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I Hate Poetry… Reviews?

By Don Share

180px-horse_parts

Pictured above: not quite a dead horse, but one that looks a little flogged. Randall Jarrell said: “When we read the criticism of any past age, we see immediately that the main thing wrong with it is an astonishing amount of what Eliot calls ‘fools’ approval’; most of the thousands of poets were bad, most of the thousands of critics were bad, and they loved each other.” I know this because William Logan quoted it in an essay republished in his book, Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, reviewed in the June issue of Poetry by Joel Brouwer. Civil tongue, you ask? There’s plenty of hating on and in reviews and criticism these days, as Harriet readers well know. Brouwer is, if I read him right, not happy with the controversy. Looking at the kerfuffle that ensued upon Logan’s dismissal(s) of Hart Crane, for example, he laments that

“not a single fresh thought has come of it. This is because everyone involved has done nothing but reiterate that which they already believed to be true before it began. It is Logan’s utter self-assurance as a critic that makes this kind of stagnation inevitable. A critic must be confident. But when his confidence hardens into certainty, he begins to constrict thought—his own and ours—rather than expand it, which is his job.”

Brouwer’s remarks are well-tempered, so to speak; he is even-handed. So is Steve Burt’s view, from which I dissent, that “it’s not worth writing a negative review of a book that will sink without a trace, which most poetry books do;” another formulation is that “If a review is going to be wholly negative, why give it the journal space? Why not use it for a book that deserves recognition?“  For me, though, this is like saying that doctors should only see healthy patients, and not waste time on sick people. I blogged elsewhere that I think the well-being of poetry, if there can even be such a thing, depends on a critical comprehension of pathology, and not just good health: each state is a function of the other. As it happened, Brouwer commented on the blog thusly:

“I find the medical analogy creepy, Don; it has the potential to lead to a conception of criticism as a form of eugenics. I prefer the idea of criticism as jury duty. Everyone who publishes a book in a given year should be required to review five others published that year. And, as with jury duty, they should hate having to do it. Doing loathsome scut work for the greater good is just another way of saying civil society.

The whole negative/positive reviews conversation is so played. Orwell said everything that needed saying in ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ more than half a century ago. It’s funny how everyone needs to re-agonize over it for themselves; I suspect people are just trying to avoid doing the dishes. Because we all already know the answer(s): Some reviews are useful and some aren’t, and so shall it always be. No one with any sense would wish for all negative reviews, or all positive, or all ‘fair and balanced,’ [Fox News's slogan] or all partisan, or all highbrow or lowbrow or professional or amateur or etc. The usefulness/lessness is in the scrum. Anyone taking the time to say that reviews oughta x or or reviews oughta y is wasting time that could be spent writing one, or, perhaps even better, not.”

That’s reasonable; well, here’s Orwell’s conclusion:

“The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews–1,000 words is a bare minimum–to the few that seem to matter. Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful, but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it. Normally he doesn’t want to write it, and the week-in, week-out production of snippets soon reduces him to the crushed figure in a dressing-gown whom I described at the beginning of this article. However, everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on, and I must say, from experience of both trades, that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home, but has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry.”

I responded to Joel that “eugenics” is a loaded word – I’m not advocating weeding out the bad from the good in poetry or in anything else; my good is your bad, and vice versa. But one has to know the physiology nonetheless. That’s my point, and in fact I’ve argued elsewhere for the great and enduring value of very bad poetry (which I read in enormous quantities). But I think there’s much to assent to in Joel’s remarks, particularly with regard to “civil society,” which does seem to be vanishing (like sherry-drinking and dressing gowns)… assuming it ever existed, that is.

Joel replied:

“I don’t think, by the way, that Orwell means for his essay to be read entirely seriously, either. He paints a picture of the reviewer as a soulless hack, but don’t you think we’re also supposed to understand that there’s a kind of nobility in the reviewer’s Quixotic quest to find the one or three good books in the heap? If we keep in mind that Orwell himself wrote hundreds of book reviews in his time, we might read this essay not as a condemnation — or not *only* a condemnation — of the reviewer’s trade, but as a kind of grim celebration of it. Even executioners and plastic surgeons have to be allowed to take *some* kind of pride in their work, no?”

Just so.

Comment boxes don’t bring out the best in people, and our dialogue was interrupted by the usual vandalism, which I hope (against hope?) will be avoided here. But Brouwer gives us much to think on; as he concludes in his Poetry piece,

Poetry changes. (It doesn’t evolve, by the way, like a monkey discovering a better way to peel bananas; it changes, like a monkey discovering that bananas are delicious.) You may think that fact happy or sad, but it’s a fact either way. In the face of it, the critic can elect to live in the past, or take up the task of creating the taste by which the present is to be enjoyed.”

Another completely reasonable and useful way to look at it comes from Poetry contributor George Szirtes; I’ll leave you with his remarks from the Magma blog in the UK, which has a thread called, “What Kind of Poetry Reviews Do You Want?“:

“It is relatively easy and cheap today to produce a book as object. The chief problems are distribution and notice. On most occasions I have been asked to review specific books, on some rarer occasions I have asked to do a book because I feared it would be overlooked otherwise and that it deserved serious attention. Very occasionally it may be worth doing a book that seems to the reviewer to be grotesquely overrated elsewhere.

What I want from a poetry review is intelligence and an attempt on the reviewer’s part to understand the work discussed, sympathetically if possible, but critically too. I want the review to be honest, to declare its hand if it has a hand to declare. Quotation is vital, if always inadequate, but it should illustrate some point being made. I want the review to be good, informed personal but considered writing, a literate serious conversation of which the reviewed book and the questions it raises is the subject. I want to take pleasure in the reading of it but not at the expense of honesty, generosity and intelligence.

I don’t want to be talked down to by a review. I don’t want cosy chat. I don’t want sheer territorialism and bullying. The occasional dash of fury is fine providing it is understood why there is fury. Passion can be honest even when wrong.

And in the end, a review is not the be all and end all. Byron thought Keats had been killed by a bad review. Later he found out he was wrong.”

Not a dead horse in sight, there…

Comments (49)

  • On June 4, 2009 at 12:46 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    “it’s not worth writing a negative review of a book that will sink without a trace, which most poetry books do” -

    Stephen’s thought is a kind of negative I find quietly destructive. I don’t think anyone can speak so confidently of anything – ie the future of most poetry books and then want to be the angel of the category. That seems a little grandiose to me. I like to act like we’re in the real world, or a real world when I write about poetry. Considering the context, considering the size of the career, looking at the work and then moving towards it with glee and passion.Some work sucks and rather than making a career of trashing work or not I think poetry deserves some prominent public speakers and reviewing is a form of speech. The partisan reviewer who only writes about what she or he considers poetry, or the fiend like what’s his name who likes to trash O’Hara and Hart Crane and gets celebrated for it both seem like forms of insularity. There can’t be a public discourse about an art form if we don’t act like it’s public. So at least in my ideal public we don’t protect poetry from its own fraility. It sounds like an idea of women. Not a female form but a feminized one. Poetry does not need good daddies. And mommies.

  • On June 4, 2009 at 12:52 pm Don Share wrote:

    “There can’t be a public discourse about an art form if we don’t act like it’s public. So at least in my ideal public we don’t protect poetry from its own fraility.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen this expressed so well! Thank you, Eileen.

  • On June 4, 2009 at 12:58 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I like Eileen’s comments too. Also, I haven’t noticed in these discussions (though maybe I missed it) the idea that a poetry book review can be strongly positive, strongly negative, carefully evaluative, and explicitly tentative, preliminary, inconclusive – all at the same time. Poems & artworks (& books of poems especially) can be extremely complex & multidimensional. They can have their very good & their very bad aspects, & yet still be pretty good or even very good or even great.

    The whole positive/negative thing : once again we are thinking like rusty computers.

  • On June 4, 2009 at 1:09 pm Daniel E. Pritchard wrote:

    “Everyone who publishes a book in a given year should be required to review five others published that year.”

    This idea is indicative of the echo chamber that modern poetry reviews have become, and is one already very much in practice. One poet talks to all the other poets, being the only people who still read poetry. What we need are intelligent, informed, articulate critics with no interest in writing poetry at all; people who enjoy reading but don’t have a horse in the race (to continue the equine analogy). I say this being fully aware that I myself am a critic who wrote poetry before I wrote reviews, self-condemned to be just another echo.

    Where is the voice of the disinterested reader of poetry today? The one not taken in by appreciation of a craftsman employing his skill in public? Maybe I’m just missing them.

  • On June 4, 2009 at 1:47 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    Stimulating thread here.

    One of the features I have enjoyed (in the wake of Mr. Pritchard’s comment), was one that Poetry did early on where there was prose on poetry by non-poets. I’m remembering the piece by Director of the Art Institute (Cuno?).

    The only two cents I would add to this topic, which is often overlooked, is the phenomena whereby—by design or otherwise—books of poetry from a particular community are met with silence: that is: no review at all. If we think of the book review sections of journals as time capsules of sorts, I think the least we could aspire to is to present an accurate snapshot of the kinds of poetry being written in any particular period—both the good and less good. Who decides to take on the various roles this task requires is another story. Bottom line, in my view: the more various the landscape the better.

  • On June 4, 2009 at 2:16 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I like Don’s medical analogy. That nails it.

    But as for these discussions in general, they tend to be rather bloodless when no examples are forthcoming. (Someone did mention Logan on Crane–but Crane’s dead.)

    What are the top ten Negative Reviews of All Time?

    What is to admire in them? Did they make anything happen?

    What are the top ten Positive Reviews of All Time?

    What is to admire in them? Did they make anything happen?

  • On June 4, 2009 at 2:29 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Any critic, whether kindly like Stephen Burt or combative like William Logan, is a fool if he thinks he must “take up the task of creating [...] taste,” as Brouwer puts it.

    First, taste is created by artists and their audiences; this is why books that “sink without a trace” (the early work of Williams, for example) often bob to the surface a generation later, when the audience the writer was unconsciously writing for has come into existence. Obviously, critics participate in the process: contemporary critics help sink the book, and subsequent critics help resurrect it. But if the audience has not appeared that can appreciate the book, no injection of criticism can give them a taste for it. I’m no literary historian, but my sense of reality is that fellow writers—contemporaries and subsequent aficionados—have much more to do with the survival of excellent work than critics do. At least in earlier days critics derived much of their own taste from social gatherings where writers drank and fought over writers they cared about. Now, of course, most critics meet writers only when they visit their campus, making for a comparatively shrunken pool of information about neglected genius.

    Second, the days when literary critics had some kind of general influence are long gone, because interest in literature is long gone; this is why the best criticism arises in the areas of film and music, which are the only “general interest” arts we have. If a critic can create taste, it will be only among a vanishingly small minority of writers and readers.

    Finally, I just wanted to take issue with an assumption underlying Don’s argument with Burt over whether or not to bother writing negative reviews. Don replied, “For me, though, this is like saying that doctors should only see healthy patients, and not waste time on sick people.” The day when a critic can heal a writer’s work is the day you’ll be able to hear hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen just over the hill….

  • On June 4, 2009 at 2:31 pm Don Share wrote:

    If criticism hasn’t got a salutary effect… what is it good for?

  • On June 4, 2009 at 2:45 pm michael robbins wrote:

    It certainly matters whether the book to be savaged is by someone of reputation. Didn’t Burt say he didn’t bother with negative reviews of relative unknowns? A negative review on the other hand of Billy Collins or (ahem) J. D. McClatchy can do real service, can sometimes present partisans with arguments they hadn’t considered that lead them to change their minds, or can force partisans to sharpen their own defenses (as have the many negative reviews I’ve read of Ashbery over the years).

    I read reviews for one or more of three reasons: to see if I like a book (& here I read mostly for the quotes), to see what someone else thought about a book I like or don’t, to follow a certain critic’s style (obviously these are not mutually exclusive). I read anything William Logan writes though I rarely agree with him (although I think he scored many serious points against Hart Crane, whose work I cherish — hard to disagree with his take on “Chaplinesque,” a poem I love nevertheless; that review & its follow-up brought out the insipid worst in Logan’s detractors, who were forced to advocate reviewing protocols they themselves ignore or recognize as impractical).

  • On June 4, 2009 at 3:01 pm michael robbins wrote:

    the fiend like what’s his name who likes to trash O’Hara and Hart Crane and gets celebrated for it

    But this simplifies Logan’s work, which is among the best criticism now being written — because it’s being written, not cobbled together from iPhone blurbspeak apps. The O’Hara piece is not to my mind one of his most convincing, but the Crane review wouldn’t be “celebrated” (I think it was mostly trashed) if all it did was “trash” Crane — it actually presents some solid considerations about the work & does so with style.

    For me, the question of who’s in or out is unimportant. Logan’s aesthetic biases are so many glitters on the waves. Sure, he trashes great poets. Great trashmen have always had their place. But he is as well known, or should be, for his defenses of great poets, especially Geoffrey Hill.

    This isn’t to deny he has a schtick — who don’t? I for one am glad he clears some brush, even if sometimes he mistakes for brush the trees themselves.

    Trash, won’t pick it up
    Don’t take them lights away
    And please don’t ask me if I love you
    Cuz I don’t know if I do!

  • On June 4, 2009 at 3:09 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Don,

    Of related interest– Magma blog, one of the main UK poetry sites, has a recent article on negative reviewing and the Mayday forum (written by Rob MacKenzie). There is a long, very interesting discussion thread beneath, wherein you and Burt and Fried and others in the forum are mentioned.

    Kent

  • On June 4, 2009 at 3:10 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Meant to post the link:

    http://magmapoetry.com/poetry-reviews/

    Kent

  • On June 4, 2009 at 3:30 pm Don Share wrote:

    I aleady mentioned it above, Kent, and linked it in the Szirtes remark!

  • On June 4, 2009 at 3:38 pm Don Share wrote:

    Oh, and… “the fiend” strikes again:

    “Verse Chronicle” by William Logan –

    On Ballistics by Billy Collins; Selected Poems by Thom Gunn, edited by August Kleinzahler; Substrate by Jim A. Powell; The Mind-Body Problem by Katha Pollitt; Sonata Mulattica by Rita Dove; and It Is Daylight by Arda Collins.

    Click here.

  • On June 4, 2009 at 4:04 pm Matt wrote:

    The best poetry review venue anywhere:

    http://thehomevideoreviewofbooks.blogspot.com/

  • On June 4, 2009 at 4:06 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    .
    For You Not Yet

    As I write, right now, your mother
    is the size of a pea.
    She will grow and be born
    and not hear of me.
    You at this time
    do not even exist and only
    by luck and grace will you be
    if your mother survives
    and gets married.
    But I write not for your mother
    or even right now.
    Now knows nothing of me.
    Now knows not what I do.
    I write for tomorrow, for they
    not yet here.
    I have written for you.

    .
    Copyright 2009 – Tall Grass & High Waves, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On June 4, 2009 at 4:20 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Thanks for that link, Don. The man can zap. Fun to read!

  • On June 4, 2009 at 4:48 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Desmond Swords,

    You quoted me on Magma. Thank you, kindly.

    Thomas

  • On June 4, 2009 at 5:00 pm Don Share wrote:

    Indeed. In fact, Craig Santos Perez, says this:

    “it’s interesting that the whining bitching and moaning all started with some ‘white’ poet named jason guriel reviewing 3 other white poets and then another ‘white’ poet, kent johnson, responding and asking many other ‘white’ poets to respond. ok ok, i dont mean to flatten all their responses or racialized experiences, but seriously none of these people really explore why the majority of reviews written are reviews of ‘white’ poets! why is that? Unlike most journals, Galatea & Latino Poetry Review provide ample reviews of ‘ethnic’ poets.”

  • On June 4, 2009 at 5:09 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    William Logan has spent a career specialising in the equivalent of cage-fighting critical demolition – what Kavanagh called in his poem Prelude, the unfuitful prayer of satire.

    He is a laughably transparent critical hypocrite. When reviewing the Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones interviews and Heaney generally, he deploys the word cunning a lot with a perjorative slant, stating:

    “The slyest moments here are his backhanded judgments on fellow poets”

    …before indulging in the exact same practice:

    “The richness of these interviews comes in part from the weakness of character inadvertently revealed. A poetry of warmth and humility has been drawn around a personality at times icy with conceit.”

    The obvious statement to make about Logan’s style is that he has made a name for himself as a boot-boy, applying the sneeriest of standards to others, when his own poetry is of fare poorer quality than most of the people he slates.

    Henry Lloyd Moon, a regular poster responding on the guardian books blog, in a recent worshipful blog by John Sutherland blowing Martin Amis – could equally be referring to Logan’s overblown standing:

    “It’s like laughing along with the worldly but weedy class show-off.

    Poet manque Logan, is clearly more of a comedian than critic, a professional and outrageously readable troll whose glaring fault is that for all his material comfort, he is essentially unfulfilled in the role of poet, because no Joy ever passes from his lips. The simple humble human state of being in awe and wonder with the divine, is something which has totally passed this doggerelist of awful, plodding ditties by.

    Working with only half the ingrediants in the poetry kit-bag, the fi of toxic satire and none of the li of splendour in praise which make up a real fili (poet).

    Here’s a short few lines from the resident know all whose mediocrity knows no bounds:

    After the Blitz, her mother had begun an affair. So she said.
    No one would have called her wellbred,

    but she knew how to fill a low-cut dress,
    had a fetching smile and a tongue for success.

    …and on and on ad finitum, deploying all the plodding amateur rhyming skills and poetic intelligence he lambasts the targets of his critcial misanthropy for displaying.

    I read an extract from Our Savage Art recently, liitered with allusions and references to figures from Greek myth, as Logan tried to strike a balance between being bare-knuckle bore and belabouring his points about the fine art of Criticism, seemingly blind to the irony, that most exampled of what he is saying about all the poetaster critics of yesteryear – are equally applicable to himself:

    “Blackmur, who, though a brilliant critic, was a dreadful poet.”

    …and quoting Coleridge:

    ..a critic most hates those who excel in the particular depart­ment in which he, the critic, has notoriously been defeated..

    The problem with aging two-dimensional ditty makers who have little in the way of poetic talent and lots in the way of attitude, who fall into safe comfortable numbers as the jolly pit-bull critic sneering at all and sundry – is that eventually they become spent grumps and arte finished off when a far younger wit enters the ring and knocks them out with the first blow.

    I have stated before, i am keen to debate, with or without gloves, with Logan anywhere at all, but i do not think he has the courage to face me, because he knows i am far superior in both intellect and artistry than he.

    WB Logan is a joker, a fake, no more a poet than i’m a tree who’s a planet or a moon fully Spanish, more, he’s a weedy armchair Rambo who’s gob dribbles for the Pop Idol generation of second rate ditty readers.

    William Logan. Critic manque, forgettable ditty maker>

    RIP

  • On June 4, 2009 at 5:25 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    Yeah Tom, i stick with my principles, and you only need two people speaking sense either side of the puddle to have a heck of a good time watching the big name bores fall and the whole critical apparatus re-jig itself to accomodate the new minds.

    my next goal is to put some manners on Logan, make him eat humble pie, get him apologising and promising to change.

    If you’re reading Logan, apologise to all the poets you have been unfair to and i will forgive you.

  • On June 4, 2009 at 9:36 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Back around 1973, I was a fire-eater. Len Fulton gave me a pile of new California poetry books for Small Press Review, I don’t remember all of them. I know I praised James Koller’s Coyote Poems, but this one guy really pushed my buttons. For one thing, he had just won the Yale Younger poets, which meant that he was Academic, and it also meant I hadn’t won it. I nit-picked that he described manzanita as dark green, when it’s usually light green. I didn’t like the way he stumbled around into the poems and… the book was Field Guide, by Robert Hass.

    Ten or twelve years later, I sent Bob Hass a postcard. I was wrong, I said, I was sorry. The poem that changed my mind was Meditation at Lagunitas. Anyway, Bob and I got together for coffee. He confessed that he had been crushed at the time, because mine was the first review of Field Guide, and that he had always tried his best to dislike me. Since then, well, we get along.

    On my long travels down through Latin America, folks would ask what’s happening it North American poetry, and I would say, there’s the Language poets, but they’re unreadable, and then there’s Meditation at Lagunitas, which by that time I knew almost by heart in either Spanish or English. Zarzamora, zarzamora, zarzamora.

  • On June 5, 2009 at 2:41 pm Latino Poetry Review wrote:

    To pick up on Craig Santos Perez’s comment earlier which Don shared with us:

    John Oliver Simon, for what it’s worth, was one of the first poet-critics to recognize and REVIEW the work, over twenty years ago, of the poet who who co-won the National Book Critics Circle Award recently for his New and Selected: Juan Felipe Herrera.

    Thanks John. It was nice seeing you in Berkeley this past February. Thank you for coming out to The Wind Shifts reading at Moe’s

    FA

  • On June 5, 2009 at 3:42 pm david baptistechirot wrote:

    Something i find very interesting in the discussion is that almost the same issues were first being raised by Edgar Alan Poe in the 1840′s. Poe was the original :Tommy Hawk Man,: feared for his merciless reviews in which the poetry was torn to shreds not by invective but by Poe’s patented “inductive” and “logical” approaches to the questions first of all, of Grammar.
    (In In the American Grain’s final chapter, it is Poe’s abilities as a critic, “clearing the ground,” that WC Williams turns.)
    note:

    due to work schedule and this already being solong i left aside a number of other suggestion such as re fiction and drama elements
    used in a reiew
    If the same questions are being raised in both 1840′s and 2009 American poetics with regard to reviews of poetry, many ideas come to mind for sure!
    One of them being the kind of ahistoricty which has long been part of the formalist Poetics in the US, in contradistinction to what one might call the Hieroglyphic tradition which moves from the disparate geniuses of Poe and Emerson through Whitman, Thoreau, Melville and finds its way via Ezra Pound to Olson. And Paul Metcalf, and the early Susan Howe.

    The Formalist eschews history—while the Hieroglyphian so to speak– embraces it—
    Even when it is a made up or mistranslated, misunderstood misreading which for al its screwiness produces ever more lines of poetry reaching out in to ever more rhizomatic lines of flight

    Reading most poetry reviews, i am struck by how little historical presence and context is brought up, as though the poetry takes place in an abstract, formal sphere quite cut off from either Emerson or Poe, not to mention many other persistent yet marginalized strands–that of the Anarchists, Rexroth to some degree, Patchen, Theodore Enslin–
    And the New England School of Brevity one finds moving through Emily Dickinson into Creeley and Larry Eigner

    And in this narrow ahistorical space as it attempts to turn historical –what happens but that the formerly banished “self” returns and takes up the formerly despised private sphere and al the worries and narcissism of poets . . . watch and listen as the austere Language and other avant schools find themselves embracing al the elements of the dread school of quietude—melding with them-=-meeting with them and joining the country club atmosphere of mainstream magazines–

    There are to be sure many other strands which run through historical time and permeate certain areas of American poetry with the grace of underground waters–

    Having been a reviewer some twenty or so years ago, primarily of films and music and less so of writing, books–one can make distinctions among the failure or success by an author in any media in the context of what within that particular’s artists’ strands they are trying to create.

    This is why the basic elements which WCW sees Poe making such a monstrous to-do about is so crucial–he is trying to give a sense of rigor to what is –and still is–the often incredible slackness of poetry in terms of grammar alone.

    I think that the approach which sees rather hilariously the same issues at their most watered down that Poe observed–between those of puffery and those of the maledictions Poe himself casts upon the doughy and rising pudding—continuing rather placidly along, one observes the enduring strictures and Manichean divisions of an either /or mentality, which greatly limits the various approaches in their extensions and depths that one may be able to deduce from these.

    Among the recommendations Kent Johnson suggests for ameliorating the “current condition” (the long term “current” of it from Poe to the present not being taken into consideration–)—are anonymity and satire, the latter of which he suggests English templates for—

    Yes—that long enduring figure–the anonymous author, the anonymous reviewer–in what way is one thinking of anonymity however—as simply the lack of an author’s name, or perhaps going further, a deliberate anonymity of style, in which as little as a possible of a personality who may be identifiable across several reviews is allowed to exist.

    Of course, many a person would at this point recommend the by now rather tired trope of the machine-poet, cheerfully manufacturing lines from the detritus fed into , passing through it,–and which, as always happens, does not remain anonymous for very long, sooner or later al robots acquire a name and distinct personality–

    A writer may be anonymous, yet at the same time recognized, via style, mannerisms, the works alluded to or being compared with—
    Every bit and even more—perhaps?– than a robot–poet is–

    The issue of satire comes up also in Kent Johnson’s critique, yet how long would this really be allowed to go on? Persons would take offense quite early on in to this new Open Form, as Wide Open as the open Range, as after all not al that many poets are blessed with a sense of the ridiculous and especially not when it is epitomized as themselves-being the most ridiculous of all—

    In the first place the whole undertaking needs to be revolutionized by the imagaintion–perhaps to write of contemporary poetry books in the manner of Edgar Poe–
    Or to write in the happy manner of those wonderful reviews of Leaves of Grass which Walt Whitman under various psuedononmys penned him–

    Why not use one’s own principles and standards to review one’s own book–???

    Another method i have been working on is that of taking a work, especially if it not one of the better productions of the poet, and stripping it for parts basically in order to make out of this sorry smashed machine and “shell of a society” something truly refreshing and energetic and–not at al conforming to any of the rules that the original had tried to set down for itself and others. ..

    One could produce such a negentropic example and then run it across the bridge of one’s own translations not as oneself so to speak but playing the character of a malevolent swashbuckling opportunist, say–stealing off the volume and translating the improved one has made–into another language in which it will not be recognized as the former work, but taken to be a completely new work

    Following on this success, one may then reverse engineer the translations back into the original language as a distanced version, a distant cousin, of the translation and original both–

    It is not the poet or the poetry that “disappears” under the various guises of these pseudonyms, these anonymous turns made by an actor adept at concealing his or her identity in the faultless portrayal of smaller parts—

    No, it is not that these disappear or are dead, it is that they are now performing—are actors—may indeed become distant cousins of that greatest of poet actors/writers/directors—the part of Richard the Third which Shakespeare wrote as a Globe theater unto himself—entering the stage and confiding in the audience how he shall control the events to follow by the wicked imagings and coldly crafted machinations of his forceful will and desire . . . His a kingdom constructed at first out of asides, confidentialities, to the audience—the quick, sure sketching out of both acting and actions to take place on the historical “Global” stages of action—

    And this actor writing his actions for the audience to know ahead of time what they are to be and still astounded at how Richard brings these events off—this Richard playing the role of director, scene changer, prompter, spontaneous reviser of his own texts in full play—during the drama raking off into evermore actions and words which are completely “in character” and just as completely the character going “outside of his self, losing his character—as a King suddenly booted out of the “King’s men” troop of actors to which Shakespeare beloonged—
    And finding himself horseless, doomed, crying piteously into the havoc of battle that drowns his words out except to be remembered with relish—by the victors—which is in actuality the very audience now watching the play–
    Rather than being swamped and suffocated under the sheer tonnage and volume of the bad poems, as well as the mediocties and the near missed not to mention a number of “glorious but failed endeavors–”–

    The project here is not to review the book, but to rewrite it–reimagine it from the shards and fragments which one has glimpsed amidst the teeming swarms of Possibilities–

    In the travel literature of the 18th century, such translations and editions as i described were indeed produced by single individuals, who simply donned a different identity with each new versions being produced
    in this manner one began with the haphazard quilting designs of the original work which in itself may be original in only the methods used to suture together already existing texts, many of thethemslvesbootleddandplagairexedbowdlerixedfrompreviouseditions,tranlstedpoorlilyandthenonceagaintrnbaslatedwithanevermoreoutrageouselan–

    The18thceturyinEuropewaslitteredwithafantastic literature of thoroughly astounding hyrbird, withso many approaches all mixed together its not “montage “or “collage” that is produced at all, but a swarm–

    These rather stretchy travelogues of course found their greatest sources in the then not so well defined and explored Americas lands filed in with al manner of nester, gigantic persons or small–and al manner of animals flowers insects and birds–and truly prodigious feats of creation on the part of Mother Nature herself, in the guise of al these seemingly endless mountain’s plains, the colossal rivers, the gigantic lakes–

    The place in itself practically called out to be turned into that early classic American genre–the tall Tale, the Bunyanesqe “stretcher” as lies were called at the time–

    perhaps what i am writing of is not so much reviewing at al but a reinvigorating process using the mulched decaying rotting elements poems blowing about like those crazy quilt parchments found in Egyptian dumps, which when unraveled reveal themselves to be a copy of a missing and hitherto unknown poem of Sappho’s–
    or perhaps a bad attempt at an imitation turrned into a plagerization of some other poet’s lines to try to “improve” the failed parts and bring them up to snuff with the “good”–
    Of course this may be much easier to accomplish and attempt if one follows a method suggested recently by Pierre Bayard, in which to really review a writer to really understand them one takes the absolute worst works of great writers–and uses them to begin to construct this other “might have been” edifice which it was most patently not–and at the time existed as the messy swarm from which eventually the honey of the great works emerged–

    Al of this would indeed be a real challenge considering the extents to which many American poets and forms of poetry try to make themselves go–

    Really one begins to wonder if every word written to day is in fact its exact opposite in the Grand Orwellian manner of 2+ 2 +5 and “war=peace,” love=hate”–

    The double talk of double standards applied to the conditions of the world and their existences in language has increasing made gnarled, garbled, terrifying and hilarious much of the utterances of anyone anymore–

  • On June 5, 2009 at 4:51 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Qua?

  • On June 5, 2009 at 5:25 pm thomas brady wrote:

    David B.,

    You mention Poe as America’s first fearsome reviewer, and he was.

    Poe was an idependent writer who sought to elevate American Letters by attacking both slavish imitation of Britain AND puffery of books just because they were American. Poe demolished cliques no matter where they were.

    The reason we haven’t had a Poe since 1849 is because Modernism was naturally against the sort of rigor Poe espoused; Poe and Modernism were natural enemies, and we should therfore see that Modernist poets (Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Winters) as a rule attacked Poe–and they did. Williams, who based his identity on a hatred of T.S. Eliot, probably grabbed onto Poe because he was American, but I just can’t see Poe and Williams together at all.

    The triumph of Modernism has seen the suppression of Poe as critic (he carries on more or less as a Vincent Price character); it couldn’t have been any other way. Modernism and Poe simply cannot exist together. This does not mean that Poe is not actually more modern than Modernism, but the two as critical movements are antithetical.

    William Logan is actually beholden to High Modernism, so he’s actually no Poe, either.

    Also the rise of the creative writing program has meant that we NURTURE poets and poetry, not pull a Poe on them.

    Louis Menand in the latest New Yorker (June 8 & 15) rings some foetry thunder in discussing Creative Writing Programs, as he reviews a new book, ‘The Program Era’ (Harvard) by Mark McGurl.

    In the article, Menand quotes the founder of the A.W.P., Verlin Cassill, speaking at the organization’s 15th anniversary convention in Boston in 1982 (this is not in McGurl’s book):

    “We are now at the point where writing programs are poisoning, and in turn we are being poisoned by, departments and institutions on which we have fastened them.”

    Cassill wanted to disband the A.W.P. the organization he founded.

    (It’s now called the A.W.W.P.)

    Menand writes:

    “He [Cassill] thought that writers had become complicit in the academic logrolling and gamesmanship of publish-or-perish: using other people’s money—grants from their universities and from arts agencies—they devised ways to get their own and one another’s work into print, and then converted those publications into salary increments…They wrote poems to get raises.”

    Menand quickly drops this line of inquiry, however, and agrees with McGurl that creative writing programs may be a “scandal,” but a “scandal that suits everyone.”

    Mendand and McGurl both argue that the business model of the creative-writing program is good for writing and good for the writer not because they teach people how to write—and creative-writing programs admit this–but because (here is the great unspoken trump card of success) creative-writing programs are dense models of highly socialized, self-conscious human existence which teach management presentation skills in an open-ended, non-institutional setting in a degree-granting institution.

    McGurl’s book deals with fiction, not poetry. Fiction is far less interesting to me because Fiction 1) imitates real life 2) was not ruined by a small clique of Modernists 3) is not suffering a crisis of identity and 4) it sells. The art of the short story has not changed much since Hawthorne and Poe. Fiction, like the movies, hasn’t been touched by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rimbaud, William James, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Yvor Winters, Charles Olson, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Harold Bloom, Marjorie Perloff, or Ron Silliman. Fiction is not quietly killing minds as poetry has been for years now.

    Menand mentions Allen Tate’s writing program at Princeton and Engle/Schramm at Iowa, but does not bother with John Crowe Ransom, the Fugitives, the New Critics, and the amazing story of how Modernist poets took over the university so suddenly in mid-century.

    The amazing story of 20th century American poetry isn’t going to show up on any mainstream radar screens–perhaps until some Fiction workshop graduate puts it into a work of fiction.

    So the rise of the Creative-Writing Program in Letters is another reason the ‘Poe Review’ has been banished.

    Modern poetry has expanded to include all sorts of experimental discursiveness that WILL NOT be judged by any sort of standard. Modernism sought to discredit and BE SAFE FROM Poe at the same time, and has succeeded wildly.
    One example of this is when discussing VERSE, which is STILL an interest to us, even in the modern age, no one ever refers to Poe’s ‘Rationale Of Verse,’ the best work on the subject.

    Anyway, there’s my lengthy reply to your lengthy comment!

    Thomas

  • On June 5, 2009 at 5:45 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    On the one hand, critics are called upon to judge, discern, separate wheat and chaff, etc., because if there is no judgment — none at all — then how are we to know which to include in the Norton anthology: “Here I sit / Brokenhearted / Tried to shit / Only farted” or “The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree // Has given my heart / A change of mood / And saved some part / Of a day I had rued”?

    On the other hand, critics are called upon to acknowledge, as you put it, Don, that “my good may be your bad, and vice-versa,” in order to ensure that they’re not marginalizing anyone unfairly based on bias or bigotry, not penalizing the new merely for its newness, etc.

    So if critics fail to judge we’re damned as acquiescent and/or useless and if we judge we’re damned as inflexible and/or reactionary. There are a few easy ways out of, or around the dilemma, though.

    1. Don’t write criticism yourself. Instead criticize people who do. You’ll look smart and you don’t risk a thing.

    2. Describe rather than evaluate. The poems in the book are about such and such, they look like this, they sound like that. Try to create the appearance of taking no position; not even the position of not taking a position. I guarantee there will be no grouchy letters to the editor.

    3. Make like you’re putting the book through grueling tests of strength, and then say it’s a terrific book. This will satisfy your audience’s requirement for rigor, but also avoid any chance of alienating anyone at all. (This one’s the trickiest, because it can result in a genuine review that has the appearance of a hack job or vice-versa.)

    If you insist on making life difficult for yourself, you can try instead to write reviews which judge without being judgmental and admit uncertainty without being spineless. You’ll fail at it, but you might learn something in the doing of it, and others might learn something too.

    Reading Orwell’s essays used to drive me crazy, because he’d convince me of something in one and then convince me of the opposite in the next. I’ve since realized that’s precisely their value. Good criticism doesn’t do your thinking for you; it provokes you to think about the thing more vigorously and rigorously than you otherwise would. (Good creative writing classes, incidentally, work the same way.)

  • On June 5, 2009 at 6:45 pm thomas graves wrote:

    The Magma blog did have a few posters who asked that poetry reviews quote more samples from the text, and here I wholly concur. I have seen so many reviews, highly discursive, which hardly quote from the poetry they are reviewing–which is MOST unfortunate.

    A reviewer, whenever possible, should quote liberally from that which pleases and does not please them.

    This 1) allows the reader to see for himself what the poet is up to.

    2) Allows the reader to see precisely what the reviewer likes and dislikes.

    This is win-win, because the reader can now judge both poet and reviewer sufficiently, and yet VERY few poetry reviews quote liberally, pro and con from the text under review.

    As long as this is done, the review will be a ‘success.’ An essay need not accompany such a review, and if it does, it will earn its stripes–or not–in the context of liberal quotation.

    A reviewer who followed this practice of liberal quotation was–Edgar Poe.

  • On June 5, 2009 at 9:46 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I nominate you, Mr. Brouwer, for the ‘Post of the month’ award, maybe even ‘Post of the Year’. Thank you for the most reasonable, intelligent and eye-opening post I’ve read in ages. I have always been antagonistic toward critics. You have changed my mind.

    Poets are a lot like fighter pilots: solitary, highly trained and skilled, yet all alone in mortal combat in the insubstantial skies. The best any fighter pilot can hope for is that, if bested, the other pilot will have the respect for their profession to salute his enemy as he crashes to earth in flames.

  • On June 5, 2009 at 9:58 pm Don Share wrote:

    For the young folks among us, there’s an interesting history to the first poem Joel mentions; in the era (now thankfully long forgotten, at least in the U.S.) of pay toilets, the last couplet read: “Paid a dime / Only farted.”

    Seriously, thank you, Joel, for this. I really think people don’t understand what goes into the actual writing of criticism, a subject well worth bringing up, money needing to be put where mouths are and so on.

  • On June 6, 2009 at 4:59 am john wrote:

    I’ve never forgotten “Mad” magazine’s parody of the pay-toilet graffiti-poem, decades ago, in a compilation of revisions to common graffiti writings, making them nice.

    Here I sit happy-hearted
    Talks on Mideast peace have started

    I’d love to have seen that written on a bathroom wall.

  • On June 7, 2009 at 7:11 am George Szirtes wrote:

    My second book was reviewed by John Lucas, who weighed it up, evidently thought it worthwhile, but pointed out an utterly flat line I had failed to notice. The man was clearly right. He did not do so in order to squash the life out of me – he was very prominent as a critic (and a very fine one) and I was a poet early in my career so he might have done a little squashing – but because he thought it was a flaw. Which it was. Ever since then I have listened much more carefully, as best I can. It was an education which said: Read it out loud, every time, preferably with someone else listening. Listen, listen and listen. Never stop listening.

    Of the same book another reviewer wrote that the simile “growling like a dog behind gates” was banal, but failed to mention that it was the sea that was being talked about which, I thought, made a considerable difference. I took the man simply to be stupid and ignored him.

    It is possible to ignore the stupid. Eventually most people do.

  • On June 7, 2009 at 2:52 pm Melissa Price wrote:

    Hi Don,

    1.) Excellent piece. Especially:
    I don’t want to be talked down to by a review. I don’t want cosy chat. I don’t want sheer territorialism and bullying. The occasional dash of fury is fine providing it is understood why there is fury. Passion can be honest even when wrong.

    And in the end, a review is not the be all and end all. Byron thought Keats had been killed by a bad review. Later he found out he was wrong.”

    2.) Did we work together at Partisan? Is this you?

    3.) Hello! Hope you’re well. (Because I’m guessing this is you, only wiser.)

    Best,
    Melissa

  • On June 7, 2009 at 6:30 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I asked up-thread for the 10 best Negative and Positive reviews of all time. It seems there is no canon of great poetry reviews. Reviews don’t make or break poets. Yale Younger picks seem to make much more difference, for instance. People really don’t follow reviews. That says something, I think. One exception of a review that mattered may be Poe’s review of Channing.

  • On June 9, 2009 at 2:57 am Eileen Myles wrote:

    But this simplifies Logan’s work, which is among the best criticism now being written — because it’s being written, not cobbled together from iPhone blurbspeak apps.

    Cmon Michael you can’t believe Logan’s writing among the best criticism being written…and then try and make your comparison by citing what i-phone blurbspeak aps. That doesn’t even make sense. Now we cheer cause Logan’s writing. He’s like the Camillie Paglia of poetry reviewing. The mainstream finds a pitbull who pisses a lot of people off and he gets declared edgy or bold or truthful when he’s just a high-toned homophobe with very little knowledge of the real landscape. I agree w F. Aragon that to have a reviewer with some commitement to writing about all or at least more of the poetry written in a time would be tremendously meaningful and valuable.

  • On June 9, 2009 at 7:13 am Jordan wrote:

    Camille Paglia put Shelly Kraut in her book, Eileen.

    Logan is flawed. We’re all flawed. He’s worth reading. I don’t expect him to write well on O’Hara, Williams, or Crane, but I do count on him to be a thoughtful and aggressive adversary. Poetry doesn’t need to be protected from bullies, does it?

    If anything, it needs to be protected from a native fatal lack of curiosity.

  • On June 9, 2009 at 9:50 am Desmond Swords wrote:

    I’ve said it before, but think it worth reiterating to draw attention to the fact that Logan really is wholly inconsequential as a Critic, not only in the cosmic scheme of Reality (as we all ultimately are) but in the here and now of the new geneutral 21C globally english Language poetry.

    His essentially anti-intellectual attacks and thrashings are knock-about entertainment for the lit-lite minded who like one-liners.

    His art, is the art of a weedy frat-class show-off who boots with a broad brush, because his mind has not developed sufficiently enough to connect with the fundamental Truth of Poetry.

    Love.

    He is too lazy, grown too static and comfortable in his tiny little world to be capable of getting passed a first base jealously in which man Critics first instinct is to disagree, no matter what the quality of the writing.

    Fancying himself a a ditty maker himself, it is natural jealousy will be present as it is in all artists of stature, which Logan is obviously not.

    However, it is how we chanel our envy which decides if we end up like Logan, a person who assembles himself the facade of poetic expression: ae cloak of guff from fave poet X, the verbal tic of poet Y – and in mis-matched hand-me-downs with imitationally inspired instincts, choosing to say the first thing he thinks about a poem, over a 20 year period, all his potential of becoming himself was subsumed into being a hack-bag of borrowed stylistic twitches with nothing original being said.

    Pointing out, no matter how slight, the inelegance in others which makes up the most of himself, even if the poetry is of 80% positive quality – like seeing a painting by a very gifted artist which has a speck of dust on it, and instead of talking about the beauty in the image, concentrates on the flaw to get a thousands words out of it in his anal-game of working out long convolutions of, frankly, anti-intellectual posturing — he poses as a sophisticated member from some esoteric guild holding abstruse arcane knowledge of Enlightment, which is in fact – the exact opposite.

    Worthless dumbed down dreck.

    ~

    Envy needs to be chanelled into a game-with-self. If we read, see or hear a poet who sets of the gree twitch, rather than childishly hating them because we beleive them more gifted or better than us: we use this force to imporve our own practice. Focus into getting better than the one who sparked it off, and when we meet them again, perhaps we are a step closer. Or we see them and rather than being intimidated by their dazzling edifice, the act of making an effort into developing our own potential, instead of a sneery jibe, results in us coming to understand the deeper poetic truth – because we tried harder and did not accept staying in our comfort zone.

    We then start to see behind the god, and get to see the technician at work. What blinded us before and we thought sheer genius naturally flowing as though divine, we recognise it for what it is – hard work of another put into attaining their own potential.

    Then, slowly, we become repsectful and even if we hate them, because we put the slog in, our professiona pride in doing the right thing leads us to getting better and leaving them behind and then we think: why did i ever think i wouildn’t get better than the ones who i thought cleverer and more creative and better. All along, i had it in me to beat them by beating my own standards, rasing the bar within and becoming closer to God within, as s/he is without – the seed inside, the Seigas Well Logan i am willing to bet a billion bucks, does not know, but which is worth a trillion twitters from this Delphic Sibyl from..sorry, where’s that Logan you weed Boston Massachusetts?

    Well JFK you aint, more Sarah Palin of the poetry village, cuz this Southie homeboy got reared on the reality of it: Poetry. Go away Logan.

    ~

    When he gets a book of poems to hate, he is like an old and highly unintelligent red-neck who was once welcome socially for their caustic wit and coarse charm when a younger man whose misanthropy was not at 100% – but after 25 years, in the absence of any America Poetry Critic who is any good, he has come to delude himself that his low-level mindless rants are not the product of a priveliged boor, but of a prophetic post-modern thinker whose every word, every jock-like impulse to expose his ignorance, is another step leading him to Parnassus, rather than what it is in reality – retarded moves into eventual obscurity and a total loss of wit and all credibility as a critic.

    Being one’s inferior poetically speaking, both in live and printed poetry, along with Criticism – i can only sneer at how unintelligent this clown is.

    Like a wife-beater whose spousal abuse over many years has led them to believe violence and love are the natural state of being, he’s been made flabby due to getting accorded a wholly artificial and false rep and status by the WASP frat-boy silver spoons, and his juvenile and childish world-view, never got him past first base because he is lazy intellctually and a spent force now.

    He only half-formed his poetic intelligence, in the pool of satire which grossly distended his print-persona into one which is deeply unpleasant and will be viewed in 20 years, in a clearer light, for what it is. A product of his time. All the prejudices and faults he is excused now because of the hawk-war mindset of the last few decades in which bullying under a guise of doing the world a favour, is the cloak concealing highly unpleasanter truths — his many and numerous misanthropic texts will be totally forgotten, because re-reading them will only compound our sense of shame and guilt that we were complicit in the manufacture of such shallow and unpoetic conduct.

    His poetry, to be blunt, is rubbish, along with his Criticism. As comedic rant from a poet manque, it works, but not as poetically perspicacious pieces which lead the Reader to the light of something truly humanly warm and inclusive.

    No, rather, his is the work of a one-sided has-been who never was.

  • On June 9, 2009 at 10:32 am Tom Harr wrote:

    I’m confused by this:

    “The mainstream finds a pitbull who pisses a lot of people off and he gets declared edgy or bold or truthful when he’s just a high-toned homophobe with very little knowledge of the real landscape.”

    Are we implying that non-mainstream (and therefore “edgy”) pitbulls like Silliman are the only ones who may be “declared” bold, truthful, and knowledgeable?

    And what on earth is meant by “the real landscape?” What qualifies one to know its geography?

  • On June 9, 2009 at 11:14 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    I just noticed this comment by Craig Santos Perez, posted above by Don:

    “it’s interesting that the whining bitching and moaning all started with some ‘white’ poet named jason guriel reviewing 3 other white poets and then another ‘white’ poet, kent johnson, responding and asking many other ‘white’ poets to respond. ok ok, i dont mean to flatten all their responses or racialized experiences, but seriously none of these people really explore why the majority of reviews written are reviews of ‘white’ poets! why is that? Unlike most journals, Galatea & Latino Poetry Review provide ample reviews of ‘ethnic’ poets.”

    I posted this reply just now on Craig’s blog:

    Craig,

    Just noticing this. It’s not true that the list of responders is completely “white.” Granted, only three “non-white” poets out of 32 is not exactly diverse. And the gender mix could also have been a lot stronger.

    But for what it’s worth, the list of poets I initially queried was much more diverse than how things ended up. I was operating under a deadline and without much time. For whatever reason, most of the “No thank you’s” or no-responses were from women (a good dozen), and at least three of them were from Latino poets.

    Kent

  • On June 9, 2009 at 11:34 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Actually, I see that five Hispanic poets were initially queried. Not that this would settle Craig’s concern…

    Don’t know if she would have wished to participate, but a major space-out on my part, admittedly, was to not ask Eileen Tabios, editor of the excellent review site Galatea Resurrects.

    Kent

  • On June 10, 2009 at 1:23 pm Don Share wrote:

    Craig Santos Perez has additional comments, which you can read in full on his terrific blog by clicking here.

    He asks:

    Q: so why is there such a scarcity of reviews of poetry books by writers of color?

    are presses that publish ethnic writers sending review copies?
    are writers of color sending review copies?
    are editors assigning reviews of books by ethnic writers?
    are freelance reviewers actively following new books by ethnic writers?

    These are great questions. I can only speak from my own experience, but for what it’s worth:

    Re the big Q… let’s say who comes to mind here… Re the others -

    1.) Some presses that publish ethnic writers send review copies. In fact, a few are very good at this. However, most small presses simply cannot afford to send out books. And so…. 2.) It really may be up to writers sending review copies out themselves; again, some do, but most don’t; the return on their investment could be very small. 3.) We try to. But…. 4.) Reviewers like the rest of us have their own interests, specialties, connections and predilections: they tend to accept assignments that they’re comfortable with, and want to review books about which they can say things authoritatively. Moreover, as a practical matter, people write less well about things they can’t comprehend or have no real interest in. So what we need are reviewers who take in all kinds of writing – who want to draw people in, and not narrow things down. I keep advocating a sort of dreamy ecclecticism, but in reality it’s not what most reviewers are into…

    I’m generalizing, and none of this is expressed to exculpate editors. There’s work to be done on all sides, that’s for sure.

  • On June 10, 2009 at 2:17 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Well, now, come on. There are other questions to be asked. What, exactly, is the form of the problem to be redressed? If it is simply a dearth of reviewers “of color” (somehow thought to be synonymous with “ethnic”), we should explore why that is a problem. Is it because “ethnic” reviewers would have a special insight into the work of “ethnic” poets that the rest of us lack? So that, for instance, I am less “qualified” to review Half of the World in Light than someone with a background similar to Herrera’s? If so, is the argument that “ethnic” reviewers should only review “ethnic” poets, or that they are unqualified to review “white” poets? If so, I take it we need pay no more attention to the argument & can turn to serious questions. If not, then we are asked to believe in a special relationship of one kind of reviewer to one kind of poet whose inverse does not hold, but from which other reviewers are excluded. At which point I return to my initial question: what exactly is the form of this alleged problem?

    As framed, the question says there are not enough people “of color” reviewing poetry books. But the reason this is a bad thing cannot simply be that it is a good thing to have people “of color” reviewing poetry books. The reason must be that this “problem” is held to be an expression of a further systemic discrimination that hold within the circulation & distribution channels of poetic production. If this is true, why not examine the question instead of carping about how many people from Mexico review books? And part of the reason for remaining on the surface of the “problem” is, I take it, that at its base this is not a question of race or ethnicity at all — but a question of class. Which is to say that it is a question of race insofar as race is one of the categories in which class oppression gets expressed. There are plenty of Latino, black, Indian, etc., poets. But reviewers tend to be people from backgrounds privileged enough to have afforded them the opportunities for quality education — training, that is, in composition & rhetoric, with a concomitant mastery of standard English (some, needless to say, more masterful than others). And these people tend, because the institutional hierarchies of education reflect those of society itself, not to be “of color.” But the relationship of race to class is, I think, one that is usually stood on its head. We should try to see the ways in which “race” or “ethnicity” function in the ideology of superstructural relations, rather than assuming their ultimate determining power.

  • On June 10, 2009 at 5:14 pm Don Share wrote:

    Here’s Barbara Jane Reyes’s reaction to Craig’s post:

    http://bjanepr.wordpress.com/2009/06/10/poetic-industrial-complex-book-reviews

  • On June 12, 2009 at 10:20 am Latino Poetry Review wrote:

    Hi Don:
    How about sharing with Harriet readers what you shared with me re: your ernest efforts to get The Wind Shifts reviewed for P and HR and how the reaction (among some) to the Paranass piece by Selinger hindered your efforts. The subject is on the table. Let’s air it, with as much specificity as we can, and with YOUR take on it, etc. I know for myself that sharing it with me helped me better understand and appreciate the challenges book review editors face—including those who want to enlarge the tent.

    FA

  • On June 12, 2009 at 12:11 pm Don Share wrote:

    It wouldn’t be right to air laundry, so to speak, or to betray confidences of the writers with whom we work and communicate. But I made some inquiries among a number of potential reviewers, Latino and other, concerning our coverage of Latino work. Of these, some never turned in anything; some submitted pieces that were not usable for one reason or another; and yes, several were intimidated by the response to Eric Selinger’s piece. About the latter, it’s best to let those directly involved comment, should they choose to (and Eric has on CSP’s blog). Craig Santos Perez has asked some very good questions; at the same time, there are the issues Michael has raised. We’re all engaging, though – here… in events and face-to-face discussions… and by backchannel. As recent discussions prove, there are many questions indeed about the nature and practice of book reviewing.

  • On June 12, 2009 at 12:27 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    I reviewed Juan Felipe Herrera for Poetry Flash in 1987, along with three other poets — the important Mexican poets Alberto Blanco and David Huerta, and the terrific LA poet Jack Grapes. I’m one of those gringos who is fluent in Spanish, and I’ve translated Blanco and Huerta among others. My review wasn’t color-blind; I was prying into the ways that poets illuminate each other. For one thing, Herrera is the only one of the four who is a minority in his country, an inescapable stance which obviously informs his work.

    David Huerta and Alberto Blanco, both wonderful, powerful poets, are privileged members of Mexico’s intellectual elite. To find a Latin American poet who is conscious of being a minority in that sense, you could go to the magnificent aphoristic Guatemalan-Mayan poet Humberto Ak’abal, who writes bilingually in Spanish and Ki’ché, and in 2004 rejected his country’s national prize for literature, which is named after the Nobel Prize novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, because of some incorrect and insensitive things Asturias wrote about Native people sixty years ago.

  • On June 13, 2009 at 8:06 am Latino Poetry Review wrote:

    Thanks for contributing this.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that names should be revealed. I’m sorry if that was implied. I’m just generally interested in discussing the phenomena or thinking that leads a reviewer decline to take on a book review assignment because its by members of a group whose ethnicity is not their own.

    The majority of the contributors in The Wind Shift are American-born poets who write in English, so I’m interested in better understanding the thinking that arrives at this decision regardless. What informs it? Did some perhaps think that “Latino” meant “it must in Spanish”? Did they decline before even cracking the book? Or after cracking the book? I’m

    What allows Eric Selinger, who’s been a long-time reviewer for Parnassus Poetry in Review, an esteemed journal, to not shy away from such an assignment, and who continues to write reviews by other minority poets.

    I’m not interested in naming names, I’m interested in exploring the thinking that arrives at these decisions so that perhaps, with some respectful dialogue, and education, some of these reviewers might take tentative steps to venture beyond their comfort zones as critics in the future.

    Could you envision a situation and circumstance where this thinking could be discussed and explored, safely?

    FA

  • On June 24, 2009 at 12:05 pm Don Share wrote:

    I thought of this thread while reading the following in Rowan Ricardo Philips’ new Chicago Review piece on several anthologies of African-American poetry:

    “… a sense of scope and a belief in intertextuality always does African-American poetry a world of good. We, who write poems and look to make sense of what has been written, canonized, forgotten or coming next, are all part of a search.”

    I like this very much. He concludes with a quote from the late Lorenzo Thomas:

    “As a wise man once said, ‘We have got to dance our way out of this constriction.’”

  • On June 24, 2009 at 4:15 pm Tien Tran wrote:

    Thanks for the interesting thread. If anything, this is an encouraging sign of the voluble minority. I’m inclined to presume goodwill in all parties. Here are my two cents of these issues:

    To be or not to be negative: A critic’s job is to seek out the good, and to deal with the bad as they become unavoidable. (A bad book is unavoidable when it wins a major literary award, for example.)

    William Logan: A mere polemicist. One suspects bad faith in a critic who’s also, as has been pointed out, a persistently mediocre poet – that is, who persists in his mediocrity.

    Race and ethnicity: Poetry is all about branding. Good non-white poets refuse to harp on the narrow themes of politics and identity – as a result, no one recognizes their brand.

    The survival of genuine poetry: Is at the hand of good poets. “Let such who others teach, themselves excel; / and censure freely, who have written well.” (Alexander Pope, somewhere)

    [Note to admin: You may delete this paragraph.] If you’re interested in really good poetry that’s not currently on the market, check out the Lyric Depot, my blog of original poetry. Click on the icon for my book, and read, toward the end, the poems “Power comes to the countryside,” “Room without posters,” and “Nothing to write home about” – and tell me if this isn’t something utterly different than the stuff featured in all the journals and magazines.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, June 4th, 2009 by Don Share.