In poetry criticism, I’ve noticed a trend. It goes something like this: first, raze the field of contemporary poetry to let your audience know that, like them, you are well apprised of the fact that most poetry that’s written nowadays is dreck. Then, go on to say why the poet you’ve uncovered is different from all the dribblers out there clacking away at their touchy-feely doggerel. Here’s Michael Robbins in the opening line of a review in the Chicago Tribune: “Most poetry published is mediocre at best, and often plain awful.” Here’s Marjorie Perloff in Boston Review: “The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, ‘well-crafted’ poem…has produced an extraordinary uniformity.”
It’s not even that I disagree with Robbins or Perloff here, but it’s hardly possible to blithely love every book of poems or movie or new novel that appears. So, whom does it serve to slag off rest of the field? Readers of poetry? Would-be readers of poetry?
Perhaps it’s a way to ally yourself with your readers, and to assure them you’ve got a sense of the terrain from which you are plucking out the book at hand to extol the qualities of. In other words, this gesture assures the audience that your review is actually discerning, and not just an extended blurb-laden lovefest, which is how so many poetry reviews read nowadays. Indeed, Robbins has taken aim at these kinds of reviews to prove his point in the Tribune, and it’s pretty funny in a cringe-worthy way. In a recent Hyperallergic piece, Barry Schwabsky critiques a review of Louise Glück's Poems 1962-2012 that he cites for being more interested in the poet's subject matter than in Glück's actual language. Schwabsky puts it like this, "I just want to tell reviewers of poetry that there’s at least one reader out there who’s mostly less interested in what someone’s poems are about than in what kind of linguistic experiences the poems make out of what they are about."
Even poets themselves—trying to improve and enlarge poetry’s readership, I realize—further delimit what we should value in poetry. For Kathleen Rooney in The New York Times Magazine, reiterating a shopworn either/or becomes the critic’s tool to carve out a new trend based on absurdity:
For contemporary poets who are unable to embrace either an elite Modernist tradition that doesn’t much care if it attracts a wide audience or a lyric-confessional tradition that’s content to recount familiar slice-of-life epiphanies, one of the biggest challenges is how to connect with readers emotionally and intellectually without being sentimental. [Jack] Handey-style absurdity provides a means of navigating without having to choose either of these unappealing options.
If those were the only “unappealing options” I guess we’d have to agree. But for those of us who love all kinds of poems, we recognize the critic’s set-up as an oversimplified binary. Though maybe that’s exactly the trap that Rooney wishes to set. She’s trying to get people interested in Sommer Browning’s hilariously good poems, so why not Trojan Horse them in?
Like Robbins and Perloff, Rooney is a shrewd critic; she recognizes a good bet when she sees one: that her audience might already think that poetry’s either so much whiny drivel, on the one hand, or bloviated, bowtie-straightening obtuseness, on the other. These are pretty common assumptions about poetry, so the poetry critic that incorporates them into a review might win over a few skeptical-if-persuadable readers. Look, I know you think basket weaving sucks, I thought so too, but then I discovered this one amazing weaver and…But are critics of poetry really stumping to dithering swing readers, on the fence about whether to like or read poetry at all?
Actually, in outlets like The New York Times Magazine, I’d guess so. Smart readers who might like fiction and nonfiction, but aren’t sold yet on poetry. Poetry’s a vast terrain to get to know; and, more to the point, is it really worth my time and energy?
Still other critics, with an even wider audience like that of NPR, go a step further, as with this opening from a recent review of Anne Carson’s red doc>: “You don’t read poetry. That’s fine. Nobody does anymore. I’m not going to make you feel bad about that.” I quote this not to belabor the point, but to show how ubiquitous this casual, out of hand dismissal of the vast majority of poetry has become. Of course, the critic then goes on to laud Carson’s new book. So, why not placate potential poetry readers this way if it brings more people to Carson's latest, then maybe to Nox , and perhaps even to Bianca Stone, Brandon Shimoda, Dawn Lundy Martin, and the whole wonderful mess of contemporary poets?
For anybody unfamiliar with poetry who might wish to know what to read, it can be intimidating to say the least. I work at a large public university, so I encounter the curious-yet-uninitiated by the dozens: what to read, where to begin, what sites and journals to follow—let alone what to value and why to value it—all become very thorny questions indeed. Even my grad students often arrive not having heard of many of the contemporary poets who’ve inspired their classmates seated across from them at the same seminar table. It’s hardly a failing of theirs; after all, there’s just so much. But I’m often reminded that—even when I’m surrounded by those who have genuine interest in poetry—it’s hard to know where to begin. And if you do know where to begin, it can be hard to know how to dig deeper. (Stephen Burt's If you like Frank O'Hara, then you might like... is pretty helpful I think.) Whether you think of it as glut or a golden age of poetry, it’s pretty cacophonous out there.