The experience of reading a thoughtful and responsible critic who severely questions the value of certain poems is crucial for anyone seeking a deeper relation to poetry. This is true whether the poems are by Milton or Wordsworth or our contemporaries. If you float along year after year reading poetry without encountering any severely demanding and sternly skeptical critiques of poems, your appreciation of the art is bound to be mushy and anemic.
For the young poet trying to get her or his bearings in the chaos of the poetry scene, and for the older poet wanting not to feel drowned by the successive waves of younger poets (all announced as daring, exhilarating, tender, fierce, bold, stunning, heartbreaking, luminous, fiery, passionate, unforgettable), to open a journal (or book of essays) and find a critic who intelligently and openly and incisively challenges the value of a recent book of poems is intensely healthful—even if you disagree with the critic’s judgment. Suddenly you feel that justice might eventually prevail, and true merit might win recognition without depending on boosterism; and that contemporary poetry is not merely a swamp of partisan subjectivity. What I have in mind is not hit-and-run criticism that relies on hostile generalizations and tiny out-of-context quotations, but conscientiously substantive, argumentative criticism. Such criticism has probably always been rare, but it seems especially rare in our contemporary MFA-ized universe—for reasons drearily familiar to participants in the present roundtable discussion.
Most of us probably agree that the constant din of puff-positive reviews is regrettable, and tends toward absurdity. None of us (unless maybe Kent Johnson?) is innocent. We have all enjoyed the benefits of a po-culture that is effervescently uncritical—in which it is guaranteed that several hundred books of poems will be published each year, and be greeted only by a few short easygoing reviews. The priority we implicitly accept is that we (“we”—perhaps two thousand of us, in the USA?) will have and keep the teaching jobs for which po-credentials (books, fellowships, awards) are required. In order to insure that some poets we like (our friends, our former students, ourselves) can get such jobs (and get promoted), we’re willing to play along with the publication of hundreds of mediocre or bad books each year. We feel we must nod politely when mediocre or bad books are published and hyperbolically praised (in blurbs, and in blurbish reviews); indeed, we frequently get caught in situations where we ourselves have to praise the mediocre, even blurb it—because to abstain from enrollment in Mutual Praise Networks is to risk isolation. Isolation is halfway to being forgotten, and to be forgotten is a kind of death.
To be attacked can be scary, and painful—or perhaps invigorating! To be utterly ignored is hell. As you wander around the AWP Book Fair, moments come when you feel intensely how ignorable you are. Then you think “I need more friends!” And you prepare to tell someone “I love your work.”
Okay, so we’re complicit in the culture of Mutual Assured Praise. When it gets sickening, we remember how seldom we read (or write) seriously skeptical criticism.
Kent Johnson’s idea of anonymous reviews, in which reviewers would feel free to be “derisive,” doesn’t interest me. There are too many possible abuses in that game; and it would always tend toward a hit-and-run spirit. I admit that some hit-and-run sniping is better than a total feather-storm of admiration and bland tolerance, but it’s not seriously interesting; there’s something adolescent about it. What William Logan does in his quicky put-downs in The New Criterion is not serious work (as he himself has more-or-less acknowledged). Meanwhile, most of us covertly relish his salvoes of insults, even while knowing that he’s usually unfair. He offers these little boxes of sour candy, welcome as an escape from the pusillanimous porridge of prudent praise, but not nourishing.
One source of the sustenance that is full-scale independent hard-edged reviewing has been Parnassus, ever since I started caring about all this in the early Seventies. Looking at issues of Parnassus I’ve kept since 1973 and 1974, I find pages of tough-minded, argued-out criticism that helped me think harder, helped me get going on the long journey toward seriousness. Parnassus ought to have funding that would keep it alive and visible (and save it from the cronyism that is always trying to infiltrate any journal); and it should have several (at least) strong vigorous rivals, journals devoted to reviewing that is ambitious, seriously skeptical, and abundantly substantiated. Such reviewing would often deal with whole poems, not just with bits of poems. (Such reviewing would be different from what we often see in The New York Review of Books, a journal I’m grateful for but which is sometimes a home for the Higher Toothlessness.)
Some editors do try to promote and publish serious extensive reviews. But they need a lot more support in this than they get. Foundations ought to sponsor annual awards for Tough-minded Criticism. There should be big annual prizes for Long Severe Reviews. But of course it all depends on courage. We need reviewers brave enough to live outside of Mutual Praise Networks.
If smart severe criticism—not necessarily negative, but not afraid to be negative—criticism that has room to make a case (in Michael Theune’s phrase) through argument—were to appear more often and more visibly, and to be rewarded, then serious individuals in our po-world would feel their po-lives to be less absurd, and less lonely; and our conversations would tend to be more honest and interesting.
Read more responses here.