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Pandora’s gift (2)

By Stephen Burt

I think I remember accurately the last time I bought, or otherwise sought out, a book of brand new poetry based on a critic’s printed poetry criticism (not a chat or a live event, but something I read). It wasn’t last week: it might have been late last year.

How often do you seek out the books that printed criticism recommends? If the answer is “not so often” — and as I realized it might be, for me, for poetry, “not so often” — what is criticism for? (I mean the kind that mostly covers newish work, and attempts to say what’s good and why; the kind that comes up with new interpretations of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is fine with me, but it’s not what I mean now.)

If I spend more time writing about and recommending new poets and new poetry than I do, these days, in following up on other critics’ printed and finished recommendations, does that make me a hypocrite? or an unfair trader? someone who assumes other people will do for me what I won’t do for them?

Not quite, and I’ve almost ceased to worry. Here’s why.

Last year, I started to purchase less music, and started (Jessie realized it belonged on our iPhones) to experiment the Internet music service Pandora. It’s software you put on your phone, or in your computer; you can tell it to construct what it calls a “radio station,” though I’d rather call it a channel, or a stream, based on a song or an artist or a composer or a style. You can ask it to play you Indian classical music, or songs that sound like Game Theory, or composers you might enjoy if you like Anton Webern (I have done all these things).

If you ask it to play you music in a style, or based on an artist, whom you know well, what you get is what the real Pandora got: an unpredictable disappointment. The Chills are a fine New Zealand-based pop group with something like seven albums over twenty years, but Pandora appeared to know only one of them, and flailed after US college rock instead. The Jam were repeatedly top of the charts in Britain in 1979-81, but Pandora (as of a few weeks ago) appeared not to know much about them, playing very few songs by the band itself, and offering up the sort of much-circulated songs you’d find on those old Just Can’t Get Enough compilations.

If you ask it to help you discover music you don’t know much about, on the other hand, Pandora is a frustration but also a godsend. I don’t know very much about twelve-tone composition, but I know that I like some of it; now I know, thanks to Pandora, that I want to learn more about Arthur Berger, whose more or less atonal chamber compositions pop out at me with their pizzicatos, torn bits of near-melodies, and dissonances in the bass. Pandora will do silly things in this province as well — in particular it considers individual movements of sonatas and symphonies and quartets as independent pieces, since each one is its own sound file or CD track; so you won’t get the integrated experience of any multi-movement composed piece that the composer wanted you to get — but you’ll get to hear part of a lot of pieces you might not otherwise hear anywhere.

And that’s what some part of criticism, a very large part of reviewing, might have to be, at less than its best but more than its worst. I don’t seek out a lot of contemporary poetry in English based on other people’s reviews, these days, because I see so much of it (especially American poetry) before it gets reviewed — of course I want to see more; I don’t often seek out a book based on Ange’s or Daisy’s assessments (to name two fine reviewers who show up in this very space at times) because I already have the book, or have had the chance to get it. I welcome arguments with other poetry reviewers, and sometimes they convince me, with regard to work I already know, but that’s another story.

It’s with other art forms that I now trust, have to trust, am easily steered by, long-form reviewers and practical critics: glenn mcdonald on pop music, Alex Ross on “classical” music, John Clute on science fiction, John Lanchester and Jenny Diski at the London Review of Books or Jenny Davidson anywhere on prose… these and other critics do change what I do, what I see, and if I get to have the same effect on somebody else, somebody who reads fiction or listens to music voraciously and checks out some poetry some of the time — well, I hope I did not steer them wrong.

Today I turned in an essay about Allan Peterson. Next week I think it’s Harmony Holiday. After that, maybe Cooper will write some more poems.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, April 30th, 2011 by Stephen Burt.