It was insipid, derivative, condescending and poorly executed. It was pandering. It was not brave. I might (and probably did) apply several other unflattering adjectives and adverbial phrases. “It” was a collection of poetry that Journal X commissioned me to write for Issue Y, annum 200Z. I’ll say no more than that except that “It” (not to be confused with the excellent Inger Christensen poem, trans. Susanna Nied) was a second book of poems and I—a young reviewer, though sometimes I think I am even younger now—had no more idea that my words about the thing might translate into anything so tangible as decreased sales figures or scorn from my coevals in verse.
The editor of Journal X rejected the review summarily, though he took the time to write me a tenderly diplomatic letter explaining why. He said it looked like I had an axe to grind. He said he hadn’t suspected me of viciousness. He said he was disappointed. I read the letter several times through. It was a very good letter. It wounded my pride in exactly the right ways, which means, approximately, that I was stung enough to start rethinking a set of critical assumptions that had once marked me as precocious and might now condemn me to the close, asthmatic existence of those former child prodigies still banging away at a Rhapsody in g minor in secret, waiting to live up to their potential…(A little melodrama never hurts a critic. It reminds us we have hearts in our bodies.)
Reading that ill-starred review now, I can see how it fails. It is unsuccessful not because is negative but because of how it is negative. The insights it contains—inasmuch as they are insights—are sufficiently backed up with evidence, yes, and passably lucid. The problem lies in style and tone. My review accuses the poetry of a stridence and bluntness in language that is, itself, pray to those very faults. I can see how it fails now because I have learned a little more about how poetry and criticism infect each other, how one is a dream of the other.
All that sounds lovely, I’m sure, in the abstract but thinking about how poetry and criticism ought to inform each other in an atmosphere of increasing interconnectedness is line of investigation with a concrete use value. I ask myself what I mean to do when I review a book and the answer is this: I mean to enmesh myself in the poems, to learn as much as I can about how to read them and, if I enjoyed the experience sufficiently, to recommend others learn how as well. I am not sure this project qualifies as running towards the strange poem with, as Guriel puts it, “open arms.” But I am equally sure that this approach is not quite the equivalent of brandishing an atomizer of pepper spray at an unfamiliar text.
I don’t suggest that my bent is the only bent appropriate for reviewers. Critics ought to have standards. I don’t dispute that. The question is whether those standards ought to match up in content or, rather, in form. Judgments of taste are individual but, once voiced, they enter a jostling community of other individual judgments. Immanuel Kant will tell you that and he won’t be exactly wrong—he claimed that judgments of taste are both “subjective and universal.” In other words, the standards that inform our decisions about the aesthetic value of a poem rely on highly particularized experience. But what matters is that we, as reviewers, can draw together the specifics of our perceptions of a verse with enough cogency and skill to convince a reader that the poem under consideration is worth experiencing (or not) for herself.
I like Guriel’s piece much better when he modifies his idea about the negative review to include a kind of “necessary skepticism.” This is just right, I think. I would love to see more well-known publications make use of a more probing approach. But I am not as certain as Guriel that “necessary skepticism” has disappeared from the discourse. Perhaps it has merely gone underground, assumed different forms and formats. New media, in particular, has given people who like to read and write about poetry an unlimited number of outlets for “necessary skepticism.” While there may not be many sanctioned, centralized sources that write the kind of reviews Guriel wants (although I’m not certain that they don’t appear there too, intermittently), blogs and other online forums can and do often provide both the anonymity you’d need to avoid damaging your credit with an insular community (if that’s truly the worry) and the opportunity to interact, all the same, with other people who like to think about poetry. Perhaps Guriel’s criticisms have more to do with mainstream media outlets (so far as poetry has them) and less to do with the motley tapestry of resources available online? If this is so and if you still feel the reviewing community is pitching outsized marshmallows in your direction at dizzying speeds, perhaps the solution is to widen your scope. I confess my favorite reviews of recent months haven’t come from established sources but from a selection of peppery blogs with correspondingly spicy ideas about taste.
Kent Johnson suggests that anonymous reviews—though blogs have already made these a reality in some sense—might help us as critics and readers to develop a wider and more profoundly nuanced approach. I like this idea immensely. English language letters has a long and rich tradition of anonymous reviewing. I am thinking particularly of eighteenth century periodicals like Swift’s Tatler, in which Swift himself wrote scathing reviews under the protection of various outrageous pseudonyms in order to avoid giving offense in his own name. What if we were to commit ourselves to a similar model, in which anonymity is, if not a fact, at least a necessary fiction we work to preserve? In my fond dream of a critical utopia, a slew of journals (online, certainly, print too, if you like) offer us perfectly serious point and counterpoint perspectives for at least a few of the books they review—these to be published under the most absurd pen-names their writers can muster. Until that day, I must sign myself
Very sincerely indeed,
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