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Thinking About Poetry With Others: Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Reviews Issue of Evening Will Come

By Harriet Staff

Joshua Wilkinson

A new issue of Evening Will Come is up–the monthly poetics journal and arm of The Volta (Joshua Marie Wilkinson confesses his mother refers to the “online multimedia site” as “his blog”), and November is the reviews issue. First to read is Wilkinson’s introduction to the issue, where he makes a case for it: “But the work of reviewing—of poets and critics writing about what they see and value in the contemporary—seems more and more important to me, precisely because there’s so much out there being published, and because reviews can be more easily gotten online.” Wilkinson spends most of his piece on a concern for how critics approach poetry’s admittedly small audience.

…Smart readers who might like fiction and nonfiction, but aren’t sold yet on poetry. Poetry’s a complex terrain to get to know; and, more to the point, is it really worth my time and energy?

Still other critics, with an even wider audience like that of NPR, go a step further, as with this opening from a recent review of Anne Carson’s red doc>: “You don’t read poetry. That’s fine. Nobody does anymore. I’m not going to make you feel bad about that.” I quote this not to belabor the point, but to show how ubiquitous this casual, out of hand dismissal of the vast majority of poetry has become. Of course, the critic then goes on to laud Carson’s new book. So, why not placate potential poetry readers this way if it brings more people to red doc> and then to Nox and then perhaps even to Bianca Stone, Brandon Shimoda, Dawn Lundy Martin, and the whole wonderful mess of contemporary poets?

As for the negative review (yes, he does get to The Claudius App), it’s also considered in this light of readership: “But have critics just channeled the trusty old negative review into this raze the field tactic because poetry’s become ever more insular? I don’t really want to dedicate myself to writing a negative review of a lackluster book that I’m pretty sure that history will take care of anyway—especially as other terrific books languish in the stacks at Small Press Distribution….” And then there are the effects of social media:

Perhaps critique, debate, positive and negative reviews, and close readings are all readymade to disintegrate into so much daisy tossing or shit throwing. And one of the responses I return to (and I’m grateful it’s on a blog and searchable) is Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s answer to a question by Gillian Hamel about being a poet who keeps a low online profile:

I’ve been reluctant to produce much of a net footprint (blog/comment-fielding/interviews, etc.) bc I’m paralytically aware of what good intentions can devolve into on the web, a space, like every other cultural space capital permits and maintains, that’s characterized by brevity and disposability and by the reaction-attributes that accompany brevity and disposability: speed, loudness and, often, aggression, contempt, caricature, branding, etc. It’s not that I don’t think mutual regard and atelic inquiry can happen in the thereless there, they do, but not often enough and not thoroughly enough for me to see it as a peculiarly exciting public space for thinking about poetry with others. And it’s hard for me to risk thought about poetry with such uncertainty about fellowship.

Read Wilkinson’s entire piece here. It’s a comprehensive look at a revolving conversation, moving between the likes of Michael Robbins and Marjorie Perloff to David Gorin and Lee Siegel, whose “Burying the Hatchet,” a New Yorker essay about giving up writing negative reviews, appeared just ten days after Gorin’s piece in the Boston Review. He also covers Seth Abramson, who apparently helped instigate the concept for the issue: “…this whole feature of Evening Will Come was initiated because of an untoward exchange I haplessly initiated with Seth Abramson on Twitter.”

But changing the target from the reader to the writer is another piece in the new issue of EWC, Vanessa Place’s “How to Get Your Book Reviewed by Vanessa Place” (Key: “Know your potential reviewer.”) But key is grok:

4. By “know,” I do not mean as a fellow human being, with whom you share loves, laffs, or even anything resembling commonplace collegiality. I mean grok. Do not send me, for example, a book of light lyric on the pleasures and pains of parenthood, unless your method of composition involved the use of a soft or flexible covering for the head and neck. Do not send the person on my left a book you are sending them because they are the person on my left. Do not send anyone anything that you have written but would never read. Walter Benjamin, a great reader of the great and the quotidian, felt that, “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful… No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” By way of comparison, Dorothy Parker, a great underappreciated reviewer of books, remarked of one book, “I read it all; but I found that neither during the process nor after did I care very much,” and of another, “Doubtless you have heard that this book is not pleasant. Neither, for that matter, is the Atlantic Ocean.” The tipping-point, then, would be Virginia Woolf, who once noted about the detail-laden scenes of Henry James: “Genius would have dissolved them, and whole chapters of the same kind, into a single word. Genius, however, is precisely what we do not find….”

For purposes of my point, Henry James did not know Virginia Woolf. Though she totally grokked him. This, of course, is the inherent danger—if you are insufficiently familiar with the review you might get from your reviewer, you run the risk of getting the review you deserve.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, November 4th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.