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

It would enlarge the scene considerably if poets actually debated different aesthetics and approaches to poems, which is why I remain interested in Myles’s and Robbins’s critiques: at least they'll risk saying something contrary. On Montevidayo, Johannes Göransson spells it out like this:

The way we express disagreement in our contemporary American poetry culture is apparently not by expressing disagreement. It’s by ignoring different views and hoping they will go away. By ignoring the things we disagree with. There can be no better recipe for an anemic and dull literary scene.

Perhaps it is too upsetting to think that what we are writing is simply not good. It is difficult to think that our closest friends, whose books and poems we champion online, are, in fact, possibly quite bad, or that others could think them so. Surely this is a fear of discord and disagreement—of difference, namely. Perhaps we would prefer to remain the same, and, further, to be reassured that we are our own arbiters of what to value and why. Though it's possible that beneath each passing “like” there lurk numerous eye rolls, apathetic yawns, or, worse, the vacant lack of recognition of lazily bored scrollers overlooking our magnanimous links (I mean works) for something—anything—flashier to click into.

I think criticism (and not just negative reviewing) is scary on a deeper level because of something Geoffrey Hartman discusses:

The English tradition in criticism is sublimated chatter; but it is also animated by its fierce ability to draw reputation into question…This power to alter reputation is formidable, and it shows that criticism has an unacknowledged penchant for reversal in it, which is near daemonic, and which brings it close to the primacy of art…But [criticism] can also frighten us by opening a breach—or the possibility of transvaluation—in almost every received value.

It’s hard for me not think of Marjorie Perloff’s disturbingly good essay contrasting poems by Rae Armantrout and Jorie Graham. After reading Graham's work in the context of Armantrout's, via Perloff, I instead see Swarm as a set of pantomimed gestures, where before I’d recognized deep meaning, wit, and verbal play. Beyond that, it opened up Armantrout’s poetry for me in a way that had previously eluded me.

What’s disturbing, of course, is that with a slash of the pen, our own works might be subject to so much reversal, as Hartman says, in whatever outlives us, on top of the careerist stuff that Kirsch cites. It is a capricious thing to think that our poems could delimit so much for us, while we’re alive as well as long after we’re gone. As Adam Phillips says, “We are never misunderstood, we are just sometimes understood in ways we don’t like.” This is why I find it indecorous (if amusing) to see a poet respond to a review of their own work; there’s something embarrassing, perhaps childish, about it. (Laura Riding Jackson’s appeals were actually pretty fascinating.) So, humor me here, will you?

Recently, in Publishers Weekly, the “voice” of my latest book was called “worn, aggressive, bored, and nostalgic.” Ouch. Yet, that little moment of shock gives on to something else that’s much less disturbing than whatever I’d feared a negative review might disclose or, worse, somehow prove. In fact, I had feared that the speakers’ tones were too exuberant, that the we of the book would be read as the supposed voice of some imaginary and vapid “collective,” which I learned of from Cris Cheek, in Cathy Wagner’s kitchen some years ago, after I read from that work in Oxford, Ohio. Once he handed me a beer, Cheek carefully made suggestions to me about the poems he’d just heard. I remain grateful to him, because he risked a critical comment as a gesture of friendship and dialogue. How I had made a book that could be viewed in such opposed ways (exuberant and “bored”), I don’t yet know. Maybe Faison's right: I’m no good for not knowing enough about what I’m up to as a writer. But I’ve learned something: it changes. One’s relationship to poetry, to one’s own poems, changes. As it is, I reckon I have something yet to discover here about what it is I thought I was doing. So far it hasn’t resulted in my curling up in a ball on the floor to commence howling. Ok, not yet anyways.

Perhaps if I avoid critical reviews (not merely negative ones), what I acknowledge is that I am afraid that I will actually be read carefully, deeply, and that the results will complicate my endeavor. But couldn't a complication of that sort materialize (albeit, with any luck) in one’s very next poems? It might improve them. Indeed, they could change me and my work. Lest I cast this in too rosy a light here, I am indeed petty enough to be irritated by pithy dismissals where dismal, blurb-sized little squibs crop up (as on Amazon or Goodreads); but I tend to remain confident that perceptive readers judge those blockheaded comments (as with trolls and malcontents) with a harsher lens than the dismissals themselves. Or so I wish to prefer.

The scarier thing, perhaps, is that the daemonic reversal of reputation that Hartman discusses could happen not through a deeply engaged, well-argued piece of criticism, but in a tweet, a five-sentence blog post, or as a slideshow on some shiny, flavor-of-the-month “culture” site.