From the Negative to the Norm: Jason Guriel, Kent Johnson, and Poetry Reviewing
While Jason Guriel argues for critics to be more assertively negative in their reviews of poetry, his claims arrive with a kind of mute intensity in the pages of Poetry. Notably, he asks, “Shouldn’t the negative review, if we’re honest and adult about it, be the norm?”
The words that stand out—“negative” (of course), “honest”, “adult”, “norm”—inspired me to look over some letters and essays by great poet-critics: Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, and Hazlitt, certainly, each provide entertainingly brilliant commentary, though I hesitate to call any of it negative, adult, or of the norm. It may or may not be honest in all cases, but honesty can be shaped by the requirements of the situation a writer finds herself in. Sometimes honesty resides in our greatest lies—a truly negative component of performative instinct in writing. This, I believe, is the value of Kent Johnson’s response to Guriel’s essay.
To illustrate this more effectively, permit me to relate the following anecdote. One day recently, as I prepared for this little response about reviewing poetry, I rummaged through the dusty shelves of my library (imagine a garret, illumined by a tiny window high above the rafters—the dust motes at play in the heights above me). There I discovered a forgotten source that, so often once upon a time in my life, provided great pleasure and respite from the hectic occupations I then pursued. I found, in a collection of letters by Dada drummer Richard Huelsenbeck to New York therapist Charles R. Hulbeck, the following that, I believe, speaks directly to many of the issues Guriel’s essay (and Johnson’s response) provoke.1
In what follows, Hulbeck claims that Huelsenbeck continues to behave childishly in print and in person, disgracing the community of writers and thinkers who once had gathered in Zurich just after the First War to kneel before the shrine of Dada. Hulbeck argues that, “now is no time to tarry with unconventional performances, or to flirt with German Bolshevism.” In a vulnerable, though upsetting moment, he writes: “Put away your drum, monkey!”2 Not long after this, Hulbeck fled Germany for America while Huelsenbeck eventually disappeared into the madness and rubble of Europe.
In the letter, dated 3 November 1937, and posted from a mailbox directly across the street from what had been Hugo Ball’s brief but celebrated Cabaret Voltaire, Huelsenbeck announces the following to his dear friend:
Have adults ever spoken a word of truth? Do they telephone the spirits who gave us Dada? Is it possible they sit silently day-after-day before their salads? What if adults could speak? This, of course, is impossible for an adult to do. If you have serious ideas about life, if you make artistic discoveries and if all of a sudden your head begins to crackle with laughter, if you find all your ideas useless and ridiculous, know that IT IS NOT AN ADULT BEGINNING TO SPEAK TO YOU!
You dare to drag me toward the norm. I say pass the anchovies. You hunt out the proper pose, holding your tongue unless it’s strategically valuable to do otherwise—and then only within the confines of modest safety! Embrace a drum and whack it. Listen to the beat’s vibrating motion. Soon the plaster in the ceiling begins to chip then come apart. It falls upon the dancers who hold themselves in an orgy that forever saves them from the horrors of the norm. Give me the bitterness that opens its laugh on all that has been made consecrated and forgotten in our language in our brain in our habits. Give me a radical generosity and take your norms to adults who are more honest in their grim commitments.3
Hulbeck responds in a letter posted from New York City two months later. He had arrived only recently to the United States, and life was difficult for him as he worked to establish a new occupation there. To Huelsenbeck he writes, “You must learn to restrain your spiritual ambition. We must all agree on certain civilized procedures of critique. Please, spare me the self-dramatizing, drum-thumping Dada yaps. We must project the Holy Negative, and yet do so with decorum and devotion.”4
In the final letter of his correspondence with Hulbeck, Huelsenbeck quickly responds with the following:
The Holy Negation achieves neither madness, nor wisdom, nor irony—look at me, dear bourgeois friend from your distance across the Atlantic. I am trying to save your life. Come back to the inert darkness that once made you whole. The shimmering flame inside you burns down to a little spark, but I know it’s there, a little light in the dark. Our brains will one day become flabby cushions.5
In an afterword, Hulbeck notes that this was the last communication anyone received from Huelsenbeck. He vanished forever, “as if into a wilderness of nerve, chance, and…grace.”
Read more responses here.