Hear, hear to Kent Johnson’s call for unsigned criticism in poetry reviews. Certainly the idea will present its own unique challenges and pitfalls, although I’ve yet to encounter a good idea that didn’t, and the alternative has already demonstrated its own capacity for error. At any rate, it is far more constructive to try and work a proposition like Johnson’s than to sit around and wait for perfection to present itself.
Unsigned reviews are certainly part of the solution, but there needs to be a broader approach if we’re serious about improving criticism. I agree that, as Johnson says, the timidity and obsequiousness dominating poetry criticism frequently comes from careerist motives. But this answer does beg the question of why the current crop of poet-critics can be so easily cowed whereas the ones in the 1960s and ‘70s—whom Johnson argues weren’t afraid to roast their peers—had no such fear for their futures.
Johnson’s implication of the greater role of academia today clearly has some merit. Indeed, the question of why criticism has gotten so paltry is a large and complex one, certainly too big to adequately address here, but I would like to supplement Johnson’s rationale with one of my own: the critical culture of the last two decades. My opinion is that critics who spent their formative years reading the tepid criticism of the ‘90s and the ‘00s could only have gone in one of two directions: either they grew disenchanted at the condescending, cloying tone that characterized far too much of critical discourse (in which case they are perfect applicants for the unsigned reviews), or else they began to believe that this is how good criticism is written.
There is no reason to believe that the stagnation and rot that has hollowed out literary criticism in newspapers and magazines has not extended to poetry criticism as well, and it has now been with us long enough that there has been time for an entire generation of poets to have come of age under it. Certainly, some of these writers will have looked back to the critics of previous eras and discovered just how impoverished ours is, but many of them will have simply concluded that this is what criticism should look and sound like. That is all to say, Johnson’s proposal is fine for those who already get it—and offering them an outlet will certainly produce encouraging results—but what about those who don’t?
There is no doubt that the unsigned reviews will offer some inspiration to those critics who have yet to discover it—the unsigned reviews will offer pressure from below, but we also should be offering pressure from above. That is, editors need to do better. Those who have been content to publish faint praise, those who have let the merely average pass by when their position offers them the leverage to demand excellence, those who have been more interested in increasing circulation than doing the work of the literary trenches, they all should take some time to think about their responsibilities. The fact is that the editor of a publication like Poetry is in possession of much prestige and power. Such a person must strive to live up to that great office: the only reason that such a person is not regularly publishing top-notch criticism is that top-notch criticism is not being asked for. So then ask for it. What is stopping you?
Of course, plum spots like those that decorate Poetry’s masthead are hard to come by, and the sad fact is that many able editors will never have the pleasure. Fine. The tradition of small press magazines in the history of literature is strong—think of what something like transition was able to do to shift debate—and those ready to lead by example should do so. The Internet only makes this job all the easier. Already, Internet-based journalism has hastened the decline of newspapers and tarnished the careers of previously untouchable journalists. Online avenues for literary criticism have long since begun engaging their bloated paper rivals, and with encouraging results. There’s no reason why those disenchanted with the state of poetry criticism can’t start their own reviews. Yes, the going will be tough and the rewards initially small, but who ever became a poet to take the easy road? Moreover, if the last few years have demonstrated anything beyond the overwhelming absurdity of market capitalism, they have demonstrated that there is a large and hungry audience waiting for just such publications. Create them and they will be read.
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