Revisiting Kristin Prevallet on Poetry Criticism

By Harriet Staff

Jacket2 has reposted a great piece by Kristin Prevallet from 2000 (Jacket #11) on poetry and critical writing, or as it's more aptly titled there, "Why Poetry Criticism Sucks." A response to a conference entitled “Poetry Criticism: What is it for?”, which included speakers Marjorie Perloff, Michael Scharf, Stephen Burt, and Helen Vendler, the piece starts off by elucidating how each panelist feels about poetry itself:

Burt stated that the root of poetry is epistemological, and pertains to the poets complicated relationship with "self." Perloff quoted from Wittgenstein saying that poem should never give information, but contain it. Vendler believes that poetry is for pleasure and that its sense and sound are akin to a melodic singer who touches the reader. Of course this is grossly paraphrased from my rather hastily taken notes. Scharf was the most expansive of the group, discussing poetry's ability to actively participate in the "creation and elaboration of our moment."

We have an interesting vantage point (post-9/11, eleven years later), don't we, from which to read about that state of the poetry "marketplace:"

Perhaps an indication of "our moment," Scharf proceeded to critique MFA poets and their programs. But if the most impassioned discussions of poetry criticism revolve around the mainstream's overflow into experimental rivers (and visa versa), then the state of poetry criticism is really bleak. It means that poets are not really thinking critically about the state of poetry, politics, and the world, but rather are keeping tallies on prize money and whose book was published by what university press. [Harriet's formatting.] It would have been interesting if Scharf had discussed the extensive critical debates that have occurred around this issue (between Fence editor Rebecca Woolf and the sub-press/poetics lists skeptics; between Charles Bernstein and the AWP). But Scharf just restated what Kenneth Rexroth referred quite belligerently 25 years ago as "toilet paper poetry. Every sheet looks just like every other sheet." This kind of attack falls flat when the distinctions between who is mainstream and who is experimental are blurred.

Of course, it all comes down to the marketplace in which we are all consumed. It is argued that because there is no economy in the "experimental" poetry world that we are therefore not subjected to the lures of seeing poetry as a commodity. MFA's are easy targets because they do believe in a marketplace and saturate bookstores with free-form doggerel, get prize money, colony recognition, etc. (Excuse the generalization. After all, EPs have been known to saturate the underground airwaves with their own kind of derivative gibberish. There's enough bad poetry for everybody to buy into.) However, therein lies the contradiction. So-called Experimental Poets (EP's) want to be recognized by this marketplace, but simultaneously critique those who are making dents in it. So the theory that EP poets have no broad market support, and from this economically marginalized position need to get EP methods out to the manipulated poetry masses - is ultimately seeking to mimic the very structures that it claims to undermine.

The point is that we live right now in a economy where any half-witted sap can learn how to day trade. Compared to 5 years ago, the number of small press publishers has significantly waned. The combination of decreased grant opportunities, rising urban real estate, and the general NASDAQ marketplace, has contributed to the necessity of many of poetry's most impassioned perpetuators to find full-time jobs. Market anxiety is very pertinent to the larger consumerist climate that we all live under. It makes sense that the EP's want to win contests, have books published by larger presses, and have their pedagogical exercises applied to the general curriculum. But rather than complaining about economic marginality while simultaneously wanting to benefit from it, let's critically engage with the larger facts of our social environment. Let's figure out, as Carol Mirakove recently said, how to work within structures that aren't prize/award/money dependent, and invent them if they don't exist.

Structures like that do, in a way, exist now. Arguably, the art of the chapbook or small-press journal is way in vogue (or rather, high production), perhaps as a response to a perceived online free-for-all. Yet it's no longer as much of a gift-exchange economy there, is it? We know this could be countered (scroll down to the part that reads, "WORK RECEIVED FOR FREE FROM OTHER POETS WHILE AT POETRY-RELATED EVENTS IN THE BAY AREA THE LAST FEW MONTHS"). But would a spot like Flying Object have existed in 2000? (nb. we are grateful for it.) Part and parcel, the online universe has also created more venues for criticism; so it's interesting to think about how that discourse has changed. As Prevallet outlined in 2000:

1) poetry reviews are seldom poetry criticism. They are usually fondling acknowledgments demonstrating likeability, and serve the absolutely essential purpose of keeping us sane. I write them, and will continue to do so, with pleasure.

2) criticism rarely gets written among people who know each other personally; as a rule of thumb, critics do not socialize with those they critique. The fact of the matter is that poetry has very few actual critics who are not poets, or who are not interested in socializing with poets. This is of course a problem, and means essentially that poetry criticism needs to be defined separately than ordinary criticism because it serves a very different function.

3) Poetry bantering and the inevitable personal repercussions are not poetry criticism. The poetic exchange is critical, but is not necessarily criticism; poetry criticism is a critique that takes into account the larger contexts - theoretical, social, cultural - that led to the production of poetry. The issue of whether poetry or a particular poet does or does not function within a particular scene is merely anecdotal; the real question is where does poetry intersect with larger contexts? Are poets willing or interested in forging that bridge?

4) It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed (ask [Randell] Jarrell). For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.

She goes on to lament the gulf between art-writing and poetry criticism:

When journalist / poet Alissa Quart asked the panel why poetry criticism could not take as a model art criticism, Burt looked as if he had bitten into a piece of sour cabbage. You want the poetry world to look like the art world? Yuk! Yet, this was not really the point of her question. How can poetry criticism find a language, a formula for talking about itself that somehow links with what is culturally relevant?

Certainly there's not so much of a divide between art, other genres, and poetry anymore. Just a quick glance at Triple Canopy, UDP's Emergency Playscripts series, or the newish SVA program in art criticism and writing--to give only a few examples--will shed some light. But who's up for another symposium? There's a lot to discuss. Oh, and here be Prevallet these days.

Originally Published: June 3rd, 2011