Letter to the Editor
The reason poetry reviewing is in such a woeful state has nothing to do with the supposed famine of strong judgments, nor with the alleged feast of poetry-world bonhomie. It is due to a lack of sound and persuasive categories for assessment, as exemplified in David Orr's "Eight Takes" and Adam Kirsch's "Out of the Republic, Into the Madhouse" (August, 2004). What we get in even the best poetry reviews are drive-by witticisms that aren't very witty, sponsored by ideologies that are, even when veiled—especially when veiled—plainly obvious to all parties.
Orr's notion that "academic poetry" has "for the last fifty years" been "intelligent but dull" while "non-academic poetry" has been "dopey but exciting" is impossible to parse: is Lowell an "academic" poet, and if so, is he dull? Is Stevens a "non-academic" poet, and if so, is he dopey? These notions are just plain nonsense.
Kirsch's review of new prose anthologies makes the same amazingly shallow point that he's made ad infinitum in published work now for years—poets of our time have been "neurotically obsessed" with "the modern." Isn't this a little like saying that bicyclists have been neurotically obsessed with handlebars? Are there "un-neurotic" obsessions? "Patient Zero of this sickness," he writes in a tasteless metaphor, "was Ezra Pound." This point has been made so many times by so many critics, and yet Pound remains as startling to read now as he was in 1922.
Can we stop arguing over modernism and post-modernism, the academic and the dopey, the raw and the cooked, etc., and please arrive at new questions, interesting and probing enough to fasten the judgments that result to their objects? Are we really going to spend another ten years talking about whether John Ashbery is a fraud?
Poet and critic Dan Chiasson is the author of five books of poetry: The Afterlife of Objects (2002), Natural History (2005), Where's the Moon, There's the Moon (2010), Bicentennial (2014), and Must We Mean What We Say: A Poem in Four Phases (forthcoming). A book of criticism, One Kind of Everything: Poem...