Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Reagan Upshaw

Dear Editor,

Years ago, when I was the Chicago stringer for Art in America, I faced a dilemma not unlike the one Jason Guriel describes in March’s Poetry. The magazine usually let me review only one exhibition per issue. Why write a negative review? There were good artists who could use the publicity; why waste the slot in telling the general reader that someone in Chicago he’d never heard of was no good?

So I wrote favorable reviews until I felt it beginning to injure my soul. Some of this was the usual disquiet about being a part of the art marketing system: What’s the difference between writing, “Joe Blow’s new paintings are his best ever,” and writing, “With new Crest toothpaste you’ll have 74% fewer cavities”? Not too much; both sets of words will be used to sell a product.

But on a deeper level, honest criticism involves a word that has fallen into disfavor: discrimination. You have to be discriminating; you have to say this is great, this is good, and this is bad. It’s the middle value in such discrimination that makes the critic’s job harder. If something’s great, you can rave about it; if something’s terrible, you slam it; but the hardest books or exhibitions to review are those that can be summed up as “professional.” They’re competent, honorable, and well-meaning, but six months later you can’t remember reviewing them.

So, reviewers, don’t be afraid to go negative when you feel it’s called for. Obviously, an attack presupposes that the recipient has a high enough profile to make the review worth publishing, and if the poet is that prominent, he or she will survive.

Having said that, I must add that if Guriel ever deigns to notice me with a negative review, I vow to hack his still-beating heart from his ribcage and devour it raw before his dimming eyes.

beacon, new york

Originally Published: May 14, 2009

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This prose originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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