1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?
It depends on the audience. A general audience, if there’s still such a thing, needs help “placing” the poetry in its context, both contemporary and historical. And I think critical distance is important—the outside view rather than drumbeating for one’s friends.
For a more specialized audience, the critic can take a more personal position, and of course it’s a special pleasure to introduce readers to poets you think will be winners. I felt that way writing about Sylvia Plath in 1970, Frank O’Hara in 1974, and David Antin’s “talk poems” in 1976. But advocacy can only be based on knowledge and training—knowledge of earlier poetry, of poetic forms, genres, and techniques, and also of what’s going on in the other arts and other languages. To me, impressionism remains the enemy.
My ideal critic remains Hugh Kenner, who could focus on the smallest material details of, say, a William Carlos Williams poem, and show how they worked and why and was also brilliant in describing the cultural context of a given poem. On the other hand, when we look at the poetry of the past, the most interesting—and lasting—reviews are those by fellow poets: Ezra Pound on D. H. Lawrence, Lorine Niedecker on Zukofsky, Donald Davie on Ed Dorn, John Ashbery on Gertrude Stein or Adrienne Rich, Susan Howe on Ian Hamilton Finlay. In these cases, the reviews obviously tell us more about the reviewer than the reviewee, but it cuts both ways and is telling!
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?
The very first book review I ever wrote was back in 1968 or so on Anthony Hecht’s The Hard Hours for an obscure Canadian journal called The Far Point. I tried hard to explain why I thought most of the poems in this book were contrived and unsatisfactory and I haven’t changed my mind. But in those days, there were so many fewer poets and those poets were more widely read so that it was worth taking a potshot at an Anthony Hecht, and people would talk about your review. In the early 70s, I reviewed Robert Lowell’s problematically confessional The Dolphin for The New Republic and got into a lot of trouble! “Everyone” read it and weighed in, and I got some hate mail from family members! Today, by contrast, pretty much anything goes, and so little poetry gets any real attention that there seems little point writing a negative review. But it’s not a matter of positive versus negative. It’s that most reviews I come across don’t say anything: they take what is in front of them as a given and paraphrase it, commenting on the felicitous phrases and delicate insights, and in the end, one still knows little about the book in question.
3.What are other critics overlooking these days?
Well, I’d like to see more critics ask the hard questions of the poetry they review. Why does Jorie Graham use those long lines and set some of them over on the right? Is that a tick or a meaningful gesture? How has John Ashbery’s poetry changed in recent years? In the case of conceptual poetry (now causing such a brouhaha), how is the work in question actually put together, what governs length and word choice? If a poem involves appropriation, why appropriate that particular material? Too often, reviewers depend upon the poet’s statement of intent and ignore what’s actually there on the page (or screen). I still believe, with D. H. Lawrence, “Never trust the artist, trust the tale.” I was taught to avoid the “intentional fallacy.” No matter how often Kenneth Goldsmith declares he is a boring or “uncreative” writer, or how energetically Vanessa Place insists her own feelings are not involved in her work—and these are good old Duchampian and Cagean gestures—the reviewer has to read the text itself!
4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?
I can’t begin to list all the critics I’ve learned from, beginning with Benjamin and Barthes down to Thierry de Duve and Susan Stewart, and a number of my former students, including (what luck!) Craig Dworkin and Brian Reed. But there’s a big difference between criticism and bread-and-butter reviewing. So let me say a word about reviewing journals rather than individual reviewers. I may disagree with most poetry reviews in TLS but I think the quality of reviewing is very high and the editors really do their jobs. The NY Times Book Review is just about worthless, and I never read the oh-so-clever reviews in The New Yorker. When it comes to reviewing, I think the British press is much better than ours: I just read an excellent review in The Guardian of Rachel Galvin’s translation of Raymond Queneau’s Courir les rues. British critics—I am thinking, for example, of John Wilkinson—tend to be more stringent and analytical than our own poetry critics.
5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?
I no longer try to keep up—it’s impossible. I can’t even “keep up” with the small presses I really admire like Ugly Duckling. I think they all publish too much. I understand the dilemma: the Creative Writing faculty need books to get hired, promoted, etc. But the publication glut means that, after a while, the announcement of this or that “new” book no longer seems exciting. Just the same I’m always being introduced—sometimes coincidentally—to exciting new work, most recently by Uljana Wolf, Cia Rinne, and André Vallias.
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 say don’t start reviewing until you have at least some of your own work published and can speak from some position of authority. Otherwise, given the current on-line reviewing glut, who cares what YOU think? At the same time, I think all aspiring critics (whether themselves poets or not), should review scholarly books—it’s good practice in summarizing someone else’s argument and seeing how many critical stances there are. And you learn about other poetic communities outside your own. In the case of poetry reviewing, most mainstream journals don’t let you review your friends—for good reason—but today in little magazines and online, there’s much too much backscratching going on. As for blurbs, I’m beginning to think (although I just wrote one this morning), they should be abolished! They don’t really make any difference and just take up the blurbist’s (and the poet’s!) time. I’d love to see a moratorium on that whole practice.