But have critics just channeled the trusty old negative review into this raze the field tactic because poetry’s become ever more insular? I, too, dislike the idea of writing a negative review of a lackluster book that I’m pretty sure that history will take care of anyway—especially as other terrific books languish in the stacks at Small Press Distribution, selling a couple hundred (or couple dozen) copies, unreviewed, largely unnoticed beyond its authors’ friends and family. But I do think that without good criticism—about what to read and how and why and why not—we do poetry a disservice by becoming too sealed off. Eileen Myles's "Political Economy," which appeared on Harriet a couple years back as a critical response to Sean Patrick Hill’s review of Wave Books’s State of The Union anthology, was staggering—precisely because Myles interrogated Hill's very assumptions about what gets to be recognized as political art and what doesn’t. Then I start to think, what if more folks wrote like that?
So, why don’t more poets and critics actually write more critical reviews? Here’s Adam Kirsch in the The New York Times on the costs of negative reviewing:
When it comes to negative reviews, the disincentives for a novelist or a poet are still more obvious. Write a bad review and you make an enemy for life; no writer ever forgets a pan. And these days, when so many writers work in the academy, an enemy can be a real threat to one’s career. Just wait until the victim of your bad review, or his friend or student, turns up on your hiring committee or your prize jury.
Kirsch is talking about why poets and novelists have a complicated time reviewing one another’s new books, of course. And I have to hand it to Rooney and Robbins here (both accomplished poets as well as critics), as this has not stopped either of them it would seem, in the least: Rooney’s recent review of Heather Christle at Coldfront was a doozy. And Michael Robbins has taken it to a new level, I’d say; I read his negative reviews of what he calls merely "competent verse" in the Chicago Tribune with one eye closed, as at a scary movie. And lest you think I’m chuckling here behind the scenes, feigning objective observation over an intellectual debate, Rooney herself slashed my second book in the Boston Review some years back, and I also have poems in that spurned new edition of the Postmodern American Poetry anthology that Robbins reviewed in Poetry, while he shredded the work of lots of folks I admire.
When I followed up with Robbins about his most recent review, though, it seems that he’s been attacked for the negative ones. In an email to me, he wrote,
I’ve discovered that when you refuse to engage people who insult you, you’re accused of being afraid of “discourse,” which we all know Twitter is a terrific platform for. So if you block them, because you don’t want to hear what they have to say and don’t care, you’re a fucking baby. One dude sent me a long email about how I’m a coward, a wimp, a promoter of censorship, the Poetry Foundation’s “boy,” all because I was underwhelmed by his complaint that the Poetry Foundation had blocked him on Facebook (he wanted me to publicly denounce them for having done so). I mean, I don’t make my arguments on Twitter. If you have something to say about my writing, get it published somewhere. What makes you think your 140-character attempt at pithiness could constitute the beginning of a “dialogue”? I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.
Ok. Now, I realize that I sound like one of those after school special voice-overs about mediated dialogue and patient listening. But, I have to say, I’m a little stunned that some fool would start trolling because they don’t like what a critic said about a poet’s poems. And I don’t mean passionate disagreement here; I mean instead ad hominem attacks, senseless bullying, and just mean-ass language in the comment stream, in the blog feed, etc. Robbins has been retweeting the attacks on Twitter, which I guess is a good way to handle it; today's read, “michael robbins writes good essays because he is simultaneously highly intelligent, well-read, and a big fucking baby.”
And, of course, it cuts the other way on social media. Jacob Silverman’s terrific piece on Slate called “Against Enthusiasm” lays out the opposite dangers of like-culture, when he says, “Reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines, yet we have settled for that role, in part because the solicitous communalism of Twitter encourages it.” Silverman adds:
…if you spend time in the literary Twitter or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.
Maybe it’s senseless to think that there’s a way for this saccharine world of liking and the bad blood of trolling to evolve into something deeper. Perhaps critique, debate, positive and negative reviews, and close readings are all readymade to disintegrate into so much daisy tossing or shit throwing. Over on Harriet, Tyrone Williams (talking about acrimony over poetry anthologies this month) put it like this: “Is it true that the smaller the stakes the more vicious the in-fighting?”
One of the responses I return to (and I’m grateful it’s on a blog and searchable) is Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s answer to a question by Gillian Hamel about being a poet who keeps a low online profile:
I’ve been reluctant to produce much of a net footprint (blog/comment-fielding/interviews, etc.) bc I’m paralytically aware of what good intentions can devolve into on the web, a space, like every other cultural space capital permits and maintains, that’s characterized by brevity and disposability and by the reaction—attributes that accompany brevity and disposability: speed, loudness and, often, aggression, contempt, caricature, branding, etc. It’s not that I don’t think mutual regard and atelic inquiry can happen in the thereless there, they do, but not often enough and not thoroughly enough for me to see it as a peculiarly exciting public space for thinking about poetry with others. And it’s hard for me to risk thought about poetry with such uncertainty about fellowship.
I couldn’t agree with O’Brien more. Yet, against my better judgement, I refuse to think that it’ll be won over by clicking “like” on every passing fancy or that trolls will ruin the opportunities for us to disagree coherently with one another about why and how poems work, or should work, or how they could work.