As a Buddhist, I take the precept of Right Speech (“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter”) seriously. As a reviewer for onedit, I only write on pieces about which I feel enthusiastic because life is too short to be stabbing yourself repeatedly with the shit end of the stick (& there are many such sticks containing a great variety of shits). Poetry for me is a utopian project, & the business of friends & fellow-travelers falling out over the materiality of the signifier seems a ridiculous & self-defeating position. I want the community I swim in to be one in which mutual respect & support is foregrounded. & yet…
The poet Jow Lindsay recently told me (while I was enthusing about Borat Watten’s Frame) that everybody knew I didn’t like any poetry: this idea, I suspect, coming through our chatting after poetry readings. My positive (written) reviews, regularly, come up against my playful post-poetry reading comments, gags, & grumbles: so the noble intention of Right Speech, here, already, has become a compromised precept.
Right Speech is further qualified by Dr Johnson’s “everybody who appears in print is a contender” & the hope that one’s writing will be engaged with by intelligent & opinionated readers. Silence = death for all writers, so a blast in print may be more useful than no response at all. Our community would clearly benefit from an increase in volume of any kind; if that noise carries our work to a wider or less guarded (hypocritical?) world.
The “I will speak no ill of poets” is also a hard act to square with the important business of individual aesthetic definition & wider social positioning through criticism & rejection. This is clearly an important stage in many poets’ developing lives: (New York in the 90s was full of it—& there was much blood left on many carpets) & it is an act which seems completely opposed to right speech. It only begins to work if we engage in such tasks with some kind of right intention. I think the way up the greasy pole of poetry is to write well, be active in the community, be generous towards one’s fellow travelers (however stinky & competitive & unreasonable they—never me, of course—are): & at the same time be clear & engaged (thus allowing negative reviews, blasts, & broadsides) about one’s own aesthetic & social intentions.
The pleasure & the problem with poetry (review culture) is that we all know each other: most negative criticism seems to be taken as a personal attack as opposed to an aesthetic engagement. It is hard not to feel upset when a friend says something mean about one’s book: & therein lies the problem. We DO need to have a culture where the issues of review & reflection are robust & we are engaging with work which leaves us unmoved or angry. We also need to be able to do this with some kind of generosity of intention & knowledge of where this lies in a larger human context. I think we can do this through right intention & seeing all of our writings as a serious form of play.
That there are many pompous, divisive & dreadful poets is obvious. The poetry establishment & media is populated by ignorant & parochial poets & reviewers who aggressively pursue a conservative agenda. It is always fair to tilt at such ridiculous windmills: but there is a difference between (1) stating the bleeding obvious about the fucking awful: these well-meaning (yet still-marginalized-in-the-wider-literary-culture) people need to be critiqued for their agenda & politics as well as their aesthetics—& (2) the entirely different job of engaging with our perceived peers (national & international) in a rigorous & honest manner. A good negative review, I think, should at least provide the author in question with some hard questions & the possibility of some options. Jean-Luc Godard was once in discussion with a critic (Pauline Kael) who had slammed his latest movie, & he ended the discussion by asking her to give him some suggestions for his next project (instead of her simply saying the work sucked).
The solution which works for me is to attempt to write reviews which play with the form. Recent pieces (all at onedit.net) on Jeff Hilson, Yasusada/Bernstein/Johnson, Miles Champion, & Gabriel Gudding all try to say useful things without slavishly or boringly blurbing the work. Clark Coolidge’s Crystal Text started life as a review of Michael Palmer’s Notes For Echo Lake. The great examples of creative & playful reviewing for me were the issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine where reviews were (generally) undertaken in a spirit of generosity, play, & adventure.
In the spirit of play & positive engagement I do think that there is a point to Dadaist positioning & offensiveness—but a distinction needs to be made between a critique of the poetry & the activity of the poet: it is of course possible to be critical of either or both. (Criticism is more easily done in the wider moneyed creative culture where reviewers rarely sleep or eat with their adversaries.) I don’t think it is a question of whether passionate / critical discourse should take place—of course it should—but how it should take place.
Amy Lowell said that publishing a book of poetry & expecting a response was like dropping a petal into the Grand Canyon & expecting an echo. It is certainly funny & at times useful to reply to the dropping of petals not with an echo but with a barf. There is, however, a difference between barfing over a book or in the face of the author.
For us all it is important to be clear about our aim (book or face) & our ultimate (let’s say good, playful, & serious) intentions.
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