I like Kent’s idea of unsigned reviews because I like the unspoken idea that would necessarily have to go in tandem with it: substantial monetary remuneration for the reviewer. Because, after all, there are two main reasons to publish. One is vanity, the desire for kudos. The other is the possibly nobler Grub Street need to put food on the table. Without being able to satisfy one of these motivations it’s hard to see why a writer would be interested.
And where’s the money for that going to come from? The Poetry Foundation, maybe. But otherwise, it’s hard to see how it could be possible. For the simple reason that there is, to state the obvious, no mass market to support it. Everybody’s interested in movie reviews; lots of people who aren’t novelists are interested in reviews of novels; but very few people who are not poets are interested in poetry reviews.
So the realistic thing is to assume that there is no basis for poetry reviewing to be very different than it is at present, mostly the expression of poets’ enthusiasm for each other’s work. Incidentally, this kind of criticism seems to have a much purer motivation than the occasional zinger that sees print. Kent sees an enthusiastic review as “sycophantic” but I can assure him that if I were to take it upon myself to articulate in writing my fascination for his work there would be no sycophancy involved. What can he do for me, beyond produce more good work? Give me tenure? I don’t think so. Be my pal? Maybe, but the distance makes it unlikely. Write an equally flattering review of my next book? Ok, that’s possible, but I can’t say I’d bother to write something I didn’t believe in just on the off chance of that happening. Basically I would write the review because the writing gives me good ideas to work with—what I don’t mind calling inspiration—and because I imagine that if I do something worthy with that inspiration, a few people whom I respect might do me the honor of acknowledging that I have enlightened them, just a little bit at least. Whereas with a slash-and-burn review, usually there’s no desire to enlighten anyone, just to get a rise out of the likeminded. With all respect for Eliot Weinberger, an outstanding writer (stop that, you sycophant!), does anyone really believe he changed anyone’s mind about Frederick Seidel? No, he merely gave a thrill to all the people who vaguely despised or just ignored Seidel’s work anyway. (I am one of them.) The effect of Weinberger’s review was certainly to ingratiate himself with his fellow poets, that is, with the ones in his camp—far more than would have been the case with a rave for one of his friends.
What I miss are not negative reviews, but what I guess have to called—although I know it sounds kind of boring—judicious ones. Where is the critic who understands the value of the work of, say, Clark Coolidge, but can explain the difference between a great work by Coolidge and just an average one? Because the fact is that Coolidge has written some amazing books but has also issued others that simply seem evidence of his unwillingness to edit himself. (Something similar, of course, could be said of most poets who are fairly prolific, except of course for those who never write anything good.) I think I know the difference when I read them but I find it hard to say where the difference is. I’d be grateful to someone to help me think the matter through. Who knows, it might even help Coolidge to read that.
But chances are he wouldn’t like it. It can be all the more wounding, after all, to have one’s weaknesses pointed out by someone who clearly does understand. The judicious review is the one that is probably bravest—and intellectually most difficult—to write. That must be why these are, if anything, even rarer than those manifesting the “smart crankiness” Kent calls for. So if you catch sight of one, let me know.
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