emergent schools, etc.) got jumpstarted in the new reviews and magazines of Britain, all intensely partisan: the Edinburgh Review (founded 1802) and its Tory rivals The Quarterly Review (1809) and Blackwood’s (1819).  Kent’s proposal of a limited, tactical return to anonymous reviewing sends us back—or should—to those earlier journals, with their anonymous and pseudonymous reviewers, including the infamous pseudonymous critic (later ID’d as John Gibson Lockhart) whose review (along with John Wilson Croker’s) supposedly killed Keats.  Anonymity may have facilitated some sharper takes than author-identified logrolling or takedowns; not clear.  (The pugilistic Hazlitt had plenty to say, and signed it.)  There will always be, as was said of the former UN Ambassador John Bolton, “kiss-up, kick-down” sorts of people; these types tend to ramp up their aggression when given anonymous cover.  Though in sycophantic mode they want credit as their “real” selves.  My grant application is in the mail.

Whatever.  I’m not so concerned about the review that aspires to the condition of the blurb or the one that devolves into the hatchet job: the weaknesses of poetry criticism, such as they are, seem to arise more from the abdication of argument, whether a case is being made for or against a book, a poet, a corpus, a trend.  This is a weakness shared with criticism, indeed discourse, in general: why shouldn’t poetry criticism be as slavish, buzz-conscious, chattering-classes-toadyish, brand-name-obsessed as any other branch of the culture industry?  Well, some might think, because it’s not simply an advance (or rearguard) wing of the armies of cultural capital.  But maybe it is…

I won’t go any further down that fine Adornian or Bourdieuian wormhole, though the relation of “lyric” to “society” and “poetry” to reified forms of official “subjectivity” and classed nodes of “taste” are not irrelevant when pondering the condition of poetry criticism (and, of course, poetry).  Let’s assume there’s a sociology of the aesthetic required, that poetry critics tend to work in weird semi-guild-like pockets of late capital. What’s been overlooked thus far: the nature of the commissioning organ necessarily informs any critical essay.  Writing for insiders, at (e.g.) Poetry Magazine or Verse or Chicago Review, is a different project than writing for, say, The NYT Sunday Book Review, or The New Yorker, which is itself different from contributing to the Chicago Tribune.  Ignoring the institutional differences among, and the various kinds of cultural reach of, these media organs is dopey.

Let’s acknowledge too that there’s no monolith “criticism.”  We need both descriptive and evaluative criticism; in some strong criticism these projects are fused, yet not always.  Some of our best critics implicitly announce their (positive) evaluative judgments simply by electing to attend to the work: this is one way to think of Helen Vendler’s essays—they offer a kind of heightened repetition and condensation in another mode of a poet’s concerns, techniques, texture.  Other critics strenuously want to show how they’re separating the wheat from the chaff—infamously in Logan’s case, differently in Guriel’s recent essay.  Partly this must be a matter of temperament—irritation is as powerful a muse as admiration, and it’s exhilarating to see a well-argued space-clearing “negative” review articulate what’s oft been thought but ne’er so well expressed.  (A sidenote: the problem with Logan is not his savage indignation or intemperance but his repeated flogging of what he insists are dead horses: how many times does Logan have to kill Sharon Olds, or Jorie Graham?  The ladies get up again and again. This repetition compulsion, however entertaining, transforms the world of poetry into Logan’s Night of the Living Dead.  This is hardly venturesome.)

I’d like a criticism with attitude rather than an attitudinal criticism, one that brings the news (a la W. C. Williams) to those who won’t necessarily buy a single book of poems.  I also want a fine-grained, acute, specialist, polemical criticism aimed at readers who know their synecdoches from their metonymies, their tropes, their genres, their verse formal and free, and so on.  I read few and buy virtually no books on science, music, economics, etc; yet I read with interest essays that appear on these topics in  e.g. the NYRB, the TLS, the LRB.  Poetry criticism can similarly bring the news from Poetry Land to those who will never buy and rarely read a book of new poems; there’s an important place for essays which chart the terrain, inform an otherwise uninterested readership about the ranges of poetries being written, published, translated, and not-yet-written in/into English.  Not everything need be an agôn of praise and blame; criticism can also be pedagogical.

If too many write and publish poetry and too few read it, no surprise that the elbows are out on the one hand and the blurb-meisters ready on the other; overproduction and underconsumption create such distortions.  Guriel wants to let a thousand poetry flowers die.  They will die anyway.  Poets who write criticism should aim higher than the next publishing opportunity, sure; but it’s no surprise that critics who are also poets would be highly sensitive to the social pressures and opportunities of what is in the end a small world. 

Americans are not terribly good at critique (viz. resistance to dialectic, no Marxist tradition, etc.); critique and rigor are what’s missing in our criticism, not “niceness” or “meanness,” which are after all categories of high school sociability and hierarchy—high school providing the governing social order for the American cultural imaginary and by extension perhaps poetry criticism.  

Let a hundred critical flowers bloom, if they are pretty, and sharp. 

 

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