I don’t consider myself much of a critic. I never really blogged, and I’ve only written a few reviews, here and there—mostly for The Volta, which my mom refers to as my ‘blog’ anyway. There are plenty of books that appear that I’m moved by, but I don’t necessarily see a path into ways to talk about how I understand what moved me about what they’re doing. Writing prose about poetry is hard, if pleasing, work to me. Sometimes the force of that book opens itself up in writing about what it’s like, even in just trying to describe its forms and choices; sometimes it dead ends disconcertingly quickly. I now know what I was moved by and it’s not new: it’s more of the same, a slight iteration of the same species with which I’m already familiar, perhaps. And in studying it more carefully, my delight diminishes and I abandon it—the review I’d planned and often enough the book itself.
But the work of reviewing—of poets and critics writing about what they see and value in the contemporary—seems more and more important to me, precisely because there’s so much out there being published, and simply because reviews can be more easily gotten online.
Also: I want to know what to read; I want to know what’s come out; and I want to learn about what’s being lauded and what’s being castigated. More than anything, I want to discover the books that careful readers find especially good or perplexing or even disturbing. The little jacket blurbs and twitter blips are notoriously unhelpful, either because they are layered in superlatives or because they attempt some other imploring rhetoric to get you to at least open the book you probably aren’t holding in the aisle of a bookstore anyways.
I doubt if I’ll ever read poetry reviews quite like I read movie reviews (to see if it’s worth shelling out the cash for), but I tend to trust certain film critics more because I assume they’re not afraid to say if they genuinely think something’s not good. Here’s A. O. Scott on the new J. D. Salinger movie:
…in the meantime, Salinger fans will have to contend with this garish and confusing portrait. There are insights that can be plucked from it, but to do so requires strenuous resistance to the spirit of the project (both book and film), which is not just leering and gossipy, but aggressively anti-literary.
Scott’s review of the movie is precise, cutting, and dismissive—and it’s pretty hilarious, to boot. (Perhaps despite itself, it actually makes me want to see it anyway.) So, what’s a critic of poetry to do, exactly? Just have at it the way Scott takes down Salinger? Ignore the mediocre and bland in favor of the truly exciting and wretched?
Last year, I wrote a review of six collections of poetry for West Branch, and their editor, Andrew Ciotola, sent along this excerpt by S. Lane Faison about art criticism as a kind of guideline to their critical aesthetic, which I appreciated:
First, to speak favorably of whatever promising new work I am able to review within the limits of a monthly column. Second, not to speak unfavorably of what I do not like unless the artist has an established reputation. Third, not to hesitate to attack an inflated reputation. Fourth, to balance to claims of past and present. Fifth, to write for informed consumers, not producers, of art, on the theory that criticism has little reason to expect to influence an artist—who, if he is any good, knows what he is about—and much reason to hope to develop a sympathetic audience for quality in art, wherever it may appear.
Despite sounding a bit like a pledge, this seemed pretty reasonable, at least until I got to the part about “informed consumers, not producers, of art” and then it’s trickier, since there probably aren’t zillions of poetry readers out there who have little or nothing to do with writing the stuff, so that makes the practice ever murkier. As Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, poetry is an odd one because it has more practitioners than consumers. Don Share mentioned last month that about 120,000 poems get submitted to Poetry magazine each year.
In a review of James Longenbach’s new book, David Orr sizes up the field for writing about poems for other people like this:
The audience for poetry is like a vastly reduced version of the audience for college football—superstitious, gossipy and divided into factions no less fervent for having only an occasional idea of what’s going on outside their own campuses. It’s a hard crowd to write for, and the critic who sets himself up as a color commentator inevitably struggles to find a style that can please Peter without needlessly riling up Paul.
Then Orr goes on to discuss Longenbach’s assessment of Robert Lowell, and I scrolled down the page with a yawn only to realize I’d just proved both Orr’s points at once—not only am I unaware of the latest take on Lowell’s poetic legacy, I’m now bored that Lowell’s even one of the primary poets apparently discussed in Longenbach’s book. I don’t want to think so, but perhaps Orr is right, that we’re too sealed off to care much about what the other camps and cliques are up to? That is, at least until a negative review arrives, as many of us love to oversee a good fight, especially from the safety of a certain distance.