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

James Pollock

1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

This is something I’ve written about at some length in my book You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada, specifically in a piece called “On Criticism: A Self-Interview.”

Any given critic will have a slightly—or greatly—different set of goals from any other. But in my view, to quote from that self-interview,

The critic should aim to be fully, humanly engaged... I mean the critic has got to get inside the poem. She can’t stand on the outside looking at it from a distance through her ideological telescope... She needs to engage not just her reason but her emotion, sensuality and imagination... Criticism, to be good, must be a kind of passionate, imaginative and even sensuous thinking.

2.What’s your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books?

Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews?

There should be more honest reviews. This is another subject I take up in the same self-interview. What I say there is meant to apply primarily to a Canadian context, but is largely applicable elsewhere, too. Here’s a longer excerpt:

[T]he relationship between criticism and poetry is not parasitical, as it is so often accused of being. It’s symbiotic. They need each other.

How do you mean?

You occasionally hear a well-known poet—Anne Carson, for example—complaining that, now that she’s famous, critics don’t really criticize her work anymore. In her Paris Review interview, Carson acknowledges that for a long time editors dismissed her work out of hand, but she adds that, ‘since then there’s been what people call a paradigm shift, which means now you can’t do anything wrong, but which really means people are offering equally blind judgments of the work. I don’t know why that happens. I guess people are just afraid to think. They like to have a category that’s ready so they can say: ‘‘Okay, now we know this is good, we can enjoy it.’’’

She wants an honest critic.

Exactly. Poets like her understand how important good criticism is to their work because they know that fame is no guarantee of good poetry. They want demanding readers. They want to stay good, they want to get better, but without clear-eyed, specific criticism, that can be very difficult for them to do. And in Carson’s case, the lack of honest criticism has been bad for her poetry.

But she’s a celebrated poet. What about someone who’s just published a first book?

It’s the same thing. There are some people, I realize, who think we should all just lie to each other and pretend that everything everybody publishes is good. If a book is bad, they say, we should just ignore it. They don’t realize how condescending this is to the poor bad poet. They would rather let him waste his life writing god-awful verse than give him a chance either to get better or go into a different line of work.

But what’s the harm in encouraging him a little?

You don’t seem to realize how damaging that is to the literary culture. If there are no effective standards of quality, or these standards are kept secret, then poets can’t tell the difference between their good poems and their bad. Poets who might have become great start believing their own blurbs, and think they’re great already. Bad or mediocre poets who might have become good stay bad. And the whole mess breeds cynicism and confusion among readers. The whole literary culture gets cut off from the outside world, until, one day, a critic or anthologist from elsewhere appears, takes a look at the bad poetry everyone says is so wonderful, recoils in horror or shrugs in mystification, and looks elsewhere, unwilling to dig for the good stuff in a culture that doesn’t seem to know what the good stuff is. The job of the critic is to prevent this from happening. Or stop it from happening.

Does the critic have an ethical responsibility?

The critic must be honest. He must say what he thinks. He must ignore the poet’s reputation, her relationship to himself or his friends, the prizes and honors she has won, her status in the literary establishment, not to mention his own career advancement, and anything else that threatens to dissuade him, and tell the truth about the poems. He has a responsibility to his readers, to the poet, to his self-respect, to the field of criticism and the art of poetry, to be an honest judge. Otherwise, he deceives his readers and the poet both, corrupts himself, and damages criticism and poetry within publishing range of his words. It is no trivial transgression. If he hasn’t the courage to be honest he should give up now before anyone else gets hurt.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

The past. And the rest of the world. Too much of our criticism is undermined by a refusal, or inability, to see contemporary poetry in the context of poetry per se, by which I mean, world poetry from antiquity to the present. Many of us seem to want to leave that up to the scholars and academic critics. But criticism of contemporary poetry needs this wider context, too; otherwise the whole literary culture quickly becomes ingrown and provincial. It’s easy to assume that the U.S. is the center of the poetry world, even though that’s not necessarily true. And I won’t be the first to say that, generally speaking, American culture tends to be culturally biased against the past, and that’s deadly for criticism. Cultural amnesia is planned obsolescence.

Many critics—I mean poet-critics—also seem unaware of the wider intellectual context of what they are doing. Either they’re still hypnotized by the postmodern theory that still gets taught in graduate schools—in other words, the intellectual revolution of the 1960s and 70s—or they were so traumatized by their experience of that stuff—Northrop Frye called it “a plague of darkness”—that they’ve written off philosophy altogether. But that leaves their thinking about language and poetic values either calcified in the funhouse world of Derrida and Foucault, or vulnerable to ideological attack from all sides.

It was a wonderfully liberating experience for me when I discovered Charles Taylor and read his clear-eyed take-down of Derrida, and his more-nuanced critique of Foucault, not to mention his eye-opening treatments of the philosophy of language, and much else besides. In an essay in my book You Are Here, called “The Art of Poetry,” I do my part to try to reestablish a connection between criticism and current philosophical thinking about language and poetic values. And by “current thinking” I mean “historically aware.”

4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?

I love well-written criticism that responds to poetry with both intelligence and passion: Joseph Brodsky, for example, and Edward Hirsch, Robert Hass, Helen Vendler, Randall Jarrell, James Dickey, Virginia Woolf.

5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?

It’s impossible. My solution—at least for You Are Here—was to focus on contemporary Canadian poetry, an area I found particularly interesting, and in which I thought I could have some lasting impact. Even a relatively manageable field like that is too big for one critic to keep up with, so I decided in some essays to consider several books by a single poet, and in others to write about anthologies, to give the book both depth and breadth.

6.What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?

I’d suggest they read some of the best criticism they can find from the last hundred years, find some critics they love, and study them to see how they do it. Aim high.

My first review was about an anthology of Canadian poets from my own generation, which helped me to get oriented, to get an overview of what’s out there and find several poets I especially liked. I pitched a review of it to the editor of an online journal specializing in Canadian poetry reviews. (I had a couple of brief reviews I’d published in graduate school, and so I was able to send them to the editor as writing samples.) And then I read the anthology, took notes about my responses, and wrote the review—and rewrote and revised it until I thought it was a strong piece of writing, the best I could make it. The editor of that anthology—the poet and critic Carmine Starnino—contacted me not long after it was published and asked if I’d like to write reviews for Books in Canada, of which he was an editor. And a few years later he edited my book of essays, You Are Here.