I agree with Kent Johnson when he suggests the following about the sociology of contemporary poetry reviewing:
Reviewing tends to be done by poets, and poets use the mode of criticism, more often than not, as a form of ingratiation with their associates. As U.S. poetry (mainstream and post-avant) has become more tightly tethered to academic careerism, sycophantic tendencies have naturally become more ubiquitous, and one outcome of the trend is that the “review” and the “blurb” have begun to blur in purpose and effect.
The crucial word in this passage is “criticism.” It is a word that is significantly absent from Jason Guriel’s piece on negative reviewing that occasioned Johnson’s note, and I would suggest that the failure of contemporary reviewers and editors to think of their work as criticism—and by criticism I mean the analysis and evaluation of literary texts—is the larger problem that leads to the most egregious examples of the contemporary poetry reviewing we know all too well.
Ingratiation, sycophancy, fawning, jargon: these are not criticism. The straightforward expression of a value-judgments—”I don’t like poetry that does X”—is a form of criticism, but it’s hardly a sophisticated or self-conscious one. Johnson, to his credit, believes that it is necessary to combat these tendencies by taking a more satiric stance toward both the art of reviewing and toward contemporary poetry. This is a promising proposition, since satire is a form of social criticism completely at odds with the kind of piety that produces blurbs and the smugness that produces uninteresting reviews, however negative or positive their rhetoric.
Where I disagree with Johnson is in the apparent exclusivity of his commitment to satire as a form of criticism. There is no necessary connection between the satirical impulse and good criticism; the latter can be satirical, but it doesn’t need to be, and in the hands of the unskilled it can go badly wrong. Therefore I would suggest an amendment to what Johnson proposes. We don’t necessarily need more satire or crankiness in poetry reviewing: we need more intelligence.
What do I mean by intelligence? Nothing like IQ or genius or anything even remotely exceptional. I mean the willingness not just to have an opinion about a book, but to make a claim about it and to justify that claim. Without this process of justification, what we have are strictly judgments of taste. The work of criticism is an attempt to make our responses to art, and our recommendations of it, intelligible to each other: “You should/should not read this because…” Taste alone does not, and cannot, do this. Just because I like or dislike a book does not mean that you should or should not read it.
Guriel’s piece is a vivid example of the limitations of taste as a mode of criticism. Consider the following example, from his review of D.A. Powell:
For instance, while the title, “coit tower & us,” is taut and clever, the slack poetry it’s attached to—
some nights I feel that loss as if my own trembling musculature lies concealed under a rubbled city, listening to the mission bells
you pull me from this collapsed architecture, you too a kind of pillar you almost have that same heft, as we climb, I see you stronger
—is stock footage, so familiar you’d swear it was filmed on modernism’s backlot, the rubble trucked in from some crank’s canto.
I don’t think this is an example of intelligent criticism, for two reasons:
1) It makes unwarranted assumptions. Obviously, “taut and clever” are better than “slack” for Guriel. But why? What is so good about the former and bad about the latter? Guriel quotes Yvor Winters elsewhere in his piece: Winters had a famously strong and idiosyncratic theory about the relationship of poetic form to human sanity against the backdrop of modern life. Does Guriel have a similar theory? If he does, he should say so, rather than just assume that we share his taste, i.e. that slackness is inherently bad. Blake and Whitman wrote a lot of what could be described as “slack” poetry. Does Guriel censure them, too? If he doesn’t, why not? If he does, is he the right person to tell us anything about the value of slackness? If you can’t stand the taste of Brussels sprouts, are you the right person to decide whether or not they have been well-prepared?
2) It uses a straw man. Guriel complains that the passage is full of “stock footage” from “modernism’s backlot.” By modernism he seems to mean, on the one hand, the word “rubble,” and on the other, Ezra Pound, whom he invokes via pejorative reference. But these lines of Powell’s sound absolutely nothing like Pound to me—maybe Guriel is thinking of the relation of rubble to Pound’s usage of the word “wreck”—and certainly their emotional tenor here is nothing like the variegations of the Cantos. This is a throwaway comment, designed to solidify a conventional wisdom that whatever modernism is, it’s over, and whatever it was, it was full of cranks. If Guriel wants to write an essay defending that conventional wisdom, he should do it; but this is supposed to be a review of D.A. Powell, and he’s not telling me anything helpful about the poem of Powell’s he’s quoted—except the fact that he doesn’t like it, which is only helpful if I care about his opinion.
All of this is to say that the distinction between negative and positive reviews is really a red herring. There is no more value to a mere expression of praise than there is to a mere expression of blame, except insofar as these expressions might help us climb the ladder of the poetry world, or throw some other people off it. The relevant distinction we should make as readers of criticism is between reviews that are willing to make arguments and reviews that are only willing to make assertions. This is the difference between a good review and a bad one.
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