I admire Averill Curdy for trying to rouse more poets to speak hard truths about poetic practice. To write criticism about poetry (and in particular about the work of other poets)—when it is done bravely—keeps the heart pure, standards high, thought active. But it does not make one many friends. Nor in my experience does it increase the sense of community among writers to know that their work or that of their friends or teachers or idols may be attentively judged. Does it improve dialogue among the audience? Few readers of reviews welcome being drawn into debate; more often they want to be told what to like, or to have their preferences confirmed. If the poetry under review has plot and attitude, so much the better, for these traits can be imitated. Readers want poetry to be made familiar, linked to a story line, brought within anybody's reach, and detached from difficulty (or relinquished to trends in verbal muddle).
If my voice has an edge, this results from a feature of poetry reviewing that limits the time one can spend in the field: if you review on a regular basis, and dutifully study most of what is published in book form, month in and month out, the poor work so far exceeds the good that irritation leads to anger and then demoralization. Just as there seems to be a natural "term" for good editors, beyond which they grow stale, there's pretty rapid burn-out for the reviewer of verse. That the great American poet and woman of letters Louise Bogan reviewed for the New Yorker for thirty-eight years is almost beyond belief. But more saddening is the fact that every one of Bogan's books of prose is now out of print. Reviewing is an ephemeral enterprise. It is also time-consuming and surprisingly difficult. To lend oneself imaginatively to another sensibility and then to articulate the risks and interest of the other writer's angle of vision exhausts and enervates a practicing poet. It also takes her away from what gives her reviewing authority—the making of art. The more opinions I have, the less poetry I write. Bogan's reviewing years coincided with what she saw as the diminution of her gift as a lyric poet.
Burdensome artistically, exhausting over time, damaging to one's poetic reputation, and the source of rebuffs both private and professional (poets we have forgotten repeatedly won Pulitzers when Bogan's books were nominated), poetry reviewing is an enterprise only a few people ever do credibly or well, and then rarely for long periods. If few women undertake to write poetry reviews while composing their poems, perhaps they are wise to ration their energies.
Letter to the Editor
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This prose originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of Poetry magazine