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Trigger Cuts

By Anselm Berrigan

The on-going review-interviews taking place over at Lemon Hound have my attention at the moment (I’m one of the interviewees, an admission that I suppose qualifies as full disclosure here if you believe such a thing exists in the demi-world of warm soft fact), and I’m particularly interested in the question of what one might be looking for in a review and not finding or not finding too often as it were. So compiled below is a very lightly edited list of responses thus far, to which I’ll add further responses as they come in (there may be a few more or many more). By “lightly edited” I mean that I’ve taken shorter bits from some longer answers in cases where the whole answer may be overlapping with other questions asked by Lemon Hound or the interviewee (there are also a couple of pieces on Sina’s blog that don’t answer the question, and I’ve let those be). It’s also worth noting that these answers are clearly pulled from the flow of their respective pieces, and may function somewhat differently on tonal and other levels when read in context. That said, I have a permanent crush on the list becoming a work, and beyond that there’s the potential for a little glen of response one might consult for pivot or perspective when starting in on a take. Names are tags, or else found in reverse order on the side of the original site.


Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

All the time. I keep trying to write it.

I guess I’m still waiting to have my socks knocked off. I’m hopeful, and wear oversized socks.

I wish there were more reviewers who were articulate about poems and really showed what it is to have an individual human response to an individual work of art. That’s when reviewing is good. Not so much when it explains but when it shows real engagement.

I don’t expect reviews to be perfect. There are too many possible variations of opinion. I want reviews to be clear. To express an opinion and back it up with evidence.

I think it is rare to find a review that is staggering towards a new way to write criticism.

I’ll know it when I find it!


Where the writer is sitting. Literally and in their world of thought. People often exempt themselves from scrutiny which I think is frightening.

I like cats.

Could reviews function more like poets and painters working together, meaning could we privilege the experiment, a way to say “nice move” so as to encourage further work as opposed to valuing the work as good or bad?

I’d like to find an entirely new standard of value, or at least a hint of one–basically, a revolution in poetry, expressed as an act of attention.

I’d like to read some reviews of poetry books that get closer to an understanding of humor as an inherent quality of consciousness. Everyone has a sense of humor. That’s very odd.

I always appreciate a humble reviewer who understands the limits of his or her abilities as a reader, and thus works hard to study a text. Most reviewers do not work hard enough for a work that falls outside of their preferred tastes.

Fabulous writing, unputdownable writing, writing you’d want to read for its own sake, breathing with charismatic charm

…..genuine breadth of vision—making sense of the current poetic divisiveness and helping heal it rather than exploiting it

I think that a review can make room enough to be an entertainment medium even after it fulfills the prerequisites of an informative and discursive one.

“I wish there were more reviewers who were articulate about poems and really showed what it is to have an individual human response to an individual work of art.”

Passional disinterestedness & its inverse (“It is difficult to be interested as you know”—Gertrude Stein).  Research whose range and humor matches that of the original work.  Wildness of lexicon, of syntax, of association.

I would like a book review to do all those things you mentioned in the previous question. (What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?)

They could do with a little more suspense.

I don’t think so. But there are a lot of qualities I see too often. I don’t like reviews which preach and attack if it seems like the writer hasn’t even tried to understand the book. I don’t like reviews which claim that a book has failed according to a certain set of values when the book has been written consciously to defy those values (this happens a lot to more innovative work). And self-satisfied reviewers who seem convinced in advance of their own, often too narrowly-defined correctness bother me.

Yes. An I. Reviews are so often more about the reviewers than the reviewed books. Why not admit it and get on with the conversations that matter most?

I think I continually see elements of good critical writing, and would just like to see more of them in the future. I want to learn more, and to keep being taught by those who think and write critically and generously.

I think the honest answer is no, there isn’t. At least not if you mean “that I haven’t ever found.” The way I know what qualities I’m looking for is by thinking about reviews I’ve appreciated for one quality or another. But I would say that the one quality that I don’t find often enough—besides those I’ve already noted above—is personality. The reviewer’s, that is; what we sometimes mean when we say “voice.” Actually, let me qualify this: what I really mean is likeable personality. I read a-plenty of those snarky, rant-y, negative-agenda-driven pieces, and more than I want of the vaguely condescending, damning-with-faint-praise pieces. Give me a review with a sense of humor (akin to my own, that is), one whose author sounds like someone I’d like to have a glass of wine with (I don’t drink beer).

….one more quality I’d like to see a lot more of: culturally informed contextualization, in reviews of poets of color by reviewers who are not (of color). Far too many reviews by white folks will talk about a text by an African American poet (for example) without showing any sign of awareness of the African American tradition that informs it (along with whatever else is informing it). Or will take a different, but also annoying, course that involves using one “totem” black poet (maybe Hughes, Brooks, or Hayden—or among the living, Dove, Komunyakaa, or Baraka) as the point of comparison for whatever other black poet is being reviewed. How can I put this without making it less likely for people to review black poetry? I wish for more of that sense of responsibility that I’ve spoken of, that would make a reviewer feel accountable for doing enough homework to locate the book being reviewed in its African American, as well as its American, context. (In each instance, “black”/“African American” can be replaced with Latino, Asian American, or Native American, with corresponding examples, e.g., Martin Espada, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo.) This problem is not always an issue, of course, but too often it is, and since I’m putting ideas about reviewing out there, I feel compelled to raise this.

How about an optative evaluative criticism? (The critic ‘s impossibly hyperbolic praise becomes a new standard, inspiring or shaming poets to do better work.)

Reviewers often lack wit. I keep looking for a tone of detached argument, infused with intellectual provocations, all of which suggest that the reviewer evinces a “coolness” worthy of emulation.

guess if anything seems to be “missing” to me, it might be a kind of writerliness in reviews themselves: a sense of criticism as itself literary, and literature. There’s lots of workaday prose out there. BORING. Also boring: volcanic slipshod polemic and phallic hooey.

Of the three qualities I most admire in a successful review—consideration of audience, curiosity, context—curiosity is potentially the biggest draw for me. The least successful reviews are those in which a reviewer’s presence is so permeating that it overtakes the subject of critique. I can’t really get curious about a book that’s buried in a reviewer’s persona. I am likely to stop reading that sort of review altogether.

most reviews in the poetry journals and on blogs aren’t reviews at all but just little appreciative blurbs. And I especially object to the “reviews” on most blogs, where anything goes. I believe absolutely in EDITORS—Editors to assign reviews, editors to ask for revisions, and so on. My own bête noir is the review of a great poet in translation by someone who doesn’t know a word of the poet’s own language. Whatever it is these reviewers are writing about, it certainly isn’t the poetry.

Intelligence, thoughtfulness, and consideration are the qualities I look for most often in reviews. And, of course, good writing. And yes, quite often these qualities go wanting.

Now add yr own (you can also choose to bitch our mutual friends, or your own):






Comments (23)

  • On January 5, 2010 at 9:52 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Relatedly, there is this forum on reviewing practices, “Some Darker Bouquets,” published last spring, in Mayday Magazine. I wrote a statement with some proposals, and over thirty poets and critics responded in the same issue– including a number of the people interviewed at Lemon Hound.


  • On January 5, 2010 at 11:50 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Thanks for doing this Anselm.

  • On January 6, 2010 at 5:42 am Edwin Torres wrote:

    hey Anselm, fabulous…thanks for letting us in on the start of a new piece. Always interested in how to approach the gathering of content in a list and translating that into a final work—especially when the content is about the gathering. Do you see the list of quotes itself as being the work, or will each one give way to extrapolated yearnings? i.e. is there a point where the multiple voices break away from their source to become your voice, or is ‘my voice’ the gathering? i.e. when do you ask yourself, do these thoroughbreds need rails…or should I let’em loose?

  • On January 6, 2010 at 11:46 am Anselm Berrigan wrote:

    Hi Edwin – in this case I think the list is the work, as I’m not looking to turn it into anything else, at least not at the moment. I could see it setting up a separate work, but I’m actually interested in having the list of quotes as a resource to turn to the next time I might write a review or essay – to see if I can’t take one or two of these desires and go for a variation as approach to writing. But I’m also interested in finding out if the quotes take on a voice or shape in accumulation – I mean, I’m generally interested in the somewhat deceptive simplicity of the form that is something like quote space quote space or sentence space sentence space as an on-going accumulation of character…..

  • On January 7, 2010 at 1:13 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    I like cats.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 9:44 am Jordan wrote:

    Do you now.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 10:14 am Anselm wrote:

    Yikes. Up until a few years ago my brother Edmund belonged to the Cats school of criticism, which essentially consisted of remarking “I liked it. It was better than Cats.” He’s never seen Cats. At a reading he gave in Naropa in, I think, 1976, our father said that when Joe Brainard couldn’t think of anything else to say about something he’d call it “significant”. These could be taken as examples of a kind of practical on-the-go criticism with multi-occasional application off line.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 11:12 am Jordan wrote:

    Weird: my brother also belonged to the Cats school of criticism, Spielberg division: “Better than Cats, better than E.T.” He also used to wear a t-shirt reading “Ask me about my lobotomy.”

    I used to think I liked cats, but if what they’re saying is true about two-thirds of the world having toxoplasmosis, I think I’ll take my chances with E.T.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 11:16 am Don Share wrote:

    Yes, but who knows what E.T. might have.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 11:30 am Matt wrote:

    didn’t ET eat cats? oh wait, that was Alf.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 11:54 am Edwin Torres wrote:

    I have a soft spot for my namesake. When the movie came out, my horn-rimmed, twenty-something self had to weather a barrage of ET jokes, hey ET you better phone home…ha ha ha, etc. And though cats looked tasty, I never took the plunge.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 12:02 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I just noticed the Pavement allusion in Anselm’s title. What does Pavement have to do with cats?? Oh, wait, I get it: cats brighten the corners of rooms.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 12:14 pm Jill wrote:

    Fruit covered nails electricity and lust AND CATS!

    (I really shouldn’t encourage this sort of thing, but I can’t resist boys and their Pavement).

  • On January 7, 2010 at 12:30 pm john wrote:

    Still waiting for Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of “The Wasteland.”

    Coming soon to Broadway . . . “Waste!”

  • On January 7, 2010 at 12:45 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Accumulation is the new poetics. And given our time, I think rightly so. But as we see, it isn’t so easy to simply accumulate material. This post makes me feel that my optimism about poetry and the writing of and about poetry is perhaps not so insane.

    I like cats too. Great accumulations of cats, or single cats for that matter.

  • On January 7, 2010 at 12:51 pm Anselm wrote:

    Awakening, look into sweet
    Beast eyes, nightmare dispelled, cheerful
    I feed cats, me, do chores; the great
    Day awaits then for heroism
    Exhausted, I get myself out
    Store, gallery, chat, have coffee
    Heroes, heroines abound; hope
    Who trusts it, but it’s contagious
    Back upstairs, poetry I try
    Alive by chance, civilian I
    Chance roommates, you cats and roaches
    You have cultures purer than mine
    Of yours I shelter the success
    And at mine’s failure don’t repine

    — Edwin Denby (1903-1983)

  • On January 7, 2010 at 12:55 pm Anselm wrote:

    and also from Denby, at a different angle:

    Born in my loft, dancer untame
    A wilderness imagined, small
    Cat, which we reached for real by plane
    You stalked on the roof up the hall
    Heart nursing six kittens, that grew
    With them, long-tailed splendid-eyed cat
    A disease struck the womb, left you
    Savage fighter, playful at night
    Lamed, ireful you prowled then; vet cut
    Out the womb, so rage might subside
    Telephone rings, speaks, I hang up
    Cat-heart that knew me gone, I cried
    It stopped beating drugged in a cage
    Dear, mine will too, and let go rage

  • On January 7, 2010 at 12:59 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    I don’t have the foggiest idea why everyone is suddenly talking excitedly about cats, but here’s a poem about a cat:


    In the broken light, in owl weather,
    Webs on the lawn where the leaves end,
    I took the thin moon and the sky for cover
    To pick the cat’s brains and descend
    A weedy hill. I found him groveling
    Inside the summerhouse, a shadowed bulge,
    Furred and somnolent.—”I bring,”
    I said, “besides this dish of liver, and an edge
    Of cheese, the customary torments,
    And the usual wonder why we live
    At all, and why the world thins out and perishes
    As it has done for me, sieved
    As I am toward silences. Where
    Are we now? Do we know anything?”
    —Now, on another night, his look endures.
    “Give me the dish,” he said.
    I had his answer, wise as yours.

    –Weldon Kees

  • On January 7, 2010 at 1:00 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Here’s another one:

    Inside of this single cat
    there are mountains and rivers.

    –Shinkichi Takahashi

  • On January 7, 2010 at 1:03 pm Don Share wrote:

    As an LOL kitteh might say: I CAN HAS ACCUMULAYZIONS

  • On January 7, 2010 at 11:31 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Love that last one. I’ll resist the urge to revise it to suit my cat and my imagination. At least for the moment.

  • On January 8, 2010 at 5:12 pm Charles Lovecraft wrote:

    I don’t know why people suddenly jumped into cat comments and poems, etc. I love the animals but certainly it was beside the point that had otherwise been serious and important. I was taken with many of the comments. One was: “Where the writer is sitting. Literally and in their world of thought. People often exempt themselves from scrutiny which I think is frightening.” That’s an outstanding observation because many reviewers are superiorists. They hold themselves and figure themselves above a work. Let THEM try to write something. I have never much liked critics anyhow, and found VERY FEW that were actually worth reading and deep enough to review a work correctly, that is, with insight, understanding, and perception. Another comment struck me in this vein: “Most reviewers do not work hard enough for a work that falls outside of their preferred tastes.” Cardinal sin actually, to waffle on disparagingly about something they should never have opened their mouths or pens about. There is far too much of that kind of monkeying around with another person’s intellect, a review person actually thinking that they hold a mortgage over someone else’s expression. They don’t; they only might hold a mortgage over sales at best. On a third comment: I’d like to find “Fabulous writing, unputdownable writing, writing you’d want to read for its own sake, breathing with charismatic charm” IN A REVIEW because it breaths with the life of a connected glimpse to the original they are usually massacring. Yes, I’ll know it when I find it too! And lastly “genuine breadth of vision” for its own sake, for all our sakes, sounds like a way to go to me. Let’s find the gems, but let’s also be kind to the heroic failures who try so hard too. There are levels, and then there are levels.

  • On January 8, 2010 at 6:07 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    “Let’s find the gems, but let’s also be kind to the heroic failures who try so hard too.”

    If one approaches texts as possible engagements, there is always something of interest, even if it is a shortcoming. My instinct is usually to ask why, and that leads to investigation rather than denouncing. That’s one way. There are, as we see above, many ways.

    One thing that struck me about many of the above responses (entire responses still accumulating over at lemon hound linked to my name)is the emphasis on inquiry rather than strictly evaluation. It isn’t what gets the big hits alas: the bold statement, the denouncement that makes the armies line up on the right and the left is usually what gets the hits, and the overflowing comments too. But I am attuned to something below, or perhaps even above, the murmur of the volleys.

    Though admittedly, sometimes the bold statement is just what is needed.

    Thanks for bringing the conversation back to the assemblage above.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 by Anselm Berrigan.