A Counter Proposal

What is so fascinating about Kent Johnson’s modest proposal of a new age of “unsigned” or pseudonymous reviewing as a “satellite economy” to conventional—fixed to a specific person—reviewing is the way it dovetails perfectly with his lifelong struggle as a poet to undermine the concept of poetic identity. Even his “drollery” to “attribute reviews according to the tenor of each (Hazlitt, Derrida, de Beauvoir, Juvenal, etc.)” echoes his own identity experiments with Yasusada and Papaditsas (the translator persona in The Miseries of Poetry). And his classification of the reviews according to style and tone—historical figures becoming heteronyms—also points to his keen interest in rhetorical structures as entities beyond and independent from, rather than belonging to and owned by, a writer’s individual style. Seen as an extension of his poetic process, Kent’s open letter is an exquisite, witty piece of writing.

In Kent’s work, nothing is exactly what it seems; that is why the perception of a modest proposal is very apt. For instance, one reading his dolorous lament that in the present state of affairs “the ‘review’ and the ‘blurb’ begin to blur in purpose and effect” will be tickled to remember that about 20 percent of his fascinating book The Miseries of Poetry consists of blurbs for the book—myself providing one of them. They are part of its internal structure.

As a practical matter, though, Kent’s proposal contains a logical inconsistency which dooms it from the outset. If the primary motive of the present “fawning” review is ingratiation or promotion in the academic field, what will make the reviewer change his/her habits if it were anonymous? He/she will stop writing altogether.   

Unless completely professionalized—and even then—personal factors always enter the reviewing activity among poets. Though I completely agree with Kent about the “decorous,” non-skeptical nature of the majority of the present reviews by poets, I differ from him on the diagnosis. I believe it is possible to write inquiring, perceptive reviews of poets you know and whose work you like or dislike. In fact, if a friendship is also built on a communality, comradeship of poetic vision, it may provide the review with special insights that an “objective” review may completely miss. The same principle applies to negative reviews. If a specific work rubs the same poetic vision the wrong way, a review arguing that dissatisfaction may create polemical electricity. Such antagonistic polemics is the life blood of poetic process in a community, even if it sometimes involves bitter fights and broken friendship, as the recent “Flarf Wars” indicates, which was finally a bitter fight among poets who often knew each other and were otherwise friends.

I think the major cause of most non-skeptical reviewing, something that I along with Kent bemoan, is intellectual sloth. During the last fifteen or twenty years, certain ideas that at one time possessed the dynamic energy of concepts for a new kind of poetry have become shibboleths—not terms of inquiry or analysis—to determine who is in and who is out, who belongs and who does not, in our world of “innovative” poetry.

Unless one becomes “famous,” then, and is assigned “objective” reviewers paid for their labor, our fate is to be reviewed by other poets. Therefore, I propose three simple rules—three thou-shalt-nots—for the rejuvenation of the art of reviewing poetry. Only then will this art become a contributing—even heroic—foot-soldier in the poetic process:

1) I forbid the use of phrases “non-linear” and “non-narrative,” or any expression saying the same thing. I am sick and tired of reading how a poet’s work develops in a non-linear way, or words to such effect. The words basically mean nothing. They tell me nothing about the reason why the poet is writing the way he or she does, what is the driving, organizing energy behind the work.

As for “non-narrative,” in the 21st century, it smacks of provincialism. In 90 percent of the world’s countries and in the media outside the avant-garde, including movies produced in China, Iran, Romania, Turkey, Germany, etc., the narrative is a dynamic, mythic and political force. Narrative can assume all sorts of shapes. Herzog’s documentary Fata Morgana creates a narrative of hallucination being transformed into reality. The way a philosophical or theoretical argument develops may create a narrative of “thought,” the process of thought in motion, something of significance for poets trying to develop an “intellectual lyric.” As used by “innovative” reviewers, the phrase “non-narrative” is a relic from an era when it was a potent, dynamic weapon attacking a specific version of narrative, the bourgeois realist novel. Within the context of our time, the word is quaint, closing the viewer’s mind to the possibilities surrounding him/her.

2) I forbid all textual analyses of a poem, based on sound or rhythm echoes among words. This is a hybrid of New Criticism (oh, Language School, how far hast thou fallen!) and Ron Silliman’s theory of “torque” in his New Sentence. This method is the opium of the reviewer. It turns poetry into a craft and the reviewer into a bean counter. It prevents the world of words, thoughts, and ideas surrounding a poem from entering the poem, rejuvenating and being rejuvenated by it. It decapitates the work from its social and cultural body.

3) The third proposal is my own drollery, a dreamer-despite-yourself ideal. I forbid each reviewer from reading Ron’s blog. Besides being a treasure house of the sort of textual criticism I discussed in “2,” in its imposed structure of “avant and post-avant,” the blog creates the worst kind of “hierarchy of ingratiation,“ much more invidious than the one which occurs in universities. I wonder how many poets (or reviewers!) with potential were seduced by being “named” one of the “post-avant” poets or by being chosen to be the subject of one of his reviews, while remaining oblivious of the poetic and intellectual possibilities outside the purview of Ron’s conception of the American poetic tradition.


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