August Kleinzahler's wicked notice about Garrison Keillor's Good Poems, and the subsequent letters to Poetry that object to it (May 2004), confirm what's wrong with our country's desolate poetry-reviewing landscape. When you consider the other artsarchitecture, film, dance, music, theaterwe are the only art that lacks a vigorous review culture. Kleinzahler's writing is exactly what I expect from a poetry review, but seldom discover (or, as Dana Gioia nicely puts it in his opposition notice, "Nowadays dullness has come to signify a poetry critic's sincerity"). Not just dullness. Everyone complains about the odor of equanimity and vacuous praise in our reviews. But now we're so deadened by the hollow politeness that when we get a spirited piece the chorus cries, "How dare you!"
Don't we want a reviewer to write with a bold style, to inspect, to contemplate a book's circumstances, to champion strong, informed opinions about it, to celebrate, to censure? A reviewer's got to come down somewhere, or how could he forgive himself for cashing the check? If a review stirs up controversy, so much the better. Criticism ought to excite. I'm elated by Kleinzahler's review; at the very least, we know our reviewer is alive.
I also appreciate his defense (albeit, over the top) of what he calls poetry's "realm of fire." Sure, there are some good poems in Keillor's anthology. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometime. But Kleinzahler demonstrates that the aim of Good Poems poorly represents the significance of Good as it pertains to poetry. Keillor lowers the thresholdand no poet should stand for that.