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I Hate Poetry… Reviews?
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.
“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?”
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…