MICHAEL ROBBINS'S RESPONSE TO "SOME DARKER BOUQUETS"

 

I prize wit and brio in reviews—style—more than confirmation of my own aesthetic judgments. Manny Farber on John Wayne: “the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall.” It is more difficult to praise something well, as Farber does here, than to tear something down, so demolition must be surgically inventive, as in Robert Christgau’s takedown of Mary Chapin Carpenter: “Why do I believe this Nashville liberal showers three times a day and doesn’t think sex is the right place to get your face wet?” William Logan has the skill and precision of a skeet shooter; Dale Peck is just OK at Whack-a-Mole.

That said, I don’t quite recognize the state of contemporary poetry criticism in Jason Guriel’s analysis. Franz Wright’s unbalanced menacing of Logan notwithstanding, poetry reviewing is a fairly blithe business. The New York Times published an article some years ago about the dangers facing hip-hop reviewers, whose targets do not always confine their indignation to letters to the editor. I’m not suggesting that existential peril is what is missing from poetry reviewing (although I might feel a certain frisson if more handgun-wielding poets began stalking reviewers who had savaged their genre-busting verse ballets in the pages of Rain Taxi). But style will only get you so far unless it is in the service of the determination of what is of value in poetry. Allen Grossman admits to being uncertain what poetry “can now mean in the context of the actual human task. What obligations ‘poetry’ requires. What benefit to the human world the obligation, privilege, or competence named ‘poetry’—the vocation to ‘poetic work’—implies or promises. Above all, what knowledge it contributes.” No one else knows either. In On Criticism, whose back cover I read in its entirety while standing in line at the bookstore, Noel Carroll cites a poll of art critics in which 75 percent reported that rendering judgments on artworks was the least important part of their job. I recently conducted my own unscientific poll by asking avatars of reviewers in my head, and the numbers work out about the same for poetry critics. It may be that in order to render judgment, one must have a sense of what poetry “can now mean in the context of the actual human task.”

But what is the actual human task? That is not a question that hip-hop, for instance—the most vibrant art form of the last three decades—has much trouble formulating. It is a music that speaks directly to and on behalf of lived contradictions. Jazz used to do this. “Good reviews of late Coltrane,” Ben Ratliff writes, “often weren’t just good reviews. They were across-the-board endorsements, fighting-words defenses, reflections of a profound change of life that was caused directly by Coltrane’s music.” Critics had a sense that jazz provided a tangible “benefit to the human world.” This didn’t always lead to great criticism (Ratliff quotes Frank Kofsky: “The music is in effect telling us about a future existence in which love and cooperation have replaced strife and oppression”), but it ensured an environment in which great criticism was possible.

I don’t know if poetry exists in such an environment today (I doubt jazz does, anymore, either). None of which is to deny the potential charms of Kent’s proposal (although it may explain my sense that it would be hard to find reviewers other than Kent willing to forego their byline), only to say that I am not convinced that changes in reviewing protocols would do more than lessen the severity of a few symptoms of a larger condition. And I know that my appeal to popular music will strike some as willfully irrelevant to a discussion of poetry criticism (as my consistent blurring of “reviewing” and “criticism” will strike some as question-begging). But it may be that the necessary deflation of vatic possibility that has accompanied post-romantic poetic thinking has also diminished our capacity for a vital faith—faith in what Oppen called “the small nouns / Crying faith / In this in which.” We are too smart to believe that poetry might tell us about a future existence. I don’t necessarily deplore this development. It is, as Usher says, what it is.

 

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