Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 35, November 2013—Reviews Issue)

Brian Reed

1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

I am a member of an endangered species, the critic-who-is-not-a-poet. I am also a refugee from the Bible Belt who, back when there was a Cold War, studied literature in the Soviet Union, at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys. These facts explain, I think, why my answer to this question is rather modest. I am chary of arguments about poetry’s (or criticism’s) ability to save us all. They tilt all-too-easily into prescriptive arguments that limit in advance what can be thought or written.

At the same time, I feel an apostolic urge to advocate for poetry in a society that undervalues it. I recently spent a month in Kraków, Poland. Smack in the middle of Rynek Główny, their main market square, is an enormous statue. It’s not a monarch or general. It’s Adam Mickiewicz, the romantic poet. One of the museums had an exhibit called “Szymborska’s Desk.” A constant stream of locals wended their way through the building to have a look-see at the knickknacks and kitschy cigarette lighters that belonged to the recently deceased Nobel Prize winner. They listened rapturously, too, on retro-Communist-era telephone receivers to recordings of her voice.

What if poetry mattered as much here in the United States? It doesn’t, but I try to live and write as if it did. Every art form needs an audience. I see myself as a popularizer, defender, and chronicler.

2.What’s your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books? Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews?

Positive reviewing isn’t by itself a problem. So much is published and self-published out there these days that I am hungry for good, smart, positive reviews so I know better where to direct my attention and time. What tires me are the reviews that tell me nothing substantive about a poet’s work. Reviewers heap on metaphors, advertising-speak, irrelevant quotations, and TMI about their own lives and careers. They plop down boluses of theory, share their utterly predictable thoughts on current events, or, if they’re feeling inventive, toss in unicorns and other non sequiturs. These reviews can be hyperbolic in their endorsement of a given writer, but I also tend to forget why I should care shortly after turning the page or navigating away to a new site.

One thing in particular that I see frequently, and that I have come to dread, is ostensive argumentation, ostensive, that is, in the sense of pointing. Instead of narratively or discursively explaining why such-and-such is the case, a reviewer simply pronounces that it is so, and says “here’s the evidence,” see? See? See? This mode of arguing can work well in certain genres, as any good Tumblr feed will illustrate. But it usually doesn’t work in a poetry review.

Why? Well, you used to hear the guideline that an author should never introduce a long block quotation into an essay without spending at least as much space discussing and analyzing what it says. Many reviews flagrantly disregard this old rule of thumb. You’ll encounter a broad statement about how X, Y, or Z poet has brilliant lineation or a subtle mind or a great insight into Occupy Wall Street and then blammo, you’ll get a long chunk of verse, or a series of short extracts. A reader is supposed to intuit, magically and fully, what the reviewer sees in that cascade of words. Really, though, unless you’re Susan Howe (and you’re probably not), such sweeping vague gestures only succeed in directing readers’ attention to the most obvious and transparent features in a poem.

In my opinion, there has to be more build up and/or more follow through if you’re going to show effectively what it is that differentiates this particular passage from any other passage on the same subject by any other poet out there. And without that level of labor and thought, how are you going to make a defensible evaluative judgment? You might declare off the cuff, for instance, that D. A. Powell’s Chronic has better long free verse lines than Bruce Smith’s Devotions, but I’m not going to give that statement much weight unless (1) you back it up or (2) I’ve already seen you engage in the kind of patient intimate reading that gives me confidence in your judgments.

Incidentally, while most reviews might still be positive, at least in more formal venues, I would say that over the last decade I’ve watched a fungal growth of negativity, abetted by the Internet and the popularity of social media sites. Anyone can post anything, and they do. One consequence: Whether it’s the Harriet blog or ezines or Facebook, you get unhappy people spewing acid and resentment. They go after whatever seems like a big available target, a poet or clique or critic; it’s like something out of The Shining. You also get people dumping out entire barrels-full of under-informed opinion-fluff. They seem to think that their brainstorms over breakfast are of world-historical importance. They usually aren’t. For heaven’s sake, please look into a topic for longer than one Google or JSTOR search and remember basic civility and humility before posting a screed to the Huffington Post or the Poetry Foundation web site.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

I find it mystifying that I run into so many poet-critics, my age and younger, who continue to venerate the same thinkers who were Marquee Names back when I was in college in the late 1980s. It’s a full generation later, and we’re still hearing about Adorno, Benjamin, Butler, Derrida, Lacan, Zizek, and so forth, lightly augmented by the likes of Agamben and Bourdieu. True, these assorted figures are nowadays generally invoked in relation to the politics of/in literature, not so much to ground an abstract inquiry into language and form. Even so, I feel sad when I turn from discussions of poetry to, say, debates over computer games, where you’ll find a slew of inventive attempts to create new humanistic tools adequate to talking about contemporary realities. Go read Ian Bogost on E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)—a notorious stinker of a console-based video game—in Alien Phenomenology (2012) and you’ll discover somebody pell-mell and energetically inventing a method of analysis that is suited to, and in dialogue with, the artifact being analyzed. That’s what I’d love to see more often on our side of the fence. And fewer covers of the hit parade circa 1988.

I do not exempt myself from this kvetch, by the way. I’d strike the “other” in question #3. I’m an eighties kid, too. On Spotify and Pandora, if it’s not classical or avant, my stations all center around Madonna, Boy George, Prince, Annie Lennox, etc.

4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?

I wish I could write something worth putting alongside Christine Brooke-Rose’s ZBC of Ezra Pound, Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo, Terry Castle’s Masquerade and Civilization, T.J. Clark’s Painting of Modern Life, Guy Davenport’s Geography of the Imagination, Natalie Zemon Davis’s Fiction in the Archives, J. Hillis Miller’s Poets of Reality, Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, and Wu Hung’s Remaking Beijing.

I studied with Helen Vendler as an undergraduate and Marjorie Perloff as a doctoral student. They taught me to read and write. I continue to learn from their work at every encounter. Among my other favorite poetry critics: Hugh Kenner, Michael Wachtel, Richard Sieburth, and Herbert Tucker. Whose reviews and articles do I read the moment I hear about them? A very partial and truncated list: Andrea Brady, Stephen Burt, Craig Dworkin, Sianne Ngai, Siobhan Phillips.

I’m also a fan of art history. I’ve long admired the October critics, especially Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjmain H.D. Buchloh, and Annette Michelson. I also follow closely younger scholars such as Leah Dickerman, Maria Gough, Branden Joseph, and Pamela Lee.

5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?

We’re all in medias mess. You cast what net you can, listen to word of mouth, attend to the recommendations of people you trust, and then start signposting for others the poetry that stands out to you. More than ever, the job of the critic is exploratory and evaluative. What are the patterns that are easy to miss amidst the noise? Who looks promising? Where do you hear the peal of genius? If you do a persuasive job explaining why A and B are important, a conversation gets started, audiences gather. Hence, again, the need to back up your evaluative claims—you can hyperlink to a thousand writers on your blog roll, you can post fifty titles to Twitter, but I’m never going to follow every link, I need reasons to click. A good review will do it. And then I’m committed, and if I like what I find I’m likely to go ahead and read all I can get my hands on by that author.

6.What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?

First, read. Read a lot. Read poetry published before you were born, too. A lot of it. Read poetry in every language you can. The best reviews come out of a long-term, ongoing, heart-felt immersion in the art form. If you review a book simply because you have the opportunity to do so—or worse because you want a CV line— you are going to write a blah forgettable maybe even wrong-headed review.

Second, learn to summarize. You need to be able to describe a book or performance or exhibition concisely and accurately. You will, of course, be selecting what to highlight, how to order your account, and otherwise shaping the summary. There’s always observer bias. Nonetheless it’s your obligation to suggest what it would be like to experience first-hand that which you are reviewing.

I was a book review editor for the journal Contemporary Literature for three years, and repeatedly I had to request revisions because contributors started to “critique” a book in sentence two. That’s not the essence of the genre. Sure, you can criticize, even slam, a book, if that’s merited, but you have to remember that your readers have little or no idea what you’re attacking unless you explain it to them first. Be our tour guide. Don’t savage the architect’s choice of door knob before we’ve seen the whole house.