My irritation with Carmine Starnino’s “Five Irish Poets” [November 2008] begins when Seamus Heaney’s “virile distinctiveness” is juxtaposed with Eavan Boland’s “verbal subtlety.” For Pete’s sake, what does this mean? It’s a cliché dressed up as critical judgment. In the last paragraph of the Boland review, Starnino strikes me as much too eager to make his points via style (“No thoughts, but themes,” “Even style is stereotyped,” “feminist thesis stuck on one setting,” “the message runs on after the music for it has fallen away,” “true, but tuneless”) and ad hominem attack (“a poet desperate,” “eager to take her place in literary history”) than by scrupulous argument. “True, but tuneless,” for instance, rings with incontro- vertibility, but surely we’ve all learned to doubt such expressions of authority, and therefore to avoid them. Does anyone still believe in absolute standards of artistic taste? Shouldn’t we phrase our judg- ments accordingly?
In fact, I find the tone of the conclusion to the Boland review con- descending. But this is nothing compared to what happens in the Harry Clifton review, which is one long put-down, with more alliterative phrase-mongering and ad hominem stabs: “Clifton seems rather proud of this,” “Clifton uses it to make himself look big,” “The great poet, on spiritual safari, pen in hand,” “Clifton can put on the intellectual swank,” “Like a freelancer on automatic,” “We get fantasies . . . of a well-fed man feeding off the fat of the moment.”
At this point I stopped reading, no longer trusting the writer’s disinterestedness.
One wants reviews to be discriminating, thoughtful, and well-written, but not cleverly, condescendingly, and personally destructive.
Or so it seems to me.