I’ve read over the pieces by you and this Jason Guriel quite carefully, and I’m afraid I don’t have much to say by way of response: you both make legitimate points but, as I see it, offer pretty ineffectual proposals because you both focus on a minor symptom and ignore the much greater causes.
To the extent that abundant reviewing is indicative of a healthy national poetry, presumably we need more reviews, period. And so sure, bring on more negative or “necessarily skeptical” reviews, more un-named or other-named reviews. These may be helpful, but I suspect not very. I mean, if you want reviews to start looking and sounding more like blog comment boxes and chatrooms in all the vacuity of their pissing-contest posturing, by all means bring on your pseudonyms, Kent!
The so-called negative review, though, is as open to misidentification as the negative campaign in politics. Is it negative to point out half-truths in my opponent’s 30-second TV spot? Is it negative to point out where a poet’s technique or aesthetics do not succeed in my estimation and explain why according to my personal criteria and values? In both cases I think not. Where a reviewer like William Logan errs profoundly, his not-too-thinly veiled homophobia aside, is less in his dislike of Hart Crane and Frank O’Hara and more in his failure to explain why his aesthetic criteria are superior to theirs. And so prescribing a “necessarily skeptical” tone or stance may be preferable to the truly negative and mean-spirited Logan but ultimately won’t do much beyond yield a lot of monotonous reviews.
What a review should be is critical; that is, it should view the work at an arm’s length, identify its formal and cultural logics, understand them, and evaluate them plainly and clearly while also acknowledging one’s own biases. And you’re right, Kent, we lack reviewers capable of doing this who are not also themselves poets; instead we have an ever-growing poetic professional and managerial class that has, not altogether unlike our troubled financial sector, essentially abandoned its regulatory capacity. There are multiple complicated reasons for this, related in part to the exponential growth of poetry publications in print and online today, as well as the collapse of journalism as we know it in this country. (I also think we lack a properly rich and nuanced critical vocabulary adequate to the varieties of our poetry today.)
As it turns out, however, the problem is not just with reviewing but with poetry itself. Poets today are the victims of their own success: technology has made it easier than ever to be a published poet, and so the market is glutted with an overproduction of poetic product. Many books of published poetry today can expect to go unreviewed, whereas I would consider a healthy national poetic culture capable of supporting two, maybe three different reviews of each book. This will not happen under the regime we have today, but it could happen at the local level.
So if I have anything to say it would perhaps be a pronouncement, or simply an announcement: the end of a national poetry. Surely an end, or at least an increasing irrelevance, that is already under way. With, by one count, new poetry book titles numbering 4,000 annually, there can be no single vantage point, no overarching view, and most importantly, no single authoritative voice capable of seeing, judging or speaking for these poetries. Instead, an increasing insistence of the local, defined as broadly as current and developing technologies allow, with diverse poetic polycultures and their attendant values drawn and cultivated from the ground up, not from some remote vestigial authority down. “Act so that there is no use in a center,” Gertrude Stein famously advised, mostly, it seems, to willfully unhearing ears. Increasingly there are only peripheries. And we would do well to attend to them.
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