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Desiring Criticism

By Thom Donovan

one-or-several-wolvesI have noticed a lot of interest in criticism—what criticism is, how it should function—at Harriet/Poetry Foundation. And especially interest in the function of ‘negative’ criticism. Throughout the past couple years I have had a few different answers to the question of what criticism does. Or rather, what it can do. Criticism, not unlike poetry and art, for me should be an art of the potential that intermixes desire with conscience. Criticism recalls Baruch Spinoza’s basic proposition: “we have not yet determined what a body can do.” By engaging poetry, poetry criticism engages the limits of what the poem as an expression of culture or embodiment can do.

In terms of ‘negative criticism’ (so called), I rarely see the use of it. If it is to dismiss a work of literature/art as unvaluable/irrelevant, don’t we already do this by not attending it, or by not investing our desires and passions in it? It is so much work just to understand poetry/art (for works of art and poetry to become legible to one’s self) I have never understood why people would want to waste their energy on what does not interest them (what, that is, they do not love or desire). This problem goes back to Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book where Duncan reiterates that the poet “goes where they are loved.” I think there is a lot of wisdom in this mantra of Duncan’s, and in the ways Duncan practiced criticism and scholarship besides his poetry.

Critical actions are not “hard” or “soft,” but they are devotions to our own personal understandings. The want to collate devotional criticism—a criticism that cathects the aesthetic objects which it engages—was one of the impulses behind founding the journal ON Contemporary Practice with my friends/colleagues Kyle Schlesinger and Michael Cross. What would it mean for contemporaries to exteriorize the critical conversations they are having with each other’s work in the present (that was one question we asked ourselves in the inaugural issue)? How, likewise, can criticism serve a conversation about art and poetry in terms of how they inform socio-political practices/problems. A criticism founded purely on aesthetic judgments/’taste’ I have always found wrong-headed, because it neglects the fact that poetry—as a cultural phenomena—will always presuppose political and ethical actions, thus consequences/effects.

Another way that I would proceed in writing criticism, would be through the Hippocratic oath of the poet, designer, and architect Robert Kocik: at least do not do harm. When we write criticism one should ask themselves what they are doing, and whom they are serving. How can/will criticism function for power? How for one’s own interests—or in the interest of one’s friends, family, community, institution, nation, world? How can critique be in the interest of the world one would want? Too often ‘negative’ criticism makes claims about what is ‘wrong’ with something/someone before saying what it would want from poetry/art/cultural phenomena? What are the conditions of a work’s making? How is it positioned within a socio-historical context? How are aesthetic decisions co-constitutive with their social context? If we get ‘negative’ guided by these questions then so be it. But writing a ‘bad’ review, for me, can only be produced out of these concerns, and when I do get ‘negative’ (and I realize everyone does for a variety of reasons) I still weigh projecting negative critique against the value a ‘positive’ critique/offering could have for the sake of something/someone I truly love (or am trying to).

Here are links to some other statements I have made regarding contemporary criticism:

ON Contemporary Practice 1 and 2 (forthcoming at Bookmobile and Small Press Distribution) also have editorials about the state of critical discourse in contemporary poetry and poetics.

Two magazines that I think are doing superb work in terms of devotional/affective/productive criticism are con/crescent press, whose aim is “to release high quality chapbooks from emerging poets, as well as a bi-annual journal focused on the art of critical response, philosophical treatise, political discourse, and discursively formed spaces for theoretical work.”

And Wild Orchids, which “hope(s) to reencounter, write close to, and trace the unlit flows of our favorite writers, in volumes centered around single authors.”

Yet another interesting project worth taking a look at is Carlos Soto Román’s Elective Affinities, a blog which proceeds rhizomatically by asking poets to recommend five poets with whom they feel affinity.

Such publications embody Gilles Deleuze’s equation of love with the flowering of desire’s productive powers:

“What does it mean to love somebody? It is always to seize that person in a mass, extract him or her from a group, however small, in which he or she participates, whether it be through the family only or through something else; then to find that person’s own packs, the multiplicities he or she encloses within himself or herself which may be of an entirely different nature. To join them to mine, to make them penetrate mine, and for me to penetrate the other person’s. Heavenly nuptials…every love is an exercise in depersonalization on a body without organs yet to be formed.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 35)

Comments (127)

  • On January 15, 2010 at 7:37 pm Dorothea Lasky wrote:

    I love this post.

  • On January 15, 2010 at 9:20 pm Old 333 wrote:

    Hi, Thom. Interesting stuff, actually – I’m just on the other side of a process of recognizing my own need to destroy/reduce as, in fact, a process of cathecting (had to check the Oxford, I happily admit) not aesthetic items or sensations per se but simply the things that were riving me. Part of that experience (a long and fucking horrendous one, which destroyed much life and did much physical harm) has given me the question: Is destruction, cutting down, laying bare and crackig open the ribcage of a thing not sometimes a healing or at least cleaning process? Not to recommend criticism as critique as a way of living – sounds more ulcerous than advertising work, honestly – but the role of destroyer, of tore, is a valid part of being.

    I think.


    And thanks, for writing, for being here, for being part of what I had turned away from so long ago and now, as the healing begins, I grow curiouser and curiouser to share my part of with the other monkeys.


    ps 8 of a proper 9 of my things lie here, insensate: http://rp7o333.blogspot.com/
    if curiouser yourself. Experimental meatloaf now beckons. Powdered mustard, savory, and V8 juice…(I was sober when I made it, and still am….perhaps a mistake, eh?)

  • On January 15, 2010 at 9:23 pm Old 333 wrote:

    Crackig. Sigh. That’s what you do when you have a head cold and a bad habit. I meant crackin. Hope I didn’t muff to many other keys. Laptops are little for trollfingers. Need keyboard of Duplo.

  • On January 15, 2010 at 9:25 pm Old 333 wrote:

    And one more less badly typed thing: Not healing necessarily so much as finding, I think, is what destructive criticism (or worse) is for. Healing takes a whole other way, the one way.

  • On January 15, 2010 at 9:46 pm Old 333 wrote:

    Just one more appendix to my addenda: the stuff is quite good. Three slices of bread, two and a half pounds or so of ground lean round, a quarter of a big sweet Walla Walla getting very old, a liberal blasting of powdered mustard, a LOT of pepper (like the cook in Dodgson), salt, a tiny lying American tidge of ketchup, a gloot of V8 juice, and two hors in a loaf pan. Very nice and tender, tastes alomost like someone real invented it.

    Hope everyone else (and I mean all of ’em, even though it cost me dear to ask such a stupid thing) has a bit of something nice for their noght to eat tonight too. goodnight all (well, I’ll be up ’til two, and at two – this is a very bad manic phase, can’t wait to see what lithim is like twenty-one years after)

  • On January 15, 2010 at 9:51 pm Old 333 wrote:

    Oh, the typos! I’m fetching up a nice big keyboard and plugging it into this thing, tiny pension or no tiny pension. Someone will just have to pay off my credit card after I die (sure to be sooner than I manage that, and I have no descendants – what are they going to do? Steal my organs in the dead of night to cover their losses? Jeez, those things eat up belts and hoses like a Dirt Devil already. ZBuyer beware.

    Planning to type more careful like for sure,

  • On January 15, 2010 at 11:21 pm Matt wrote:

    “I have never understood why people would want to waste their energy on what does not interest them”

    the only time i have an urge to talk about something negatively is when it’s something that a large number of other people like, and either i just can’t figure out why they do or i know perfectly well why and just think they’re wrong. and so i feel a need to let people know that not everyone is on the same page about it. i’ve always wanted to like william carlos williams, but i just don’t get the appeal. or nabokov—i’m reading lolita right now and i’m thinking, eh, not bad i guess, but what’s the big deal? it’s not THAT mindblowing. robert walser is mindblowing. him i like. anyway, all i’m saying is that it’s like when you see someone on tv say something dumb and you’re like, “oh come on…” and you just wish the person was in the room with you so you could tell them what you think. maybe not because you think you’re so right exactly, but because you just want them to know that not everyone agrees with them, that the matter isn’t closed or settled.

  • On January 16, 2010 at 12:02 am 333 wrote:

    Matt: i’ve always wanted to like william carlos williams

    matt, wanting to like is like needing to love…it’s sort of

    not right

  • On January 16, 2010 at 2:07 am Colin Ward wrote:


    In terms of ‘negative criticism’ (so called), I rarely see the use of it.

    Perhaps this is a reflection of poetry’s unpopularity. Unlike Rex Reed, poetry critics aren’t serving a significant audience. Would we chastise Siskel and Roeper for saving millions of us from the “Howard the Ducks” of this world? As you say, we could just as easily be quiet and, to paraphrase Don Marquis, let the rose petals float down the Grand Canyon without an echo. Is there no issue of credibility here, though? Do readers tend to trust the efforts of critics who, by definition, consent to performing only the pleasant half of their job?

    Perhaps this is a reflection of the Convenient Poetic shibboleth denying the existence of good and bad art, even as a projected consensus. “It’s all just a matter of taste!” Following this logic, Shakespeare’s work has no more intrinsic merit than Thomas Tusser’s (who, after all, outsold contemporaries Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne and Milton combined), Maz’s no better than Morpheal’s, Heaney’s on par with Bukowski’s. If this is so, though, of what use is positive criticism? Or, for that matter, the efforts of quality ‘zines to bring us the “best” poetry available? Primus inter pares?

    Does the critic who stands silent against a tidal wave of blurbing on a sea of mediocrity really “do no harm”?


  • On January 16, 2010 at 4:57 am Cheryl Gilbert wrote:

    I agree with Colin Ward’s comment above.

    Also, this remark as an alternative to a negative review struck me: “don’t we already do this by not attending it, or by not investing our desires and passions in it?”

    Isn’t this shunning more disrespectful than a negative critique? Poetry is a variety of things, but it is also a conversation. Poets and critics and readers grow through interaction. This can be separate, even if negative, from a notion of love.

    If I invest time to struggle with a text, isn’t that giving to the writer? Isn’t sharing that experience part of tending all our gardens?

  • On January 16, 2010 at 9:11 am Ian wrote:

    Mr. Donovan, you make so many great points that we don’t know where one should themselves begin. I’ve always said that when we write posts (or comments on posts) one should ask themselves what the subject of the sentence was that they are agreeing with. Whom they are serving usually takes care of itself, or themselves, or at least so we think, one.

    What I am trying to say, Mr. Donovan, is thank you, thank you for another insane gift.

  • On January 16, 2010 at 9:50 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    So interesting to read the word “shunning.” I have been thinking of that word’s relationship to racism — subtle, low level racism that is formulated in the body of the person who is shunned as: shame. Questions of color/race aside, or through them, I wonder if this is the case for poets; I remember Renee Gladman giving a reading and talking about the response to her book of poems, “A Picture Feeling.” I remember she used the words: “It disappeared.” [It was odd to hear her speak like that, too, in part because of the “gift” of her experimental prose writing — Newcomer and TOAF were “incoming”]. So: Does it matter if our work is reviewed/written about or not? Proprioception, for experimental writing in particular, seems like part of the conversation. Does the nervous system of a book depend upon the touch that comes from the outside? How can we write books that have their own sentience, alliances, and ways of entering the culture that are about giving and receiving life in another way? Thank you, Thom, for bringing up the subject of critique and linking it to the visceral response the body, the poet, the person who reads poems, might have.

  • On January 16, 2010 at 10:44 am 333 wrote:

    @Cheryl: Inclined to agree. I’d always rather find out what someone didn’t like about a piece of mine than go on admiring it while everyone says ‘isn’t it sad, that nice poet shacked up with that hunchbacked (kyphotic), fly-blown old sheep of a poem?’

    Bhanu: It is possible to granularize nonsense into the appearance of great complexity, given enough skill. Hein has written about this. One function of criticism, I think, is to perceive this reducibility. Truth is nonreducible, and is left standing at the end, if anything is.

    Ian: It’s neat to me that you brought up the distinction between serving and agreeing. It makes the word ‘servile’ a very disquieting one…

    Love to all -I’m in a caring mood, probably as I beat the cat in the night and am in a depressive cycle and glad of it.

  • On January 16, 2010 at 12:48 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Thom, I don’t think I’d seen your blog post on the “Negative reviews” forum at Mayday. Glad you link to that, as there’s a good deal of value (and entertainment!) in the thirty-plus responses there.

    I think much of what you say about the value of *positive* criticism is great. We always need more of that, for sure.

    But would we really want to dispense with the “negative” kind? Think of how much of that we have in the history, and of how important (in manifold ways) “harsh” or negative critical writing has been. What do we do with the 18th century, for example? Where would radical Modernism have gone without negative critique? What would Pound have done with himself, for example? The avant-garde, ipso facto, has always relied on it. Though certainly not just the a-g, classically conceived: The cantankerous mood of Bly’s 50s, 60s and 70s journals, limited as the formulations there often were, fueled attention to lots of news from abroad, more or less changing everything. The bottom drops out of a centripetal magazine like Sulfur, if you take the irascible spirit away. And where would Language poetry be, say, without its vicious attacks on the mainstream, back in the 70s? Well, one could make a list three miles long. But the agonistic spirit is often what clears ground, disrupts assumptions and hierarchies, moves things on… It almost sounds funny, really, to assert something so obvious, so immanent to the tradition of literature. One can choose to practice negativity via silence and neglect, as you seem to suggest, but where does that leave us? Is that really more ethical than open and honest confrontation? (I don’t think so– in fact, the practice of strategic Silence as means of group selection and control has become a pervasive and noxious form of behavior amongst the post-avant, in my opinion– very much a part of its “collective unconscious.”)

    And from another angle, isn’t a withering, negative review sometimes the best thing a writer could get? In that it may function as index of unsuspected value and of the new? When we look back, this certainly seems the case, and again and again. At the very least, it helps us to understand the bigger context of things, to more fully appreciate periods, movements, and the like. Was it actually a bad thing that Whitman was abused? Or think about art, too: Hooray for the critics of the Armory Show! So negative reviews can function in this way, too. Sometimes the joke’s on the critics, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    One other question. If you are going to follow the logic of your argument through, wouldn’t you have to give the ethical boot to Satire, in the main? I think so. And then, well, what would we do with the Greeks and Romans, just for starters?

    Nothing wrong with the loving kind of critical attention. But there is what those often-negative Greeks used to call the “dialectic,” too.

  • On January 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm Colin Ward wrote:


    Isn’t this shunning more disrespectful than a negative critique?

    Perhaps, yes. Of course, an even more obvious flaw with the mokusatsu approach is that readers usually can’t know if a book is being politely ignored (“shunned” sounds a little too conspiratorial for my tastes) or just being overlooked/underblurbed.

    At the heart of all of this may lie a dangerous conflation of roles, with critics being recast as cheerleaders for poets rather than filters for readers.


  • On January 16, 2010 at 4:29 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Kent put it better than I ever could. Times change, conditions change, history moves along… & the old way of saying things in poetry, while it may be great, no longer suffices – because every time requires RE-creation, a new representation… Wallace Stevens has a wonderful short essay where he talks about how the grand old forms of poetry, while grand & great, are not quite right anymore, for NOW…

    So negative criticism is appropriate, when it becomes clear that poets are depending on, & mimicking too closely, & being overshadowed by, the achievements of prior generations…

    But literary criticism has its own history & traditions, & if young poets would pay more attention to this history, such questions as “why negative criticism?” would not even come up… because they are so obvious…

    & perhaps we live in a period which doesn’t pay ENOUGH attention to prior generations & their poetry & criticism – & this is how we become complacent, ignorant, & parochial, without even realizing it – & hence second-rate…

  • On January 16, 2010 at 4:52 pm Cheryl Gilbert wrote:

    I should probably apologize for using the word shunned, since I realize it’s stronger than warranted. I wanted to emphasize the non-benign aspect of lack of attention– but probably picked too big a pen.

  • On January 17, 2010 at 11:46 am Chris Hosea wrote:

    Hi Thom,
    Thanks for this and your other posts here. You advance a generative, loving, open-minded approach to poetry that brings to mind, for me, the communal aspect of celebration and sharing. So much binary choosing is asked of us: accept/decline; like/dislike; thumbs-up/thumbs-down–sometimes it all seems to boil down to buy or decline to buy. Often one wants to skate past aesthetic debates by saying “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” To each her own, etc. For me, criticism that is loving invites us into the critic’s pleasure as well as her difficulties. As you put it so well, criticism can fruitfully ask: “What are the conditions of a work’s making? How is it positioned within a socio-historical context? How are aesthetic decisions co-constitutive with their social context? If we get ‘negative’ guided by these questions then so be it.” Social context is very important, and I’d ask other questions, too. Like What kinds of pleasures or agonies does the work provoke? What kinds of emotional focuses and aporia does the work smuggle or proclaim? What kinds of narratives attended the reader’s experience of the work? Does the poem match the couch? And so on.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful post.
    All the best,

  • On January 17, 2010 at 12:30 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Yes, the binary is what bothers me as well. Thom your approach is certainly generous. You must have missed the whole discussion around “going negative” that erupted here a while back. The question is one that seems to attract a lot of energy. My poetry students are often the ones who call for “more criticism” “harder criticism” assuming this will come in a negative form, and that this negative is somehow more valid than the thoughtful, provocative questions being asked in class. The latter often around flaws and faults, and places that need rethinking… The generative is often too subtle. It’s like they would rather have blunt pain than have to think about the work. It’s not immediate enough. I don’t really know why, but I notice that people assume critical to be harsh, biting and honest which often leads to totalizing language.

    Why is a generative question any less critical, or honest? Perhaps because it can’t be contained in a 500 word review? I don’t know. But I don’t much buy the either or of the gloss vs. negative. Tougher criticism to me means more probing, less judging.

    In any case, more interviews on the subject over at lemonhound. Yesterday Christian Bok. http://lemonhound.blogspot.com/2010/01/on-reviewing-christian-bok.html

  • On January 17, 2010 at 1:20 pm Thom Donovan wrote:

    thanks for everyone who is responding here. you have all given me a lot to think about. I guess, in lieu of so much focus/concern about “shunning”/”silencing,” it is important to point out the violence of pushing to the margins. a book I love about the subject is Cary Nelson’s *Repression and Recovery*, which provides a thotful survey of how proletarian/revolutionary lit/art has been submerged by a literary establishment in the 20th century. these recoveries are absolutely necessary to my mind in lieu of the violence of marginalization. what I want to say–and the editorial statements at ON emphasize this fact–is that it is just so hard to invest time/energy in all that much without being very superficial. so what do you attend? it is a matter of attention as much as selection. so much that I love is withdrawn from popular attention because it is on the margins, published by small presses, etc. what’s more, much of that work is deemed “difficult,” if not nonsensical. as such, it is despatched with. more often than not, my ‘reviews’ and other criticism attempt to make legible the work of friends and contemporaries in an attempt for myself to understand them. and I think this is a super important function that criticism can serve. I guess, in a way, it is like a first criticism, or what criticism should do first. attempt to create a legibility–a way to read something or understand what it is doing, if not discern some consequences of this doing. in a way ‘negative’ criticism is a fallacy (to be dialectical) since any ‘positive’ act of critique clears the ground for new culture works. clears the ground, lays the foundation, prepares the way, etc. not being all that familiar with the function of 18th century criticism, I find something unattractive abt a Poundian model of critique (tho I do like his notion of an aristocracy of emotion). and it is interesting how many of Pound’s most important acolytes tend to avoid or simply overturn/mess with beyond recognition “papa’s” critical habits. thinking of Louis Zufofsky here in particular, whose critical works and poems of course can be read sardonically/ironically against a literary mainstream/establishment. but the struggle of a *Prepositions*, let’s says, is more than anything else to provide a supplement to the “work” (Zuk’s own work) and a kind of pedagogical tool for prosodics (*Bottom: on Shakespeare* is after all catalogued under “prosody”). maybe all of this is moot/passe at this point (it’s true I missed out for the large part on what Sina is alluding to). but to write from a position of desire–what would this mean? not nearly do we do this enough. Eileen Myles does it. so do many other writers which I read avidly. to write from the “body”–to realize critique comes from the body/embodied practices–I would stress this too. to realize ways that critique is mediated by ideology/institutional practices/identity formation/POWER. but mainly, what attracts us for inexplicable reasons which perhaps have something to with something we intuit about ourselves, or our world. the force of attraction, motivation. the force of environment, habit, blood(stream), molecular make-up. I would also mention the force of ideas, wanting ideas to become active through a literary work or object. Deleuze’s beautiful cinema books come to mind here, wherein the philosopher constructs an entire philosophical system around cinema’s history/technology/forms. what if criticism aimed for that–building creative systems? desiring criticism broaches a creative criticism. a criticism that wishes to make new worlds. Sina’s right that perhaps the problem is with the “word count.” to not do harm often is a matter a breadth/duration/finding form in time. it takes time (a la slow criticism). or ‘we’ are internal to its durations.

  • On January 17, 2010 at 1:30 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Also, there are critics who in fact *do* want to do harm. That is the point.

  • On January 17, 2010 at 1:34 pm Eric Landon wrote:

    ‘This is for the people who wanna live by the Sword, and don’t realise that fighting brings only more fighting.’



    Reading the crackerjack secular and professional preachers of the parnassian Art, musing on what eloquent formulae of words release the individuals’ inward Attic universe without into print, can be a very rewarding experience.

    Assessing what their (and our) Appollonian and Dionysian objects-in-air are and mean and why they’re successfull: that fair play democratic kiss to a correctly constructed professor’s technolgy of the western poetic intellect: printing, writing (and reading) – in the (other) soul wholly in synch with a universal cathectic good that begins within our own psychic swirl, is projected first as the Allah, Buddha, Christ, or whatever abc your God be, when released into print.

    To err on the side of seeking to sing entirely from some portion of will cognate with ‘splendour or praise’ – and to keep alert, observing what quantity of ‘unfruitful prayer’ (negative criticism) – Satire (we create): is a basic tenet in one specific poetic dogma and very important, yet underknown forerunner to the AmPo tradition constituting a key strand in the current Globish (global English) poetic.

    ‘Money, success and untold wealth, good health
    And all you have to do is love yourself.’

    Maxi Jazz

    But, there’s always one (and often many) ‘but‘s belonging to as many people as are confident enough to voice misgivings and negative appraisals about another’s poem. Especially in the current critical climate of improvised online ‘deconstruction’ – at length, and in academically biased discourse, blah blah, collegiate ping-pong, to and fro, conversational back and forth, analytical Nth degreeism whose terminal quals are never quite finally arrived at (or known), and whose capacity for ‘good’ness and positivity, can turn into becoming a chiefly gnostic activity for those in positions overseeing positively engendered verbal displays that avoid an occupation of ‘negative’ critical positions. John Ashbery cannot be faulted many think, Donovan – as a beau ideal. But.

    ‘It’s in minor keys
    Solutions and remedies
    Enemies becoming friends
    When bitterness ends
    This is where I heal my hurts
    It’s in the world I become
    Contained in the hum
    Between voice and drum
    It’s in the change

    There’s always an opposing, potential and platform to consider balancing, in more considered and public forms of rag-mag-panel-chairs, delivered through less hectic letterboxes to the private, lay-person’s door. Like Maxi Jass at Glastonbury connecting with God is a DJ:

    ‘This is my church.’

  • On January 17, 2010 at 2:14 pm Thom Donovan wrote:

    “Like What kinds of pleasures or agonies does the work provoke? What kinds of emotional focuses and aporia does the work smuggle or proclaim? What kinds of narratives attended the reader’s experience of the work? Does the poem match the couch?”
    nice one Chris!

    Bhanu: Renee’s sense of her book “disappearing” (especially a picture book) reminds me of Jalal Toufic’s sense of his first two books being occulted (withdrawn not only from material circulation, but in some sense from a manifest world). I like the implication that her book disappeared into something else (the gift of TOAF).

    when is a work too contemporary? there is an ontology of literary production which criticism so often neglects. time zones/senses of the work that don’t always correspond with the culture at large; that haunt it, lap, lag, synchronize, diachronize, eclipse, elapse…

    touching books–I have no doubt they touch us and we touch them. we are haunted by having been with them

  • On January 17, 2010 at 2:30 pm Thom Donovan wrote:

    “And from another angle, isn’t a withering, negative review sometimes the best thing a writer could get? In that it may function as index of unsuspected value and of the new? When we look back, this certainly seems the case, and again and again. At the very least, it helps us to understand the bigger context of things, to more fully appreciate periods, movements, and the like. Was it actually a bad thing that Whitman was abused? Or think about art, too: Hooray for the critics of the Armory Show! So negative reviews can function in this way, too. Sometimes the joke’s on the critics, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

    I like the idea of the joke being on the critics Kent–so true in many cases. And “index of unsuspected value”… well put!

    given those examples, I guess I have never wanted to be the person who ‘trashed’ a contemporary Whitman. or was reactionary towards modern art. then again, there is something to be said for critical honesty, which can come from the gut. if only as an index of the times.

    using certain persons/works as foils–I am more interested in that (and perhaps this is where I tend to go ‘negative’). Michael Fried for Robert Smithson and a generation of art critics in 60s/70s. or Clement Greenburg for postmodernism. but then Fried and Greenburg were critics, not practitioners. and Smithson was an artist-critic.

    I guess I would hold up Smithson as a great model of ironic/satirical criticism.

  • On January 17, 2010 at 4:35 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Not that I want to fan any discussion of negative/positive, which is, to my mind, a complete red herring, but I don’t follow your logic Henry:
    So negative criticism is appropriate, when it becomes clear that poets are depending on, & mimicking too closely, & being overshadowed by, the achievements of prior generations…

  • On January 17, 2010 at 6:48 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Right. I don’t see what the logical problem is there. Sometimes you need negative criticism to shine a light on work that is no longer creative, that is too imitative, too uncritically repetitious, of prior writing. That’s what I’m saying.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 1:21 am Robert wrote:

    Thom, love this post! I’ve written a short re: at http://endingthealphabet.org.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 11:52 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Henry, I still don’t see why we need need “negative criticism” in particular “to shine a light on work that is no longer creative, that is too imitative, too uncritically repetitious, of prior writing.” We need historical consciousness perhaps, we need to make greater contextual connections, we might even need to question the very basis of the project, but why need any of that be negative? Or positive for that matter.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 12:43 pm Don Share wrote:

    “To make known the weaknesses of the great is a kind of duty: in doing so one comforts thousands without doing the great any harm.” – Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s letter on Rousseau, Mercure de France, September 1779

  • On January 18, 2010 at 12:52 pm Kent Johnson wrote:


    I wouldn’t have wanted to have been one of the people abusing Whitman either! Just saying that it helped the many-limbed body of poetry that some people did. Same in all kinds of other situations, in all of the arts. Thank goodness Dada got attacked, for instance. I suspect they expected it and welcomed it. They certainly weren’t requesting positive responses from the cultural surround. Would we have wished that Stravinsky got rave reviews instead of the “negative” ones? Duchamp? One could quickly get bored making impromptu lists of enabling moments in culture where great art got raked over the coals.

    In fact, the matter we’re really discussing is not just what kind of “attitude” we want to adopt when we set out to write “reviews.” This is where I think you and Sina are largely passing over the deeper issue. The bigger subtext here is what kind of *poetic culture* in the main innovative writers “desire,” as you put it: That is, a poetry impelled by confrontational, avant-garde spirit is naturally going to acknowledge the worth and need of a confrontational, “negative” criticism– it will open itself to it and it will practice it with abandon (against “conventional mores,” of course, but also to some extent internally); a poetry guided by a spirit of affirmation and adaptation (the dominant drift of a “post-avant” increasingly aligned with academia and related institutions) is going to naturally drift towards critical dispositions that assume broadly legitimating affects of politeness, protocol, and nice feelings all around– “mutual-support” affects, again, let’s keep in mind, that often cloak divisive dynamics of cliquishness and exclusion. Not that we can ever get rid of the latter, but it does us good to remember that sometimes the warmest sounding folks in the poetry world can be the most competitive and vindictive, “negative” as it is to say so.

    That’s not in any way to say it’s one or the other, Positive or Negative. To repeat what I said in comment above, we need more of what you’re advocating, and I praise you for putting it so well. The mistake I see you making is that you seem to want to make it either/or. Though I say “mistake” assuming we agree an experimental poetics still desires, in consort with all its visionary energies and delights, to make trouble, upset, provoke, enrage, satirize, refuse, and so on. If you think an oppositional poetics still has those roles to play, then you should recognize that a “negative” criticism is as requisite as it’s always been.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 12:55 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    Kyle Dargan, poet and formerly managing editor of Callaloo, now editor of the review zine Post No Ills

    ( http://www.postnoills.com/ )

    at a conference I attended last spring in DC expressed a desire for reviews that strike a balance, not gloss but not jackassery (my neologism, not his). Perhaps this is the way we need to go. (He also pays reviewers, btw.)

  • On January 18, 2010 at 1:29 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I have difficulty with the relativism in much of this discussion. “The binary”? What a critic DOES is make judgements. These involve choosing to call things good or bad. Everybody agrees that these are personal, imperfect & individual judgements, and that whoever reads them is free to accept & be convinced by their arguments or not. Criticism has a rational & historical basis in the literature & thought of the culture out of which it emerges. A convincing criticism will show an understanding & a taste with regard to that history & tradition, as well as an openness to new developments. A convincing criticism will also display an understanding of the basic elements of grammar, rhetoric, style, poetics. Without these basics you are not going to have a real criticism, on which to make valid critical judgements (good or bad).

    There is a lot of bad literature out there – some of it emanating from well-known & successful writers. A critic’s task is to educate popular taste – to help readers discover the best their culture has to offer – & WHY it is the best. Again, no critic’s judgements are absolute or authoritative – it is always a conversation & a debate. But if you don’t accept any standards of good or bad art, good or bad ways of writing, then criticism – negative or positive – is meanin gless to you.

    “Let your yes be yes & your no be no – all the rest comes from evil.” (Jesus, in the Gospels)

    Honestly I can’t believe I have to defend these things & spell them out. Maybe I live in an outdated world, where there actually are grounds for choosing things, for better or worse. I don’t know.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 1:46 pm Matt wrote:

    “A critic’s task is to educate popular taste”

    Whenever someone offers to educate me I offer them a bus ticket out of town.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 1:46 pm thom donovan wrote:

    maybe it is a generational difference Kent. something that really hasn’t come into the discussion is age/generation. I think it’s interesting how dependent your arguments are on a kind of avant garde commitment to antagonism, whereas I don’t feel that pull of antagonism as much and, as you are suggesting, may be reacting or responding to this antagonistic impulse/desideratum within our culture. friends in an art context are responding similarly, which is by creating new spaces that do not so much eschew discussion or criticism of institutions (I think my generation is hyper-critical/suspicious of institutionality), but which want to build something different, whether from within institutions and/or counter-institutionally (and we are being forced to, frankly, because of so much encroachment on public space, resources, and discourse as a result of rightwing reaction to Baby Boomers). tho I’ve a PhD from a prestigious institutional place for poetry, I long to create spaces outside the academy and corporations alike. and to do so through a conversational model. antagonistic discourse too often does not allow for conversation. perhaps I am being ‘either/or’ but sometimes culture does swing a certain way, and I feel myself and many others in this swing. on the one hand, a la Nietzsche/foils, there is a sense that one “deserves” their friends and their enemies. and in terms of going negative (or wanting something to wither) a clear “enemy” has yet to emerge for me (and maybe never will). of course wither the Billy Collinses, the schools of quietude, the MFA industry, official verse culture… all that–soft targets all for pledged ‘avant gardists’. but what one really wants is someone to argue with out of a sense of shared terms, commitments, consequences. this tends to happen at the level of one’s community. I would rather build to this ‘negative’ moment among my community (friends, colleagues, correspondents, heros) I suppose. Spicer’s Arthurian someone better come around and tear this armor off me. Spicerian antagonism, since it rarely transcended his local scene/community, seems a model for productive antagonism. then again, I love Creeley’s writings (however much that man could raise hell) or a Duncan for their ability to synthesize enormous chunks of cultural material while seeing the trees for the forest. the radically particular. through the force of their desire, and less so because they went on the ‘war path’, a New American Poetry was born within a radical socio-political context for poetry. who in the post-war 20th century Kent inspires you in terms of this conversation about what a criticism should be? I would be very curious to know…

  • On January 18, 2010 at 1:50 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    A good point, Don. And onward.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 1:55 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    You must live in a very ignorant town.

    & p.s. hey folks, what are “values”?

    Do you have any values? Well, guess what : values involve “good” and “bad”. & in fact, “good” is meaningless without its contrary, “bad”. So when you praise something, you are emphasizing a particular goodness, a virtue, in that things : the absense of which implies some lack of goodness, or badness.

    A critic is someone who articulates & shares his or her literary values with the public.

    also, 2 + 2 = 4.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    & please pardon my typo above. Should have read :

    “emphasizing a particular goodness, a virtue, in that thing : the absence of which implies some lack of goodness, or badness.”

  • On January 18, 2010 at 2:18 pm Colin Ward wrote:


    A clarification, please:

    A critic’s task is to educate popular taste – to help readers discover the best their culture has to offer – & WHY it is the best.

    Are you talking about the scholar-critic, writing long after publication about a work’s place in the canon, or the reviewer-critic, writing shortly after publication about a work’s value to a contemporary target market? Or both?


  • On January 18, 2010 at 2:46 pm Matt wrote:

    not saying there’s no good and bad. just saying i can decide for myself. i can do without condescending know-it-all pricks like anthony lane or whoever.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 3:26 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    None of you people really know how to use punctuation properly, do you?

    And God have mercy…Jesus save my soul…I actually agree with Kent Johnson and Colin Ward!

  • On January 18, 2010 at 4:23 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    >antagonistic discourse too often does not allow for conversation.


    It depends, of course, what one means by “antagonistic discourse.” If you’re talking about ad hominem attack, or something, then you would be right.

    But cultural antagonism, if consequent and in pursuit of an ethic and vision, can certainly lead to vibrant tension, discourse, debate, and the better understandings that often flow therefrom. And thoughtful, energetic antagonism, when undertaken “collectively,” can also certainly lead to the kind of group identity and solidarity you are advocating! One will speak, naturally, in different manner to members within one’s cultural zone than one will to those seen as representative of forces that threaten it. Surely, securing and expanding such areas of autonomy, even highly provisional ones, often involves identifying what one wants and does not, what is inside and outside, what is seen as enabling and what is not, and then speaking about it honestly. Not that things don’t get messy…

    This all seems obvious to me; I’m talking about a mode of being and comportment that has guided literary development (and, yes, retrogression, too!) since the Greeks, practiced by the youthful and the aged. It is decidedly NOT, as you imply, a “generational” thing, if by that you mean that older people like me tend to be naturally crankier than you talented, non-cynical youngsters.

    I’ve got a bad head cold right now, so just to end with your final question about current examples– and actually, maybe this will tie in to what you more mean by “generational”: Part of my point is that there hasn’t been, since Langpo’s academic turn some twenty years back, the kind of rich a-g spirit that once animated that group or its NAP antecedents (and by the way, I think you’re applying an unwieldy shoehorn to Spicer there). I think one central reason for the interregnum is sociological, through and through: We’re in a period of poetic professionalism, where “formally innovative” poetry is now deeply entwined with institutional contexts and expectations, and “experiment” has become a phenomenon not of cultural negation and critique, in the classic good sense, but of affirmation and accommodation– from Hybrid to Conceptual. And this has all sorts of attitudinal and behavioral manifestations. Most of those are completely unconscious, of course, and have nothing to do with individual bad faith, or anything like that, but they increasingly show themselves, and in all of us. The shunning of confrontational criticism, as if it were something unhealthy or injurious to poetry and its practitioners, I think is one of them.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Ed Smith (1940-2003) was a masterful young rebellious Seattle poet hanging out with Charles Potts after charismatic Charlie finished his undergrad mentorship with Ed Dorn. Ed had a strange breakdown around 1970 and became a Foursquare Pentacost evangelist, forswearing poetry for thirty years.

    When the Lord forsook Ed (left him high and dry selling insurance) he got back into poetry, contacted Charlie who has maintained a vigorous underground preesence in Walla Walla, and then called me.

    I was hanging out in DeKalb, Illinois, quondam haunt of Kent Johnson, with my girlfriend Becky. Ed drove up from East Saint Louis to dine with Becky and John Bradley and followed us home, emptying Becky’s Hennessey while quoting early poems of Charlie’s that didn’t quite click and railing, antagonistically, against Roethke, whom he took to be the motor behind what he quite didn’t have the glitz to name as Quietude.

    Becky shooed us out of the house in the morning and Ed and I went walking on the prairie while he told me about his days in Vietnam. They hustled him out of the country after Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated. We had lunch at Bea’s Wok and Roll, where Ed startled Bea with fluent but rusty Vietnamese. That winter, Ed came down with the flu and then pneumonia, having neither health insurance nor support system, and died at 63. His renovated poetry was getting better, nearly up to speed.

    Ed’s rant against Roethke struck me as particularly out of touch, the kind of passionate diatribe some here have directed at Pound/Brooks/Warren, the autodidact’s eloquent and zealous lack of perspective.

    On e more poet most of you never heard of, one more lost soul, one more name for the rolls.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 5:17 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    “There’s no such thing as bad publicity…

    just spell the name right!”

    – unattributed

  • On January 18, 2010 at 7:45 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    A lot of nonsense here (I especially like Matt’s input: he doesn’t require an education, & apparently believes that the only thing criticism is for is to tell him whether to go see a movie.

    As William Logan has argued for the necessity of haters at length, & as anyone actually willing to think about the question rather than weigh in with prefabricated bromides about doing no harm will already have read Logan carefully, I won’t say much besides the obvious: most contemporary poetry — I mean, almost all of it — is trash that will not last. If you say so, & if you say so well, you are not doing harm. You are doing readers a service. Even if they disagree with you, at least they are forced to consider why they disagree. The poet’s feelings are not even a consideration. He or she put the book out there. He or she was not required to do so.

    Go read some Pope, for Christ’s sake, then get back to me about doing no harm.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 7:47 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    forgot to close the parentheses)

  • On January 18, 2010 at 7:51 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Both. & again, to repeat : critical judgements are neither necessary nor absolute. In other words, responding to Matt, nobody’s saying you HAVE to read them, learn from them.

    But developing a critical sensibility, vocabulary, & set of principles takes work. It is a vocation. & good criticism is a sign of a vibrant literary-artistic culture – it’s the sign of intelligent persons taking poetry seriously & exploring it with others.

    40 years ago, when I was in college, I didn’t feel this way. This was in the late 60s. Every generation in the 20th century had its revolt against rationality : in the 60s, this was part of the poetry scene. Reason was felt to be part of the oppressive structure of the War-State. The cool thing in poetry was surrealism, the irrational : Ashbery was my god. The pleasures of pure nonsense – anti-reason – reading for the sheer joy of stream-of-consiousness, reading for reading’s sake : this was the exciting dimension in literature. Poetry that tried to argue, that tried to reminisce, that tried to “say” something, was too much work : & it was pedestrian, boring.

    For me it’s been a slow process of discovering that poetry in English runs much deeper, both in thought & feeling, than these adolescent enthusiasms could handle. Today’s generation, of course, has its own versions of fashionable pseudo-talk : you can read it in Harriet blog posts here, every day. But I learned (over time) that there is an unacknowledged aggression in the move to surrealist & other versions of irrationalism : the denial of reason is the denial of truth, of dialogue about the truth. It’s the replacement of truth & the search for truth, with self-indulgent verbiage, with what we used to call “creativity”….

  • On January 18, 2010 at 9:10 pm Colin Ward wrote:


    Waiters who tell me that asparagus is nutritional are cutting into their tips.

    What Matt and Michael said.


  • On January 18, 2010 at 9:28 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Michael: Of course most of it is trash. But to imagine that professional critics are any use at separating the dross from the rest of the stack is to imagine that they are anything other than totally referential and completely caught up in whatever constructed groove their industry is moving in. That’s why the really good poets (like me) languish so. And yes, we were required to put the book out there. Anyone who imagines otherwise is no writer. No, our feelings do not matter. Neither, of course, does the criticism, except in that it constitutes desirable attention (like all attention). Whip me, beat me, cover me in gold – just READ me. So yes, critics are good. But, like all things outside the pure moment, they are in the large view utterly worthless. (I know that goes just as well for all my work – Hein had a little bit that covered that, which slips memory at the moment).


  • On January 18, 2010 at 10:09 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Michael, nice to see you here.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 11:04 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Uh, Peter? You’re talking to a professional critic, as well as a fellow poet. So I’m not sure I understand the reasonable, well-as-we-all-know tone. Obviously I think you’re wrong. No doubt some critics do what you say, but telling yourself that’s why you’re neglected is both self-deluding & self-aggrandizing. It’s the critics’ fault! Or maybe you’re not a very good poet. One clue: if you have to say in a blog comment that you’re a “very good poet,” you’re not. That’s not up for discussion, it’s axiomatic.

    And no, you were not required to put the book out there. At all. You have a ridiculous idealized view of poetry, which it is my job to ridicule. And I like my job.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 11:06 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Sina, dear, always a pleasure.

  • On January 18, 2010 at 11:33 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Michael: Well goodness, Michael, if I knew all, wouldn’t I know that you were a professional critic (hint: it was obvious…)? No, I don’t feel I’m neglected because of bad critics. I wouldn’t know a tongue if it came right up and bit hell outside of the inside of my cheek, either, and I pack plenty of both. Ahem. As to requirements, I don’t have to say, write or do anything, laddie (likely you outyear me, but I LOVE saying ‘laddie’, so humour me), that isn’t in my job description. It’s taken me a while to work out my job description. Ongoing effort even. However, somewhere in the fine print you need the magic golden glasses to read (at night, when you’re sleeping), it says : publish that crap from now on, son. So, yeah, I do actually have a need to put it out there. Sorta like the older guy in the trenchcoat under the bleachers who shows you his little man when you’re in grade 5. I got needs. Oh, and ‘one clue’: If you find yourself obliged to tell someone you don’t know that they’re no good as a poet after having taken their words in a comment stack rawther sewious like, in a blog post, you’re passive-aggressive and feeling very defensive. And finally, yes, I do have a ridiculous idealized view of poetry. I’ve a poet’s license to feel that way. Go get one. they’re free…if you qualify.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 1:04 am Michael Theune wrote:

    A lot of conversation here about the criticism of books of poems, but not anthologies. Anthologies seem to offer a special case.

    Thom states in his blog post responding to “Some Darker Bouquets” that “[i]n fact I’m not sure what a negative criticism would look like anymore–the field of poetry seems so heterogeneous and dispersed.” So, at least in this one instance, the difficulty with making a negative evaluation (of any sort? not sure why this is true only of negative evaluations…) is simply that one has no sure critical ground upon which to stand.

    But anthologies very seldom only offer just poems; they often offer critical statements that spell out the (supposed) significance of the anthologized work. When one sees a mismatch between what an anthologist says s/he is doing and what in fact tends to occur in the anthologized work, it seems completely fitting to call the anthologist on this. What might result could be a full-blown “going negative” (sometimes called for, depending on the egregiousness of the thinking under scrutiny), or a skillful critique–either way, it would seem to me a well-deserved negative review…

  • On January 19, 2010 at 1:25 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Well, I don’t want one, but I do apologize for one thing: I meant that the view of poetry I called ridiculous is one I try to ridicule in my criticism, not that I feel you should be singled out for ridicule.

    And I was taking the piss about the “very good poet” biz.

    Also, I should make it clear that I am talking about well-known, established writers when I argue for the necessity of what I don’t think is appropriately called “negative reviews.” Most books sink without a trace, usually deservingly (sometimes not, & then a critic’s job is different, & happier), & shouldn’t be mocked on their way down. No point. I’m not arguing for being cruel unnecessarily. But for being necessarily antagonistic.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 1:26 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Jarrell’s review of one of Oscar Williams’s anthologies is a classic. I think we need more reviews of anthologies, & more thinking about the project of anthologization.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 1:31 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    also, I love yr work with Fleetwood Mac.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 11:19 am Peter Greene wrote:

    @Michael: Aheh. Nothing to apologize for, man – I can drink lumpy cream as well as dish it out, o critic mine divine. Yeah, I share more than a name with the Mac man – some basic sentiment too (…i can’t sing/i ain’t pretty and my legs are thin…). Hell, Michael, Ive enjoyed our little exchange enough that I’m even going to Google about and see if I can’t find some of your poetry – or even (ipe!) critical work. I agree that professional criticism has function – without structure, we none of us have any railings to cling to in this life, and whatever injustices result are probably pretty unimportant in the long run. Decent work will out, unless it’s lost.

    And if I’d ever had any critical attention whatsoever, I’d be happy to resent your class with the genuine fervour of the nearly-paid. However, I’m just emerging from a long dream of madness and closed horizons, and haven’t even put so much as my big toe in the water professionally. I’ve got the hours under-belt, I’ve got one faded old laurel on the office wall (wall is a generous term, but I’m a magnanimous man this morning). And I really am very good. But I certainly don’t think anybody owes me a thing. Not even critics. And I need to start a third sentence with and in this.

    Heh. I even live in a town called VanAnda (no space, two caps). And and and. Ooo. I think I need coffee and a calmative (aka ‘a balancing breakfast).

    Anyhoy, thanks for your pleasant and well-reasoned banter. A pleasure, and good day to you sir.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 11:24 am Peter Greene wrote:

    @ Both Michaels here: Quoting Michael T (quoting Thom D, not sure what the correct Latin term for that is, hyperquexia or something) “Thom states in his blog post responding to “Some Darker Bouquets” that “[i]n fact I’m not sure what a negative criticism would look like anymore–the field of poetry seems so heterogeneous and dispersed.””

    Michael R covered this point rather well, and in my opinion correctly, in this comment stack, when he said (scrolls up, presses buttons): “most contemporary poetry — I mean, almost all of it — is trash that will not last.”.

    Bango. It’s just like listening to pop radio. There’s nuggets in that art-o-rrhea, but you need a strong stomach to pick them out and taste them.


  • On January 19, 2010 at 11:28 am Peter Greene wrote:

    @ Both Michaels again: A good anthologist is worth their weight in gold. It’s the ideal job for the serious writer who gets little publication traction, and a real sacrifice on their part in terms of time. In fact, I suppose there’s a natural job match between pro critics and anthology-writing. Like that Nabob commercial where the nice colonial suit sweeps all the coffee he plans to serve you onto the floor, and highgrades off one bean for himself (if that’s how it went).

    shutting up now to drink coffee and watch the light grow greyer until the sad/awakening time when gloam turns to grey day,

  • On January 19, 2010 at 11:35 am Michael Theune wrote:


  • On January 19, 2010 at 11:36 am Matt wrote:

    your interpretation of my comment is weird and wrong. but why am i not surprised. enough with the arrogance already.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 11:46 am Don Share wrote:

    A classic on the subject is Robert Graves & Laura Riding’s A Pamphlet against Anthologies.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 12:04 pm Matt wrote:

    oh, and i’m reading alexander hamilton’s biography right now, so you can do away with the idea i’m against education. i educate myself.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 12:50 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @ Michael R. again (then I really will shut up and go do some work): Had a google about, found digital emunction and a few other things, but only came across one of your poems, Alien vs. Predator. I won’t say I understood it – i’m the kind of guy who has to look up Rilke, so sue me for not getting through high school (institutionalized, wrecked my GPA tellya), or college (dropped out to become a drug-crazed menial labourer), or university 13 years after that (it WAS fun, though, worth every penny and all that interest) – actually, don’t bother suing me. I’m broke and already peaceable. I liked it, though. I thought it might even be rather good. If you have a moment to drop a link or two here, is there anywhere public I can find a few more of yours? I’m lazy and used to paper sources (looked up Rilke in a yellowed, folding old book, for goodness’ sake).
    Quite sincerely,

  • On January 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I suppose every teacher in the world knows what it means to deal with the class know-it-alls – the ones who experience teachers & teaching as a personal threat to their ego.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 1:59 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    A reviewer is not a teacher.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 2:03 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Maybe you need to take a class on logic & rhetoric, Colin. I was making what they call an analogy. I’ve learned a lot from critics, BTW, I don’t know about you.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 2:57 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    I’ve learned a lot from critics, BTW, I don’t know about you.

    As have I, and from all three kinds: critiquers, reviewers and scholars. This is why I requested the clarification.

    At the risk of restating the obvious, the primary purpose of reviewing is evaluation, not education and certainly not proselytizing. IMHO, your analogy reflected this conflation of product with possible byproduct. In case you missed it, this was the point of my analogy.

    FWIW and in general, I agree with the rest of your argument.


  • On January 19, 2010 at 5:35 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    the primary purpose of reviewing is evaluation

    assumes facts not in evidence.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 5:44 pm Jill wrote:

    Has anyone found a negative review useful lately? Besides just feeling some cold-blooded joy at the poet’s misfortune at being called out for whatever, has a negative review changed your mind about anything?

  • On January 19, 2010 at 5:56 pm Thom Donovan wrote:

    great question Jill!

    I would add to that: what, historically, are some important examples of “negative criticism” and why are they important?

    Who are your favorite negative critics?

    What critical models would you champion, other than Pope?

  • On January 19, 2010 at 6:17 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Jill+Thom: I’ve certainly found negative reviews useful at the pragmatic level of purchase and item utilization. The best way to find out if the thing you are looking at having is any good or any bad is to head for the reviews. Now (no dig at Michael here), the professional paid reviewers of that sort are always, always worthless paid mouthpieces. The only way to find reliable information is to poll a large number of drooling ordinary Joe types on various fora (are there also fona out here?), and synthesize the results oneself.

    So I suppose the same might be true of literature (don’t know – my taste in art runs to the…available, within certain very strict limits that could even be called kinks). This however runs the risk of assuming that vox populi = Truth, which Kipling ably satirized with his political-monkeys bit in The Jungle Books (if we all say it, then it must be so, with flags and atrocities right around the corner). Sigh. Running in circles here, aren’t I?


  • On January 19, 2010 at 9:32 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    Processing your Jalal Toufic note, Thom, over the past couple of days- – I was thinking of what a ritual act might be for the book? To consider the site where the book “disappeared” and there to set a glass of water — to put it in the writing. To set a fire. From Alphonso Lingis/Houdoun (sp?)/Selah Saterstrom — to place something in the roots of a tree, which then – -animate — have the capacity to fetch the book? Attract it back to: the threshold where it vanished? How do you call the contents of a book back, if not the book as artifact? As figure? I think of writing the next book as deeply connected the one that preceded it. The one that vanished. Ceremony. I use the word as I understand it in a Hindu context. Not a context. A riverbank.

  • On January 19, 2010 at 9:46 pm thom donovan wrote:

    I am thinking about this question with students next Monday Bhanu. what does it mean for a text/art object to (be) withdraw from existence. there is death by water, fire, air, earth I suppose. a taking out of circulation. one could eat the book. one could erase every letter of it, reversing its literal process of appearance. Mallarme explored the silence of the book’s pages, as if the words were manifestations in an ether. one could paint a book black. one could photograph it and burn the photograph (a la Hollis Frampton). one could read it out loud as its photograph burns…

  • On January 20, 2010 at 12:48 am Michael Theune wrote:

    Mary Kinzie’s “The Rhapsodic Fallacy.” Vital negative criticism.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 12:58 am Michael Theune wrote:

    And Mark Halliday has written some really well-argued negative reviews in some of the latest issues of Pleiades.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 1:09 am Michael Theune wrote:

    To see recent negative reviewing turned into art, check out Mark Halliday’s “Vexing Praxis/Hocus Nexus” and Kent Johnson’s Epigramititis.

    A quick note on Epigramititis… One of the reasons why I love this work is that it takes (often, mostly) negative reviews and turns them (a la Pope, et al) into poems, and so, in accordance with some of the logic on display in the discussion here, one cannot negatively review them…

  • On January 20, 2010 at 9:11 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    Then: offer this ash, at a riverbank, with a pinch of red powder, which is an attractant. The ash of the book…

    I am against calling what is dead back; what is gone. (Mostly on account of being slightly frightened by it, and untrained.) But there is a difference between being dead and being impresent. How do you call a book back — and now, I am no longer sure exactly what a book is, which is a problem — in a way that still allows it to “never appear”? But to exist, I guess, in another (proximal) way, accessed only when you open to it through divination or incantation: whatever it is a person does to become an aperture.

    Also, reading ZONG! towards these questions of retrieval/…[not the right word (retrieval), but I’m marking my place, you could say, in trying to think about these things.]

  • On January 20, 2010 at 10:29 am Don Share wrote:

    To read the Kinzie piece, click here.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 10:30 am Don Share wrote:

    The Halliday can be read by clicking here.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 10:46 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Thom asked:

    >I would add to that: what, historically, are some important examples of “negative criticism” and why are they important?

    (as to why the below examples would be “important,” I’d suggest the instances require little explanation. Just a few from 20th century):

    Most early 20th century a-g manifestos.

    Pound and (in different tenor) Eliot.

    Any number of New Americans writing on New Criticism.

    Baraka and Black Arts critical work.

    Loads in early critical work from Langpo.

    Lots in Perloff (her case for the a-g depends on it).

  • On January 20, 2010 at 10:59 am Don Share wrote:

    And as we all know, negative reviewing killed John Keats.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 11:04 am john wrote:

    “The Stuffed Owl,” in addition to being very funny and mean, has helped me understand the relationship between rhetoric and poetry, and it was a big influence on one of my favorite book-length essays, Hugh Kenner’s “The Counterfeiters.”

    Not sure what constitutes “importance.”

  • On January 20, 2010 at 11:07 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Jill, yr question sort of assumes its answer, doesn’t it? Now we all know you don’t believe “negative criticism” could change anyone’s mind. But that’s just you. If you actually have a mind capable of being changed, it’s been changed by well-argued “negative reviews” before, if you read widely enough.

    But then, if you have such a mind, you don’t read reviews simply to either laugh at someone’s misfortune or to have yr mind changed. I read William Logan religiously because I admire his writing. That’s reason enough to read anything. Most people in this discussion seems to assume reviewing has the sole purpose of trying to convince the reader of a certain perspective. But reviews should be at least as well written as Scott Brown’s acceptance speech.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 11:20 am Jill wrote:

    Don’t be a jerk, Michael. I asked the question in good faith. I have always admired good writing whether “positive” or “negative,” but the course of this conversation included utility. It seemed like it would be useful to talk about specifics, and I don’t presume to know everything about the topic, so I asked a question. It’s been instructive to read the answers.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 11:53 am Michael Theune wrote:

    Don Share, you are Master of Links!

  • On January 20, 2010 at 11:58 am Michael Theune wrote:

    Oh, dear. You’re joking, right, Don? (Or being provocative…) Keats’s death by negative review is, of course, myth–not fact.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm J. Townsend wrote:

    Thom, what a great post, and thank you so much for your mention and kind words regarding con/crescent.

    As this topic is quite near and dear to me it’s great to see such an involved and thoughtful discussion sparked by your thoughts on the purpose of/place of criticism today.

    What has occupied my mind a lot during this past year is the need for critical work to re-engage the reader at a point of mystery. As you said, the energy of living with/comprehending the work of art/the poem can be all-consuming, so the act of critical response, I think, necessitates a meeting point of intellectual and creative energy, that promotes continued dialogue, opens new associative paths, and most importantly, reinforces the bonds of community in the writing world. Much negative criticism does seem to me to be an unnecessary expenditure of energy (I think your point regarding the lack of attention given instead of expressly negative criticism is well taken), as “less effective” (whatever that means, person to person) works of art may not produce the amount of compelling and singular energy that will draw others into a prolonged engagement with them. This is not to “level the playing field”, or force the issue aesthetically but rather to organically allow a collective discussion to emerge.

    That being said, I think there is a shift occurring the way criticism is being produced (the web posting of the HD BOOK seems appropriate at this moment because it does, I think, exemplify a system of critical response that is open, associative, and more useful to writers than the standard aesthetic critique). Duncan’s communities of love, art that can beget other art (criticism is poetry of another form), that spur conversation and forge connection, seem to be what we need right now.

    Thanks again for your thoughtfulness.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 12:12 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    John Keats was killed by a stray raven, which had crashed through the window of his garret in Florence, Italy (where he was recuperating, ironically, from “raven flu”) just as he was going to open it… sending him off-balance, and 8 stories down into the street, crowded with charming 19th-cent. Italian street vendors. Edgar Allan Poe memorialized the tragedy in his hypnotic poem, “The Raven” (with its relentlessly-recurrent refried refrain : “Quoth the Raven, ‘O Damn! Sorry, Keats!”). At least that’s what I heard.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 12:23 pm Don Share wrote:

    Um, guilty as charged, BUT… didn’t you click on the link I included?

    See here for the latest thinking on the subject:


  • On January 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm sassjemleon wrote:

    rather than–like the primary sources critics usually engage with–purely creative with an impulse towards perfection and value, criticism is purely reactive and remoran in nature, a drag on humanity. for me, then, there is no ethical basis by which i can justify aspiring to get paid to publicly comment on the hard work of other humans.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 3:42 pm Thom Donovan wrote:

    here’s Travis Nichols on “Desiring Criticism” and the many comments posted here at The Huffington Post!


  • On January 20, 2010 at 5:04 pm Michael Theune wrote:

    I’d read the Barnard piece previously, Don. I’m not sure I get the point. Keats of course for some time felt the sting of his initial reviews. Sure. But they didn’t KILL him–tuberculosis did that.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 5:25 pm Don Share wrote:

    The point is, quoting from the article:

    “Cowden Clarke’s Morning Chronicle letter makes clear exactly how upset Keats was by the critical attacks in the autumn of 1818. Clarke’s sleepless night at Well Walk most likely occurred before Hessey’s dinner party on September 14, in which case Keats’s “sensative-bitterness” was caused by Gifford’s (in fact, Lockhart’s) review of Endymion in Blackwood’s. The concerns of Keats’s publishers, Taylor and Hessey, and their adviser, Richard Woodhouse, were well founded, even though Keats’s letters to his publishers, friends and family show that he very quickly developed a rational and dignified response to his critics. By October 27, 1818, he was thinking seriously about, and possibly beginning to write, Hyperion, the most courageous way of answering criticism, and a project Keats had proposed for himself ten months earlier (even though he was still completing Endymion). But Cowden Clarke’s account of his initial response to Lockhart’s attack in Blackwood’s indicates that Keats was more uncertain, more deeply wounded, and more affected, than his admirers then, or subsequently, have been willing to admit.”

  • On January 20, 2010 at 5:57 pm Michael Theune wrote:

    I really dislike Barnard’s ambiguous use of the word “wounded,” which, of course, has physical connotations. However, though he may hint at it (he does use Clarke’s letter to critique what Gittings calls Keats’s “healthy attitude” toward his negative review), Barnard in fact does NOT argue that the negative review contributed to the progress of Keats’s tuberculosis in any significant way–he only suggests this. So, again: Keats MAY have been psychologically wounded by his negative reviews, but, they did not kill him.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 5:58 pm Don Share wrote:

    No more deadpan for me.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 6:11 pm Michael Theune wrote:

    No, Don: I love the jokes!

    It’s just that in this conversation I think we need to be clear about the facts around Keats’s death because the myth of Keats’s death by negative review can have a lot of power. In terms of what it means for our understanding of Keats: this is being debated by Keats scholars. (Though it is pretty fascinating to see what Barnard suggests in his essay but doesn’t really argue…) In terms of those who might consider writing a negative review: Keats’s death is irrelevant–when you write a negative review, you won’t be killing anyone, just critiquing ideas.

    Okay, I’m done being serious. Here endeth the sermon.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 6:29 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    OK, sorry, Jill, I misread yr tone. Thanks for the clarification.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 6:32 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    OK, I’m not misreading this nonsense. Typical outlook of the self-esteem movement. Someone builds an ugly thing that doesn’t work, but he put “hard work” into it, so we mustn’t say so. And you’re so sure there was such hard work involved?

    Humanity doesn’t exist, sweetheart.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 6:57 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    >Humanity doesn’t exist, sweetheart.

    You could probably do without all the “dears” and the “sweethearts.”

  • On January 20, 2010 at 7:42 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I call Sina dear. That’s how we roll. I call everyone sweetheart.

  • On January 20, 2010 at 9:32 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    There is so much macho swagger in this comment stream I can’t believe it.

    And all this bluster about negative makes me in turns laugh out loud and shake my head in wonder. What do you think being negative is? You think it’s critical? Being critical is, among other things, seeing a work in context, understanding its potential, beginning to note where it achieves its goals and where it falls short.

    Being negative, to my mind, usually involves evaluating a work of art by the reviewer’s standards not by the inherent standards the work offers (history, tradition it is being written out of, and so on). Being negative, to my mind, is usually simply not seeing a work, approaching it suspiciously, as an already failed object, as something other than what the reviewer thinks is great work.

    Critical? Bring on critical. Bring on a really engaged reading of a work. I will never say no to that. Who would say no to that?

  • On January 21, 2010 at 10:13 am Don Share wrote:

    I actually agree with what you’ve put so well in that last comment, Michael. Yet knowing, as I have, two poets who have experienced the kind of despair that culminates in suicide, one might allow for reception-of-the-work as a contributing, if not determinative, factor.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 11:08 am sassjemleon wrote:

    mr robbins, i don’t dabble in nonsense. you have no right to question my personal ethics. i did not come by them lightly, or out of some sense of self-esteem. i have never had self-esteem issues. i just don’t believe in getting paid to publicly denigrate other people’s art. so what? i also don’t believe in the bush doctrine, blogging, or having sex with prostitutes.

    may i suggest it is you, mr robbins, who is dabbling in nonsense, if not insanity altogether, especially when you refer to me as your sweetheart. i’m certainly no sweetheart. if you really want to get in the ring with me, i’d be happy to knock you out. i was once the flyweight champion of the world!

    and please, mr. robbins, the notion of “ugly things” is entirely base and subjective. i mean, how do we really know that helen had a face to launch a thousand ships? wasn’t homer a blind writer of myths?

  • On January 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    The “sweetheart” was meant to be parodic of yr sweetness-&-light stance. Seems to have backfired, & I apologize.

    But you’re not really going to drag rights into this, are you? I’m pretty sure I am within my rights.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 12:29 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Saying no would be negative.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm sassjemleon wrote:

    mr robbins, apparently, as jill has already ascertained, you are reading-impaired. nothing in my personal ethics about critics or criticism suggests sweetness. you sir, are obviously a critic. perhaps it is i who apologize?

  • On January 21, 2010 at 1:26 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Nope, sorry, this:

    >>there is no ethical basis by which i can justify aspiring to get paid to publicly comment on the hard work of other humans

    is all touchy-feely kumbaya nonsense. If you wanna play for the motivational speaker’s team, you go right ahead, but Dr. Phil has no place in criticism.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 1:28 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I also have a hard time taking anyone seriously who keeps talking about “personal ethics” while hiding behind a pseudonym.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 1:36 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Doesn’t he, Michael? Cause your hard core, tough love, tell him how it is stance has more than a hint of Dr. Phil.

    A funnier version, and that’s an important distinction. One I appreciate very much.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 1:41 pm Matt wrote:

    hiding behind a pseudonym? you mean like, oh, i dunno…”murk plectrum”?

  • On January 21, 2010 at 1:53 pm sassjemleon wrote:

    mr robbins, if you are having difficulty taking me seriously, why respond to me at all? may i suggest you read the autobiography of ben franklin. he lived by the pseudonym. good enough for ben, good enough for me.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    “there is no ethical basis by which i can justify aspiring to get paid to publicly comment on the hard work of other humans”

    Auditors, appraisers, talent scouts, judges, sports and political commentators, the FDA, editors, building inspectors…


    “If you don’t think your work is competing against the works of others you’re probably right.”

    – from “For the Reader”

  • On January 21, 2010 at 2:23 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Huh? Never “hid behind” this. It’s my Google account name & some blogs will only let me log in with it. I’m sorry, Matt, that some bloggers set their preferences so that you can’t leave a comment with yr real name. Sorry, too, that whenever there has ever been any confusion about who “Murk Plectrum” is I have immediately provided my real name. And I am sorry, finally, that you are so incapable of contributing anything but irrelevant one-sentence barks to any discussion you decide unwisely to enter.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 2:27 pm sassjemleon wrote:

    colin, i appreciate you bringing those positions–some quite noble–to the discussion; however, when i mentioned “hard work,” i wasn’t using an analogy, i was speaking specifically of the matter at hand: poetry.

    as for work competing against other work, sure, definitely, but the work should always compete and speak for itself. the only translator a work may require would be one who knew how to translate the work into a language different from the original work.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 2:29 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Well, that’s just it, Sina. It’s not about “tough love.” What criticism do you have in mind that gets “tough” out of “love” for the poet? As I said, the feelings of the poet do not enter into it. It’s not even about getting “tough.” Telling it like it is—that seems odd as a critical strategy? Moreover, Dr. Phil does that? I’ve seen Dr. Phil. Trying to explain people’s problems in terms of bromides & Hallmark-card self-esteem-movement gobbledygook is not “telling it like it is.” If I or other critics were interested in “tough love” the way Dr. Phil is, wouldn’t we be trying to make the poet change his ways, because we really care that he be the best he can be, because every poet is a special human being who should embrace his or her potential? That’s not why I write criticism, & I don’t think it’s why anyone else does either.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    And you know I do love you, Sina, & I know you love me, so I’ll ask this seriously: what is the problem, really, with writing reviews that don’t pull any punches when describing the badness of the work? What are the reasons for not saying something is bad, saying how it is bad, & saying so with style?

  • On January 21, 2010 at 2:44 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with a review that gets at a work’s flaws, nothing at all. We need more such probing criticism. There is an odd little sticking together of ideas that don’t belong that happens when we (larger we there) have this conversation. But I have a post in drafts about this so I should keep some of that close until then.

    And yes, Michael, we roll.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 4:02 pm Henry Gould wrote:


    1. Include smiley icons at the end of every review : double their number if the review finds fault.

    2. Write a slashing critique, but be sure to get the title and author’s name wrong : this way you won’t hurt anybody’s feelings.

    3. Invite the object of your negative review to a potluck supper, & there, declare that person to be the Guest of Honor! Then take him/her aside privately, & tell them you didn’t really mean what you said in print. This can go a long way toward soothing ruffled feathers.

    4. Alternate every sentence of your negative review with this phrase : “Just kidding!”

    5. Write 2 reviews, one negative, one gushingly positive. Publish them side by side, with an afterword that explains that you have a crazy crush on the poet, & this is your way of trying to get personal.

    6. Write your damning review. Then go out & get a lobotomy. Leave a note : “I didn’t know what I was doing.” This will win you a lot of sympathy, & deflect attention from your really nasty review of a book by a poet who really meant well. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 4:06 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Very subtle Henry. Shall I be polite? You’re not so good at getting your own feathers ruffled are you?

  • On January 21, 2010 at 4:08 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    I forgot to add that “Just kidding!”

  • On January 21, 2010 at 4:19 pm Don Share wrote:

    Don’t forget the 🙂 !

  • On January 21, 2010 at 4:29 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Not sure I follow the logic of your comment, Sina. I never claimed to be unruffled, ie. not easily ruffled. Especially when someone gets personal. But that’s the crux of this debate, isn’t it? People are equating literary criticism with interpersonal ethics.

    Real criticism is supremely DISINTERESTED. If it descends into malicious sarcasm about the poet’s person, it betrays the shortcomings of the critic. For a real literary critic, there is SO MUCH complexity in any act of writing in the field of literature, that to be distracted into ad hominem remarks, or the expression of the critic’s own schadenfreude/malice, would be to miss the mark, to spoil their own critical work.

    But there is an anti-critical attitude out there in MFA Arty-World, in the Poetry Community. They can’t handle reason, because as a matter of fact they themselves (the poets) are not DISINTERESTED enough. They have reduced art to arty self-expression. That’s why they get so touchy about criticism : they can’t distinguish between the two (art & self-expression). I admit I’m making it sound simpler than it is. But criticism is in fact built on what may often seem to be an artificial or abstract distinction : between art-work & artist. It’s that distinction which allows us to say that some of Frank O’Hara’s poems (just for example) are better than others. F. O’H and F. O’H’s poems may seem to present a seamless continuum : yet in the large context, we can apply our taste & judgement… if we are DISINTERESTED enough (that is, if we actually possess any independent taste & judgement).

  • On January 21, 2010 at 4:36 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    “They have reduced art to arty self-expression.”

    Really? Because I see a lot of very intelligent criticism that looks very deeply at art and poetry and asks very respectful questions that suggest just the opposite. In fact, you can read interviews with 30 different poet/critics and critics right now at my blog, lemonhound.blogspot.com that offer a nuanced and thoughtful response to issues around contemporary reviewing, including one from Mr. Robbins, above, and several other people who have been known to hang out above and below the fold.

    But more anon.

    And Don, I just can’t do the emoticon. Guess I’m not macho enough.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 4:47 pm Don Share wrote:


  • On January 21, 2010 at 4:56 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Well, that’s very nice, Sina. & I hope you are correct. My comment was directed specifically at the argument presented by this post, & some of the comments which followed : ie. that “negativity” is an unnecessary aberration from the positive commentary which should be the constant accompaniment to artistic production. As is clear from my previous comment, I am not in favor of gratuitous personal attacks in criticism. I am in favor of telling it like it is. A critic is somebody who has read & loved a great deal of poetry, from many places & times : this awareness & knowledge often tempers more superficial judgements (of good AND bad) which depend on the immediate enthusiasms and self-interested ambitions of the moment & the powers-that-be.

  • On January 21, 2010 at 5:20 pm john wrote:


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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, January 15th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.