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

If Jacob Silverman thinks we need more critical reviews now more than ever, here’s Dwight Garner in The New York Times last year, from a piece called “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical,” echoing Silverman and expanding on his argument:

The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics—perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.

Now, before we all start to sharpen our knives—to set up a devil's advocate—here is David Gorin from Boston Review, in an excellent piece about The Claudius App's active solicitation of negative poetry reviews:

There is no good reason to think that negative reviews are ipso facto any more honest, more intelligent, freer of strategy, instrumentality, or profit-motive than positive reviews. Negative is not the same as critical. The negative reviewer is shrewd enough to moneyball the marketplace: he understands that in an economy rife with praise-inflation, vitriol can code as honesty, and ridicule may seem refreshing because it is so rare. His operation risks devolving into spectacle. The idea that negative reviews should be more “honest” or “refreshing” than positive reviews is symptomatic of the fantasy that there might be a place where the dynamics of economy and careerism are suspended, and the voice of truth can pour forth undiluted by ulterior motives. The main problem with negative reviews is that they’re too similar to positive reviews.

Gorin goes on to say the following:

The poetry criticism I admire most spends less time praising or blaming—which often amounts to leveraging the reviewer’s cultural capital and verbal virtuosity to muscle readers into assimilating that reviewer’s taste—and more time describing and contextualizing with intelligence and gusto. Of course, no reviewer could ever remove his taste or politics from his descriptions; the very choice of an object for attention is a function of such things. But I think we’d all learn a lot more about what’s happening in poetry if reviewers leaned less heavily on overt statements of aesthetic judgment, positive or negative, and more on close analysis.

However much I agree with Gorin here, I’m probably naïve to suggest that close, careful, in-depth readings of poetry books that discuss the poems’ unique approaches to language and uncannily nuanced prosody will win over folks who already don’t give a fuck about poetry. And, no, it probably won’t bring scads of would-be readers to poetry either. I mean, I might as well straighten my bowtie about that one.

But I do wonder if there is some middle ground between these arcticulations about where reviewers should turn. And I like how Elisa Gabbert summed it up on Twitter when she wrote: “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say a review without a block quote is close to worthless. #showyourwork.” Gabbert's hashtag, as I understand it, means: show the poet’s language to substantiate your description of it; i.e., let us in on the critical action so that we might participate in what and how the critic is characterizing and valuing the work at hand. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that so many critics and poets are re-thinking the stakes of criticism, and the future of negative and critical reviewing alike right now, especially in light of the ubuiquity of social media and the increased availability of this kind of prose.

Here is Lee Siegel, from an essay called “Burying the Hatchet,” about giving up writing negative reviews, from The New Yorker last month:

In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim. The very largeness and diversity of present-day audiences make less and less relevant the type of review that never gets beyond the book under review. It’s the critic’s job nowadays not just to try to survive and flourish amid ever-shifting modes of cognition and transmission, but to define new standards that might offer clarity and illumination amid all the change. Quite simply, the book review is dead, and the long review essay centered on a specific book or books is staggering toward extinction. The future lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once.

I want to agree with Gorin and Siegel here; I want to think that some deeper and more capacious kind of critical engagement of poetry and beyond will enlarge the scope of what’s possible for readers (and would-be readers of poetry) as well as for poets.

I think technology and social media keep rearing their heads in these debates because it’s all bound up together: the link to a review in a journal pops up right after the inside jokes, breakfast choices, and links to op-eds about bombing Syria, which are themselves right beside self-promotional drivel, punners punning, and, yes, trolls trolling. Maybe this is precisely why it's now a murkier set of practices, as Silverman says, with a whole different set of expectations. Accustomed as we may be, now, to all these competing discourses, one of the things we're less prepared for is the starkly critical in the midst of it all. As Garner says, “Twitter defangs its smart people. On it, negative words have the same effect as a bat flying into a bridal shower.”

Stupidly enough—I'm reluctant to admit—this whole feature of Evening Will Come was initiated because of an untoward exchange I haplessly initiated with Seth Abramson on Twitter. After reading one of Abramson’s prolix reviews, I tweeted: “Sorry but sometimes the only things more depressing than critics slagging off poetry are Seth Abramson’s defenses of what poets are up to.” Yes, gentle readers, momentarily I descended into a blindingly dull “conversation” (if that's even the word) of this sort online. Abramson responded with considerable restraint, I’ll add.

Then, regretting my foolishness, I channeled a little restraint of my own and invited Abramson (and the others here) to write responses to these questions about reviewing. After yet another petty fracas, I declined to publish Abramson’s q&a here, not to blacklist him from the site, but I’d felt burned at what I deemed to be some below-the-belt comparisons he wrote on our blog about Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptualism. I encouraged him to run his piece on The Huffington Post, where he is a frequent reviewer.

Nevertheless, despite my own good intentions’ tendency to devolve into warped engagement (or vice versa, really), I guess I still have the hope that some useful dialogue might come from critics and poets thinking together. Namely, I’d still like to know what reviewers of poetry might do to expand the horizon of how poems are made, read, distributed, felt, and understood. And hopefully there is something beyond the hatchet jobs that Siegel’s renounced and the vacuous, uncritical hyperbole at work in many reviews of new poetry collections, as Schwabsky and Robbins are apt to point out. The eye-opening VIDA numbers alone show us that the cultural practice of book reviewing—even as it might be diminishing under our noses—has a lot of catching up to do, even just to what’s being published and by whom.