Prose from Poetry Magazine

Going Negative

A “necessary skeptic” says what he really thinks about new books by Jane Mead, D.A. Powell, and John Poch.
When a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review “negative,” and speculate about the reviewer’s motives, the agenda behind the takedown. Indeed, behind words like “negative” and “agenda” and “takedown” lurks the sense that the reviewer is the one making the trouble and the book of poetry–whether it deserved a kicking or not–is being bullied.

The negative review is a curiosity, unique to anxious enclaves like the poetry world. It’s not that people who review movies don’t say harsh things—they do. But when a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review “negative” and speculate about the reviewer’s motives, the agenda behind the takedown. Indeed, behind words like “negative” and “agenda” and “takedown” lurks the sense that the reviewer is the one making the trouble, and the book of poetry—whether it deserved a kicking or not—is being bullied. We’re far less paranoid about motives when, say, a movie receives a tough review in the New Yorker or Slate or Rolling Stone, even when we disagree with the verdict—even when we’re so outraged we fire off an e-mail to some editor’s in-box. This is because negative reviews of movies (and LPs and TV shows, etc.) represent the norm, and aren’t usually labeled “negative.” Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative.

Maybe poetry is so marginal, so fragile a commodity, we worry about kicking it when it’s already pretty clearly down. Whatever the reason for our anxiety, the negative review, when it appears in magazines like this one, is often more of an event than it ought to be. But negativity, I’m starting to think, needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture, the default position she assumes before scanning a single line. Because really, approaching every new book with an open mind is as well-meaning but ultimately exhausting as approaching every stranger on the street with open arms; you’ll meet some nice people, sure, but your charming generosity won’t be reciprocated most of the time. What’s worse, a tack-sharp taste, dinged by so much sheer dullness, will in time become blunted (into blurb-writing, no doubt). When braving any new book of poems—particularly by an author you’re not too familiar with—it’s best to brace yourself and expect the worst. This needn’t involve cynicism. Indeed, you probably shouldn’t be opening the book in the first place if you aren’t, on some deep level, already hoping for the best—that is, the discovery of a great poem. But hope should remain on that deep level, well-protected, until the shell that shields it is genuinely jarred.

After all, how many volumes of new poetry published in the last calendar year will still be jarring us in five years? In one? Shouldn’t the negative review, if we’re honest and adult about it, be the norm? And if so, shouldn’t we retire the adjective “negative” in favor of something far more accurate, if a little awkward, like “necessarily skeptical,” as in, “Man, William Logan sure has gone necessarily skeptical on that poet?”

These are not purely rhetorical questions. If you’re frequently having the top of your head taken off—Emily Dickinson’s description of what authentic poetry does—I’m glad for you. But you’re reading better books than I am. And Emily, too. After all, the gist of her metaphor, it seems, is that such head injuries are by definition exceptional. Rare. Don’t expect any in the next few pages, from the poets under review or from me (there just isn’t enough of that kind of writing around). And for the love of poetry, be skeptical.

The Usable Field, by Jane Mead.
Alice James Books. $14.95.

On the back cover of The Usable Field, the third collection by Jane Mead, Ira Sadoff proclaims: “Jane Mead’s our Emily Dickinson, our most ambitious solitary.” But come on. The sheer fact that Mead has a book with blurbs—published in her lifetime and supported by Guggenheim money—should cast doubt on her cred as a recluse, at least of Dickinson’s kind (Dickinson, recall, published but ten poems in her lifetime, all anonymously). Mead, of course, is only the latest poet to be named the next Emily Dickinson. Anne Carson held the post, briefly. Kay Ryan, too. Nowadays, we understand a recluse to be someone who doesn’t want a JPEG of herself on her dust jacket, or to teach an MFA seminar. Even our most skittish writers—the holed-up-in-a-panic-room types like Thomas Pynchon—have made cameos on The Simpsons. If there is a recluse of Dickinson’s genius and originality out there, we likely won’t know about her until much later, for the simple reason that we can’t yet imagine her or the language in which she’ll speak to us (if we could, she wouldn’t be a reclusive genius; she would probably have a blog). One thing’s for certain: she’ll be nothing like Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson wasn’t even her era’s Emily Dickinson.

We can imagine Jane Mead’s language all too well. Indeed, it’s the Language of Our Time, a verse that’s free (though not too free), with a dash of John Ashbery and a hint of Jorie Graham (though not too much of either), a verse that’s aimed squarely at a woodlot. There are no valves of attention, or dots on a disc of snow, or nerves sitting ceremonious as tombs in The Usable Field. Rather, Mead, less poet than stenographer, substitutes a vague, blurry shorthand for the specific, vivid images one finds in the work of visionaries like Dickinson but also in the lines of our better, less celebrated contemporaries. For example, the poet Eric Ormsby, a specialist in the specific, vivid image, describes a rooster’s “dark, corroded croak / Like a grudging nail tugged out of stubborn wood,” a simile that, no pun intended, nails it. But Mead, faced with a similar challenge, describes the sound of cowbirds as, well, “the sound of cowbirds / in sudden excellence.” Ormsby’s simile carefully transcribes the complexities of bird-sound; Mead opts for (surrenders to?) shorthand and, in another poem, actually writes “complexities / of bird-sound.” Instead of recording (and, via memorable simile, amplifying) some bit of birdsong, Mead muffles it with meaningless gauze like “sudden excellence” and “complexities.” Her poetry, then, doesn’t so much describe its objects as obscure them with prefabricated language as airy as bubble wrap:

            The waves between us—
house light and transform motion
into the harboring of sounds in language.
          —From The Origin

                         All manner of
knowing pushes up, out of
visibly nowhere
          —From It Was Not Anything After All?

                           I wanted to know
about the earth and the sea—about the unleashed moments.
          —From Same Audit, Same Sacrifice

                  some great thing
is crossing our path, into dusk.
          —From The Flesh Is Fear

In retrospect, those hazy titles — which “Origin”? whose “Flesh”?—should’ve been the tip-off to the lazy shorthand they label.

The objects of Mead’s work, however, are themselves limited. The periodic table from which Mead mines the basic elements of her poetry includes light, river, wind, wing, heart, bird, and grass. But even when Mead gets precise and identifies a specific kind of bird or plant, her ultimate goal is not clarity but mystery. One of her go-to gimmicks is the question; not, mind you, the sort of question a poem will propose for the purpose of puzzling out an answer. Mead’s questions—“What / can one person say to another?” or “What / / do the weeds know . . . ?”—are unanswerable, smoke machines that pump dry ice into her lines, leaving them (and us) in the fog.

“The sub-arguments of the moving mind are endless,” observes one of Mead’s speakers toward the end of The Usable Field, and it’s a valid point. But it’s an old point, too, and the poetry it sometimes produces—vague, disjunctive, inconclusive—doesn’t so much track the movements of our minds as reflect them at their muddiest. And anyway, I already know that my mind is unreliable, meandering, fucked-up; why would I want to see it represented on the page? The minds I want to watch at work—Dickinson’s, Frost’s, and, more recently, Samuel Menashe’s, David Foster Wallace’s—understand the costs of careful thought too much to devalue it. These are minds struggling to cut a crisp path through the dry ice.

Chronic, by D.A. Powell.
Graywolf Press. $20.00.

“That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!” So declared Orson Welles when his protégé, Peter Bogdanovich, asked Welles what he thought of the title, Paper Moon. Bogdanovich didn’t know what a paper moon had to do with the movie he was planning; he knew only that he liked the title. But a good title—e.g. Snakes on a Plane—can generate excitement even when the work in question turns out to be kind of questionable.

Many of the titles of the poems in D.A. Powell’s fourth collection, Chronic, are so catchy they constitute events in and of themselves, micro-masterworks of wit. In his earlier books, the first lines usually doubled as the titles, lending the poems an offhand cool; poems so self-sufficient they spoke for themselves. Four books in, Powell’s poems now have proper titles, some of which threaten to upstage the main acts. They include: “lipsync [with a nod to lipps, inc.],” “chia pet cemetery,” “[not the musical:] south pacific,” “congregation in glory,” “scenes from the trip we didn’t take to the antarctic,” and—echoing that hilariously abbreviated obit from Lolita (“picnic, lightning”)—“plague year: comet: arc.” It’s a bit disappointing, then, to read the poetry that follows these titles—poetry that, in a sense, can’t possibly fulfill the promise of such brief but brilliant openings. For instance, while the title, “coit tower & us,” is taut and clever, the slack poetry it’s attached to—

some nights I feel that loss as if my own trembling musculature lies concealed under a rubbled city, listening to the mission bells

you pull me from this collapsed architecture, you too a kind of pillar you almost have that same heft, as we climb, I see you stronger
—is stock footage, so familiar you’d swear it was filmed on modernism’s backlot, the rubble trucked in from some crank’s canto. In the playfully titled “meditating upon the meaning of the line ‘clams on the halfshell and rollerskates’ in the song good times by chic,” the speaker confesses the sort of unplayful sentiments that make audiences squirm at open mics, like “who could have guessed love’s a palpable thing,” and “touch: that sensation I’d almost lost,” and:
                                        it’s still 1980 somewhere, some
     corner of your dark apartment
where the mystery of the lyric hasn’t faded. and love is in the
     chorus waiting to be born
You might expect some fun from a poem called “the expiration date on the world is not quite the same as the expiration date on my prophylactic,” but the poem collects maudlin paraphernalia such as “old phone nos.,” “all the unused appliances,” and a “grim barge to oblivion.” Like the author of dull academic studies, whose only joy is coming up with the titles—“He’s a Maniac, Maniac: A Study of Manic Depression” (title mine)—Powell frontloads flat writing with frothy wit.

Initial hijinx aside, Powell’s poetry is mostly serious stuff, and contains references to disease, decay, ruin, a dodgy environment, and one “mangy green triangle where two freeways form a crotch,” a striking, maybe superb image even if one wonders what civilization can do to dress up a graveyard abutted by freeways. But civilization—seemingly embodied in what one poem calls the impulse to “master nature”—is, as usual, the problem. So, too, is referentiality. As another poem insists, “clarity never arrives, it is a spar in a far mine, it cost us dearly.” Indeed, Chronic’s poems avoid clarity (which, Powell’s right, does “cost us”—the time and effort required to achieve it) for a more easily attained opacity (although opacity is always easily attained). The title poem itself tallies up some of the book’s, and contemporary poetry’s, more fashionable gestures, including: reliance on buzzwords (“the profession of absence, of being absented”); distrust of order (“white and red perimeters where no perimeter should be”); distrust of linearity and having a point (“here is another in my long list of asides: / why have I never had a clock that actually gained time?”); anxiety over what words mean (“and by resilient I mean which holds”); romantic bluster (“this wondrous swatch of rough”); imprecision (“this wondrous swatch of rough”); sympathy for small critters (“I saw that heron I didn’t wish to disturb”).

The clichés are compounded by Powell’s now-familiar style, which includes a long, fragmented line, colons followed by gaps of white space, and a refusal to capitalize anything but “I.” These stylistic tics must’ve seemed risky once. Perhaps the refusal to capitalize was a sign of quirky, anti-humanist modesty. Perhaps white space was supposed to clear the reader’s head, give her pause, a chance to pitch in and help the poem make some of its meaning (whatever that means). But such tics have long since become codified short cuts to mild shock, like those T-shirts that claim their owners to be “PUNK.”

Still, the sensibility behind titles like “hepatitis ABC” and “democrac” (sic!) and “clown burial in winter” is clearly so sharp it could laser off tattoos; I only wish it was the one writing the poetry.

Two Men Fighting with a Knife, by John Poch.
Story Line Press. $14.95.

John Poch’s second collection contains the sort of poetry that confronts most reviewers most often: poetry that’s not especially bad but not especially good either—poetry, in other words, that should be guarded against at all costs. After all, we can spot and reject the awful easily enough. Books of poetry that are merely OK constitute a much more insidious norm that, over time, wears reviewers down, undermining initial gut reactions which, since taste is subjective, are always right, but also always in danger of being second-guessed. The result is the gutless review—a non-review, really—in which mild praise cancels out mild reservations, leaving the reader without a clear verdict and the poet, if he’s lucky, with a blurbable quote.

And yet: there are some fine moments in Two Men Fighting with a Knife, and if I have reservations with the bulk of the book—and I do—they aren’t meant to mitigate my praise. The opening sonnet, “The Ghost Town,” appeared in the Paris Review and probably deserved to, which surely can’t be said of most poems composed in any given quarter:
It need not be a desiccated
wreck of boards, completely uninhabited,
adobe bricks regressed to mud, hay. Heck,
It might be verdant and jackrabbited.

The wind might not lament; the gift shop door
could jingle bells, the jasmine candles wafting.
Beyond some seniors at the convenience store,
you might observe a fisherman shoplifting.

But say it’s vacant and bunch grass gray. Then torch
an image, scent, or song from your present life
to reconstruct the step, the stairs, the porch,
the house, town, two men fighting with a knife.

Much like the architecture of a sonnet:
a step, and suddenly you die upon it.
The robust alliteration (“hay. Heck”) and chewy imagery (“bunch grass gray”) offer instant pleasures, but the self-reflexive payoff—a risky move for a formal poem—succeeds in running the reader through on its final line. “Independence Day” is another keeper, which ends with these exquisite lines:
                                            Small children tamed
by night looked out from family cars, leaning
toward sleep. We parted without touching on
what family means or meant: our fathers gone,
our mothers scrubbing through a collar stain.
The sky gone black; the stars were intervening.
Most of Poch’s poems, though, aren’t up to the standards set by these examples. There are no out-and-out disasters; Poch’s commitment to craft—to ensuring that his lines scan and rhyme—guarantees that the slightest of his works are always readable, even enjoyable (an advantage that mediocre formal verse has over mediocre free verse). However, it’s this same commitment to craft, to satisfying a pre-imposed pattern, that can lead Poch’s verse into subtle but costly contortions. The resulting limbo never falls on its face but nevertheless looks awkward, as demonstrated by the opening of “John Poch”:
A smaller Jackson Pollock, my polar blues
in cursive curse and scratch. A wasted fire
to write myself lies scribbled, smolders. Moods
instead of house-high flames’ emotion mire
a vision. Ink, they lie.
Frost’s great innovation—a voice so natural you don’t notice the iambs—remains much impersonated but, as Poch proves, rarely possessed. Poch simply doesn’t make it look easy.

Even that fine sonnet “The Ghost Town” has its flaws. A couple of the lines I just quoted—“Then torch / an image, scent, or song from your present life”—sound a little unnatural. And the first few lines of the previously praised “Independence Day”—
My father’s birthday—how could I forget?
A friend and I had come to where, at sunset,
a band plays Sousa marches every year.
Thousands on the green, and children orbiting
antique family blankets. Steadfast, or slipping
to outer shells, held by the nuclear
—sound a little clunky, too. Perhaps the critic Yvor Winters was right: poems are either great or not. We can charitably point out the pros of those flawed poems that make up the middle ground—where, let’s face it, most of us, including yours truly, reside—but it’s a safe bet posterity won’t be as tolerant as we are in mapping out a gray, demilitarized zone between the durable and the perishable. So I guess I’m mitigating my praise.

But finally, the real failing of Two Men Fighting with a Knife—a failing, to be fair, shared by most of the collections which smart, well-meaning editors, even now, are FedExing to their rosters of reviewers—is the lack of game-changing metaphors. Pan the verse of John Poch long enough and you’ll uncover glints of gold like his description of a fork lying in “the shadow of a napkin’s knee.” But in the absence of such brilliant images, Poch’s clever quatrains are just that—clever:
Dear Doctor, don’t get me wrong. I adore my wife,
but you looked inside me. Maybe it’s the morphine
talking, but love abounds in the surgeon’s knife.
Expect a card on February Fourteen.
Certainly Poch’s subjects—desiccated Americana, the stepladder at the Strand Bookstore, spinal surgery—brim with potential, but his actual language—“I’m dead / yet want to open, close, and surprise / like a heart or sunset”—is business as usual.

“I sometimes think there is no good news about translation, ever,” wrote Michael Hofmann recently in these pages. I sometimes think there is no good news about poetry, ever. Or today, anyway. That’s negative, maybe, but that’s how I know poetry exists: when I’m least expecting it, when everything’s dross, when I’ve given up hope and have my head down—that’s when the real stuff, like so much low-hanging plumbing, clocks me. Or takes the top of my head off. Or whatever poetry does to us, those rare, rare times we run into it. Stay positive.
Originally Published: February 27th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

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  1. March 1, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    No question we should have more "necessarily skeptical" reviews. And Guriel's are quite good, continuing the tentative return to smart crankiness in the prose section of Poetry-- a development that's been one of the more appealing aspects of the magazine's post-Lilly make over. Though in truth, Guriel's pieces come across as a bit decorous compared to other things the magazine's featured of late: the pointed roastings in a Humor issue some years back, Kleinzahler's tirade, the scathing review of Jeff Clark, withering pieces by Dan Chiasson and Michael Robbins, just off the top of my head.

    There used to be a good measure of such derisive fare some decades back: in Bly's 60s and 70s magazines, for example, or in Sulfur (in the latter, Weinberger's famous ravaging of Seidel, for instance, or the collective dismemberment of Sven Birkerts after he dared disparage Ashbery). The journal, really, that has most kept the curmudgeonly spirit alive is the otherwise horrible The New Criterion, where William Logan has been writing the most entertaining poetry criticism for years. So here's a vote for Guriel's call that the "negative" spirit continue-- only that it continue with a much more forceful satiric push. There's never been a great age of poetry, after all, where poets weren't taunting and lampooning one another...

    Now, to take up an issue that seems to bemuse Guriel, I do think there's a fundamental reason why timidity and obsequiousness tend to dominate poetry criticism these days, and it's a pretty uncomplicated one: Reviewing tends to be done by *poets,* and poets use the mode of criticism more often than not as a form of ingratiation with other poets. As U.S. poetry (mainstream and post-avant) has become more tightly tethered to academic careerism, a sycophantic tendency naturally becomes the ubiquitous norm, to the point where the "review" and the "blurb" begin to overlap in purpose and effect.

    So when Guriel wonders why it's no big deal when movie or music critics pan movies or music, yet why it's so rare that poets pan the work of their contemporaries, the answer seems somewhat clear: The fields of criticism in the other arts operate with a relative degree of autonomy from the fields of cultural production they critique (most movie critics aren't directors, for instance), while poetry has no truly independent field of criticism that shadows it. Or to put it another way, critics in the other arts can and do operate like writers for Consumer Reports, and they readily lambast poor products in their purview; ladder-climbing poets inhabit the cubicles of the very industry they would and should critique, but if they do, they know they can be treated as whistle blowers.

    Toadyish criticism, then, is likely to remain the habit so long as "negative" reviewing constitutes a potential hazard to the position and advancement of the poet-reviewer. (Interestingly, by the way, it's in top-tier journals where negative reviews are most likely to appear, since the capital accruing to the poet-reviewer compensates for the risk.) Given this, maybe it's time that magazines, large and small, go back to the venerable practice of having (at least some) reviewers write anonymously or pseudonymously. This would no doubt free things up a bit and generate a bit more critical candor and healthy challenge-- bringing forth not just a smattering of "negative" takes on mid-level poets, such as we're beginning to see in Poetry, but all-out, room-clearing broadsides on the hallowed, smugly repetitive, big-award-winning figures in the board room that almost no one dares touch.


  2. March 1, 2009
     Michael Theune

    I hope to submit a more substantive comment in the relatively near future, but, for now, just this:

    I'd like to know what the editors of Poetry think about Guriel's assessment of Powell's Chronic. I believe that over the past few years Poetry has published approximately a half dozen poems which now appear in Chronic. Is Poetry publishing less-than-great poetry, or is Guriel batty?

    I'm certain that Poetry has policies about allowing their reviewers freedom to express their own opinions. That's as it should be. And I appreciate the diversity of opinions shared in Poetry. I'd simply say that it seems that Poetry is very interested in hosting important conversations about poetry (by allowing comments about reviews to be submitted, via Harriet, etc). A little back-and-forth between Guriel and the Poetry editors, I think, would offer more such important conversation.



  3. March 1, 2009
     Don Share


    In answer to your question... sort of... obviously we both admire Powell's poems and publish reviews with opinions different from ours. I'm willing to back/forth here or perhaps over on Harriet!



  4. March 1, 2009
     Joe Amato

    Man. Let me start by saying that radical modernism may be dead, but I expect, at the very least, the application of a critical faculty that gives evidence it was once alive.

    I'm loath to go New Critical on Jason Guriel's ass -- or William Logan's, for that matter, who writes very good reviews when he's good, and hatchet jobs when he's bad (for the latter, pace his response to his critics hereabouts, see his notorious bit in the NYTBR on the Library of America Hart Crane, and -- but really, hasn't William Logan had his day in the Poetry sun?) -- but the notion that one ought not to be open-minded in one's approach to/appreciation of art (or, say, new & improved Pop Tarts) warrants at least a tsk-tsk from someone like Clement Greenberg. Clem, Clem -- where are ye? As to asses, at any rate, mine is still twitching from the tenor of Guriel's "skeptical" reviews, which are less skeptical than -- oh dear, here we are -- tightass.

    First: what, pray tell, is David Foster Wallace's name doing in the following list of those who "understand the costs of careful thought too much to devalue it": "Dickinson’s, Frost’s, and, more recently, Samuel Menashe’s, David Foster Wallace’s." Say what? This is some weird kind of, uhm, zeugma, and not simply b/c we have here three poets plus one novelist. One would have to be skeptical to the point of outright pathological stinginess to aver that Wallace didn't devalue careful thought -- his oeuvre is almost a paean to analytical obsession, with regard to which one might well stand in awe. One stands in awe of Dickinson, Frost, Menashe for altogether other reasons, I would think.

    Anyway. It's Guriel's approach to The Poem that grates, in short. Yes, the books he's busy leveling do rather warrant this approach, for the most part. I wonder what Guriel would do with books -- of poems? -- that outright defy such an -- wait. Did I say approach? I should have said, stance. That's it, you see -- critical judgment requires more like a stance. We'll have to thank Dada for this, perhaps. (Thanks Dada.)

    So when I see references to arguable aesthetic drawbacks like "vague, blurry shorthand" instead of "specific, vivid images," I'm left to conclude (not having read Mead's book) that the poet in question is striving for images. Is she? Me, I've never been too good with images myself. And when I'm treated to "filmed on modernism’s backlot, the rubble trucked in from some crank’s canto," I'm left wondering (as above) whether modernism has ever, for the critical attention at work here, lived (even Logan has indicated he likes some of Pound's masterwork), never mind whether the poet in question (whose book I haven't read) takes his lead from such rubble. Perhaps most insidiously ("insidious" is Guriel's word), the specter of Frost (and oddly, Frost's sometime nemesis, Yvor Winters) hangs over the top of the Poch review, leading me to wonder whether I'll have Frost (whose work I like, sure, but) looking over my shoulder every time I try my hand at a sonnet. I mean, why not Ted Berrigan, or Bernadette Mayer? Am I to conclude that one must have the temperament of a formalist to take the proper measure of formal work?

    Guriel is right to imply that poetry needn't be treated with kid gloves, albeit its status in the globalized marketplace -- with due respect to the staggering amount of poetry produced today -- might be cause for alarm, were one to imagine that said marketplace reflects social values. (Tell me: were one?) But really, if one wishes to commence by playing the disbelieving game (remember Peter Elbow?), one ought at least to have a better rationale for it than the mere presence of mediocrity, which is present, let's face it, in so many things. Hamburgers, for instance. Mediocrity in hamburgers causes malnutrition, for one. Mediocrity in poetry causes -- a depletion of rain forest material? Yes, OK. What else does it cause? B/c if we knew what was at stake, in Guriel's eyes, perhaps we'd know better why certain books seem to fall under his scrutiny, and why he'd prefer to savage them than not, and why some might not end up being savaged. And indeed, why the desire for something great is such a great thing. (David Orr tried to get at this in last Sunday's NYTBR. Here again, his chief failure there was not casting his net wide enough, at least in terms of the poets he cited. But at least he tried.)

    My friend Kent Johnson raises an interesting point about anonymity. The problem here is that, while perhaps it would prove salutary for a spell, the final trajectory is all too certain. We have as our model, with a substantial track record, blind peer review in the humanities. Some of us feel this has choked the life out of creative scholarly work. (Cary Nelson has made this argument in recent years, and so have I.) We don't need more critics or poets who can hide behind the cloak of anonymity pretending that, oh, the twentieth century never happened. (Also, Kent, let's recall that future-auteur critics [Truffaut, Godard], helped lay the foundation for the French New Wave. Just for instance.) Though Johnson is correct in the main: we need a more active critical establishment, and if the only people willing/able to critique poetry are poets, that's a conundrum indeed, as asskissing will likely prevail.

    And my friend Mike Theune raises an interesting idea, which Don Share helpfully picks up on.

    Me, I thought that GoodReads might be a corrective to the situation in poetry circles in particular, but if, as seems evident, that community has decided that just about every book is a five-star item, said ratings to be doled out with little or no commentary, then woe unto us. In my future reviews on GoodReads, I plan to begin by stating my relationship with the poet in question (if any). (I think anthologists of contemporary writing would do well to identify their inclusions in such terms. But that's probably asking for too much.) I'd also like to post a cautionary note to each review along the lines of what Harvard used to indicate (do they still?) on their grade transcripts: "My ratings here are esp. severe. A four-star rating in these quarters would likely be considerably higher elsewhere." Feels a little tightass to me though, if you know what I mean.

  5. March 2, 2009
     Chip Corwin

    A lot of good points made here by all parties, Jason Guriel included. I think Kent, especially, has given an accurate diagnosis.

    I think, though, that an anonymous or pseudonymous review would just create more opportunities for poets with grudges or other "agendas" to "takedown" other poets. There would definitely be more negative reviews, but not necessarily more honest reviews. And that is what we need--not more negative reviews, per se, but more honest reviews.

    The only system that would work is one where the reviewer, as in music and movies, is not actually a practicing poet. The reasons for which Kent explains above.

    What if the Poetry Foundation used its inheritance to create a full-time reviewer position--with benefits!--and filled it with a non-practicing poet? Although, I suppose then the challenge would be finding someone who doesn't write poetry that is actually interested in poetry.

    Also, while we're using the analogy between poetry reviews and movie/music reviews even though it only kind of works (we like to think of poetry as a "high art," yet the movies and music are largely pop arts, at least the pieces that get reviewed in popular pubs), even Roger Ebert and Peter Tavers give positive reviews when warranted, and they do so much more often than once every year or five years. If the standard for a positive review is that you have to be as good as Dickinson, well, here's to the movies.

    But to stick with the analogy a little longer anyway, and for a little good-natured fun, if Guriel intends on writing many more "skeptical" reviews, perhaps he should change his headshot from the current one that depicts him wide-eyed, peering off blissfully and child-like into the world beyond the camera to one more like Roger Ebert's on the cover of his book, Your Movie Sucks:

  6. March 2, 2009
     Michael Theune

    Here is that slightly more substantive response:

    I agree almost completely with Jason Guriel's recognition of the appropriateness of negative reviews (though I do not agree with many of his particular (negative) assessments). I, too, have written my share of negative reviews (many, in the past few years, in Verse and Pleiades), believing that, among other things (such as offering careful, honest assessments of the work at hand), they contributed in their own way to (something like) the well-being of contemporary poetry. Additionally, I agree almost completely with what Kent states above—in fact, I’d add that I think Kent’s (and now, additionally, Joe’s and Chip’s) comments are impressively perceptive and smart. I'd simply like to add a few comments/details.

    I would like to encourage longer, more substantive reviews—especially if the practice of publishing anonymous or pseudonymous reviews catches on again. The trouble with short reviews is that they will always, no matter how well-written (like Guriel’s), seem to some extent like somewhat snarky, (as Joe so aptly puts it) tight-assed, and (potentially) ad hominem attacks. (And I think, as it seems Chip does, that short anonymous reviews will only seem, if not actually become, even snarkier…) Because short reviews often do not allow reviewers adequate space to make full arguments, those reviews often seem sketchy in terms of facts and judgments, and, so invite speculation about other motives. Additionally, the short review’s lack of space also tends to force the short review to uncritically take up popular critical stances. (If I read Joe’s comment correctly, this is one of his complaints about Guriel’s review, how it rests on particular critical commonplaces, such as the value of the image…)

    Longer reviews allow a reviewer to not only review the poetry at hand but also the systems behind such poetry, including, say, the justifications for such poetry. Lots of poetry doesn’t even live up to what the poet says (or others say) it’s supposed to be doing—and the extended arguments of longer reviews can make this clear. And they can do so better without being, or even seeming, short.

    A few, final thoughts:

    1) Don: I would very much like to see this issue taken up on Harriet. Of course, you don’t have to discuss this, and nor does Guriel. But I do think it would be great conversation, excellent debate—just the type of thing that Poetry tries to encourage.

    2) I don’t understand Guriel’s sense that the “self-reflexive” move at the end of Poch’s sonnet was a “risky move,” especially “for a formal poem.” Don’t lots of sonnets (formal poems, all) conclude with such self-reflexive, risky moves? (“That in black ink my love may still shine bright,” anyone?) The sonnet seems to thrive on such self-reflexive risks.

    3) Also, if you're looking for contemporary satire, you need look no further than Kent Johnson's own Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets (Buffalo: BlazeVOX, 2004) and I Once Met (available online). Important works, I think.

    That’s it from me for now. Thanks, all, for the good discussion.



  7. March 2, 2009
     Manoel Cartola

    Thanks Jason. Poetry needs a bit of house-cleaning and freshening up from time to time.


  8. March 2, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Just to point out, in response to good comments by others, that I am certainly not calling for an end to attributed reviews! Obviously, that will continue to be the norm for some time. (Though good to remember that anonymous reviewing was the standard before the 20th century, and a few major publications--TLS, The New Yorker, Publisher's Weekly, for instance--continue the practice, or did so until fairly recently, so the notion's hardly original).

    What I'm suggesting, and for reasons I outlined above, is that poetry publications begin to reserve a space for *some* unconventionally signed reviews and essays. These could appear anonymously, pseudonymously, heteronymously (wonderful to think of a Pessoa-like critic figure tearing up the scene), or collectively (wonderful, likewise, to think of groups like the feneon collective submitting their considerations, or MFA-student critical collectives bringing the Professor Poets down a notch).

    The bulk of reviews in such apocryphal mode would best be substantive in nature, of course, and free of facile snark. But guarding against this is precisely the job of editors. Some magazines might be fine with brief, even satirical, anonymous takes, while others might want, for example, a confidential disclosure of identity before publishing seriously wrought pieces-- a variety of "policy practices" are possible.

    But that a "satellite economy" of apocryphal criticism, orbiting the conventional, staid, and significantly self-censoring body of poetry criticism would be a healthy development, I have no doubt.

    Back, just a step, to the 19th century, I say!


  9. March 2, 2009
     Michael Theune

    "But that a 'satellite economy' of apocryphal criticism, orbiting the conventional, staid, and significantly self-censoring body of poetry criticism would be a healthy development, I have no doubt."

    Agreed, Kent--cheers!

  10. March 2, 2009
     Joe Amato

    Well, there's no reason that our critical responses can't be as variegated as our poems. But let me see if I understand the point here:

    We need a stronger critical engagement with poetry -- I can dig that -- and we need it not least b/c poets are doing the reviewing in many cases, and are either afraid to hurt their friends' and acquaintances' feelings, or are currying favor (i.e., career moves). Oh, and at least for most of us, we no longer have access to the eternal verities, so evaluative criteria are contingent, provisional, etc.

    So we can collaborate on reviews. Fine. We can form anonymous collectives that work after the manner of what Kent refers to as apocrypha (feneon, Edgar Allen Poe, etc.). Fine. We can shift responsibility from an identifiable author-reviewer to a collective, defined however. OK then.

    Frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing any book I've written ripped apart by a principled critical entity that concluded my poetry failed to speak to what poetry should do. So if the various review functions captured in my prior para are to mean something meaningful to yours truly, I'd have to have -- or develop over time -- some sense of what said function values, and why. Hence spirited debate.

    That said, and pragmatically speaking, a world of such apocrypha is bound to be, or to become, at least as snarky as the world of literary Brahmans. Isn't it?

    And for the record: I've had my poetry ripped apart by anonymous reviewers who didn't have to provide any but the most implicit evaluative criteria, and didn't have to answer for same. This happened, regrettably, during my second tenure review, which culminated in my second tenure denial. And for the record, due to an administrative blunder, I ended up learning who the anonymous "reviewers A, B, C" were.

    That was quite an eye-opener, and confirmed for me (viscerally) what can happen when those with (in this case, literary-critical) power are not held accountable for said power. Yes, perhaps we need responsible editors. But I mean, why should the editors of Poetry, any editors, be accountable, as it were, for the un-accountable? Why shouldn't the anonymous collectives operate much as feneon is currently operating? -- via the Web, or similar resources (and feneon, while intriguing, does not quite satisfy my ideal of critical appraisal). Why, that is, should anonymity seek legitimation via some official imprimatur? Not that I'd be opposed to a section of any journal devoted to such material. But I'd like to know more about what the motive is here.

    Btw, Mike: Pauline Kael might have been off the mark on many occasions. But she could generally pack more salient opine into four or five sentences than most film reviewers can in four or five pages. I don't think length per se is the issue, then, though I take your point that longer reviews might very well lead, generally, to a more thorough engagement.

  11. March 2, 2009
     Michael Theune

    The point in your final paragraph is well-taken, Joe. I am for solid arguments, or, as you put so well, "a more thorough engagement"--if such arguments and engagement can occur in a relatively short review, excellent!

  12. March 2, 2009
     Brian Henry

    Isn't it more "exhausting" to find

    interesting ways to say

    negative/skeptical things in a review

    than it is to approach a book on its own

    terms? Look at the first paragraph of

    your Jane Mead piece as an example:

    you're saying nothing about the

    book/poetry, and way too much about

    the poet's reputation/image. And

    resorting to a blurb on a book--

    especially in the first sentence of a

    review--often seems like an act of

    desperation. (I'd feel this way about the

    first paragraph even if I didn't like the

    Mead book.)

    Now if Mead's poetry presented the

    Poet as Recluse, that's another matter.

    Then at least you'd be talking about the


    Do movie reviewers discuss a director's

    or actor's choice of p.r.?

    People think of William Logan when

    they think of negative reviews because

    he so often makes ad hominem attacks

    that rile up the poets. It's possible to

    write a negative review without blasting

    the poet in the process. I remember

    the first time a Logan review disgusted

    me: he was talking about Charles Simic

    in The New Criterion, and he made a

    joke about the poet having arthritis. I

    don't know if Simic had arthritis or not,

    but knowing people with arthritis, I

    knew how painful and limiting it could

    be. I couldn't understand why someone

    writing a review would do something

    like that.

    And speaking of Logan, too many

    people think he's a decent critic. I

    disagree, and reviewed one of his

    prose books for Verse:


    But you're right, in a world as small as

    the poetry world, there are often

    repercussions for writing negative

    reviews. I used to write a lot of

    reviews, many of them negative (but

    hopefully not nasty), and I've suffered

    a tiny, tiny bit as a result. And some

    poets have blamed me for printing bad

    reviews of their books in Verse--

    reviews that I didn't write, of course.

    But negative reviews are necessary,

    especially if they counter critical pieties

    and currents. But negative reviews

    should stick to the work as they stick it

    to the work.

  13. March 2, 2009
     Don Share

    Let me torque the discussion a little bit (you guys are saying so many good things already that I'd mostly be repeating myself otherwise).

    Suppose there were an award to be given to a poetry critic writing today for non-specialists, someone along the lines of Jarrell, or even Pound and Eliot, who wrote for all sorts of general interest periodicals.  Who ought to get it?

    I posit this in relation to Brian's point about countering critical pieties: I mean, what are the critical pieties that ought to be countered - and from whom are they coming?

  14. March 2, 2009
     Joe Amato

    Geez, Don Share, you're reading my mind... I've just composed the following to name some names. I shy away from poetry reviewers, however (with one exception). Should become clear why as you read through (or maybe I'm just flinching?).


    Perhaps it would help to name some names -- critics/reviewers (there can be a distinction of course) whose work we admire. For me, a critic has to have keen intellection, a way with words, and a capacity to be moved. And moved even to the decimation of a particular objet, no matter how sui generis, in the name of the, what, species. (One can write poetry too from this perspective.)

    Peter Schjeldahl's art reviews for The New Yorker are right at the top of my list. Schjeldahl isn't shy of stating his demands -- art should seduce, art is essentially apolitical, etc. But when he champions someone like Giorgio Morandi, he leaves little doubt as to why he thinks Morandi's paintings deserve our scrutiny. And talk about a way with words.

    (Schjeldahl is also a New York School poet, and based on what little I've read of his opinions about poetry, I have a hunch we'd disagree as to poetic precepts. Love to see him tackle a book of poems, though.)

    The late John Leonard always gave me something to think about -- always managed to make me attentive to aspects of a work I'd otherwise be inattentive to. I think he came up short for me only once, in his oddly dismissive review of the Library of America James Agee (and here I think of Agee's reviews).

    If Anthony Lane isn't the wittiest -- and yes, OK, the snarkiest -- film critic around, I'd like to know who is. But if you read him closely, Lane often reveals, contrary to what you might be led to believe, a real love for film -- the same kind of love that also redeems, for me, the thumbs-up verdicts rendered by Roger Ebert. (And if you ain't seen Ebert work a room of 500 screaming film fans, you really ought to. Sadly, I don't think he can do such work these days.) A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis are often quite good as well. And Jonathan Rosenbaum has written some of the best longer film reviews I've ever read, including a stunning piece on Spielberg(/Kubrick's) A.I. that tackled the very notion of cinematic masterpiece.

    I read the NYTBR just about every Sunday. I find it a tough row to hoe at times, given my predilection for work that appears on the small presses. There are some consistently good reviewers there, in any case, esp. on the nonfiction side. But there are also consistently good reviewers in mags like ABR and Rain Taxi. Let me pick one whose fiction reviews are usually dead on the money: John Domini.

    Note that I've made it a point in this post of staying away from poetry reviewers. I've always loved Marjorie Perloff's criticism, btw -- even when we've disagreed. Maybe that says something. (She's blurbed my work and helped me out in countless ways -- maybe that says something too.)

    My wife Kass Fleisher is a good reviewer -- how's that for a subjective review? And I probably should have stated this up-front: I've managed very few reviews myself (of whatever), so take my comments here for what they're worth. Hence I don't feel that I've given enough to poetry reviewing myself to judge who's the best.

    Hey -- could it be that we also need more negative reviews of reviewers?! It's well and good to argue that the work is what should be reviewed, whatever the genre at hand, and not the person who's writing/creating same. But over time the two become difficult to separate out entirely. We want to believe (he says) that there's a working intelligence behind the artifact before us, no matter at what remove it's...working. (Here I'm thinking, for instance, of any number of procedural distancing techniques, manufactured personae, computer algorithms, etc.) And if we believe this, we likely attribute an emotional, spiritual, even ethical quality to this intelligence. So try as we may, when we critique a work, we're saying something about motivation/intention, no?

  15. March 3, 2009
     Joe Amato

    Oh, hell with it -- I'm being too cautious. I'm just concerned that, as a poet, and esp. w/o having reviewed books of poetry myself, my giving props to a poetry reviewer might be viewed as a, yknow, wise move...

    So, let me pick a poet and writer who's reviewed a book of mine favorably on Amazon -- and he's a friend, to boot: Kevin Killian. Kevin knows how to tickle these keys, and he can write to non-specialists, and he knows the field. He's composed something like 1500 Amazon reviews alone -- incl. fiction, music, etc. -- and counting.

  16. March 3, 2009
     Rebecca Loudon

    But come on. The sheer fact that Mead has a book with blurbs—published in her lifetime and supported by Guggenheim money—should cast doubt on her cred as a recluse


    withdrawn from society; seeking solitude; "lived an unsocial reclusive life"



    Agoraphobia, like other phobias, is made up of extreme anxiety and fear. Different from other phobias, however, is the generalization which occurs. Agoraphobia is the anxiety about being in places where escape might be difficult or embarrassing or in which help may not be available should a panic attack develop. It can be sub-diagnosed as either ‘with’ or ‘without’ panic disorder (see above). Typically situations that invoke anxiety are avoided and in extreme cases, the person may never or rarely leave their home.


    I don’t know if you’re a psychiatrist, I’ve never heard of you before, but if you’re not, you probably shouldn’t be diagnosing people. I have no idea what being a recluse has to do with submitting poetry and getting published. It certainly gets in the way of social networking, but a poet can have a healthy career, get blurbs and even write grants without leaving his or her house.

    My statement has nothing to do with “negative” or, as perhaps they should be thought of, “objective” reviews. You seem really proud to be writing negative reviews. That’s cool. I write them myself sometimes but I’m not cool. I am however, reclusive.

    Rebecca Loudon

  17. March 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    I'm pretty tickled by the idea that the DSM, which postdates the word "recluse" by many centuries, is the arbiter of meaning. Some things are too ridiculous to respond to but I never learn.

    As for whatever is meant by the term "negative review," may I note that Poetry published my very unfavorable review of Reginald Gibbons's latest book, which the editor of the journal picked as one of the best poetry collections of last year. So there is absolutely no correlation between the editors' value judgments & that of their reviewers.

    I find it very strange that anyone objects to the critical practice of judging artistic works. Have people read the scathing things Johnson or Pope wrote about some of their contemporaries? When Anthony Lane calls Watchmen, in the latest New Yorker, "incoherent, overblown, and grimy with misogyny," do hordes of readers demand that reviewers only speak of films in sweet platitudinous terms of praise? If I am reviewing a book should I withhold my judgment of that book or fail to express it in terms commensurate with my evaluation? Let a hundred dead flowers rot.

  18. March 3, 2009
     Jane Holland

    Kent's views above are eminently sensible and I applaud them. However, I'm convinced that if we could manage a consensus on the need for less mamby-pamby reviewing and mollycoddling of poets' egos, there would be no need for anonymity.

    One reason why we've fallen into the habit of obsequious reviewing is the economic pressure on everyone in the business to help poetry sales: one poet sells, we are all more likely to sell. But the self-indulgence and whimsy that poetry was always prey to is only going to flourish and take over in such an atmosphere. Far better to draw attention to the product through well-judged - and too often deserved, let's not forget - bile from the minds of excellent critics.

    Personally, I recommend William Hazlitt as required reading for all poetry reviewers. One of the most sceptical and sharp-witted critics of his day, Hazlitt was also, to his lasting credit, one of the most entertaining of all time. There is certainly no place available for the dour, poorly-written negative review in today's journals, either print or online, but plenty for the wit, intelligence and necessary daring of an honest critic.

  19. March 3, 2009
     Don Share

    Thanks, Joe, for your thoughts & suggestions. Jane, re the role of "honest critic" it seems hard enough for anybody to come up with someone who's a contemporary version of Jarrell (see above), let alone a Hazlitt! I'm all eyes and ears, still, for suggestions...

  20. March 4, 2009
     Robert Archambeau

    While I'm enjoying the discussion of negative reviews, I'm sort of surprised that no one has pointed out what I thought was one of the most fascinating things in Guriel's article: his list of the "fashionable gestures" he sees as the clichés of the moment:

    1. "reliance on buzzwords"

    2. "distrust of order"

    3. "distrust of linearity and having a point"

    4. "anxiety over what words mean"

    5. "romantic bluster"

    6. "imprecision"

    7. "sympathy for small critters"

    There's certainly a lot of work out there that fits the description (though I'm not sure #7 fits in well with the first six items). I remember Arielle Greenberg saying something about how she and her students at the Art Institute of Chicago had done a survey of contemporary journals, and found that something like the kind of poetry Guriel describes in his list of fashionable gestures had become the dominant mode of American poetry. Seems she may have been on to something. It makes me think that we may have hit the decadence-threshold for elliptical poetry.

    Oh: as for an award for critics writing for a general audience: how about considering Steve Burt? It's certainly his goal to write for such a crowd. He says as much in his new book Close Calls with Nonsense, where he claims "I write here for people who want to read more new poetry but somehow never get around to it; for people who enjoy Seamus Heaney or Elizabeth Bishop and want to know what next; for people who enjoy John Ashbery or Anne Carson but aren’t sure why; and, especially, for people who read the half-column poems in glossy magazines and ask, ‘Is that all there is?’”


  21. March 4, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Yeah, I mean there are only two contenders for any sort of Jarrell analogue (though Jarrell would be the first to remind us that there can be no very precise analogies in considerations of letter separated by more than half a century of unprecedented change in the reception, readership, & practice of poetry): Steve Burt & William Logan. This is mostly a question of audience.

  22. March 4, 2009
     Michael Theune

    I can't go with Burt on this one. I like a lot of his criticism well-enough, I suppose, but I don't find the criticism sharp enough to be in the running for our contemporary Jarrell. My reason is simple: at the end of the essay "Close Calls with Nonsense," an essay in which Burt argues that it's worthwhile to read elliptical poetry even while noting (in a section of that essay called "What I Miss in What I Like") that such poetry tends to exclude "argument and wit," Burt states (at the beginning of the essay's final paragraph), "The science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90 percent of anything is no good: contemporary poetry is not, and never has been, an exception." The problem with Burt's approach to reviewing, so far as I'm acquainted with it, is that it seems happy to formulate the elliptical-mainstream distinction, and it's willing to be honest enough to make the caveats it does in "Close Calls...," but it does not seem willing to go the next step and really lay it out there:

    What's the 90% of ellipticism that doesn't work?

    What's the 10% that does?

    Do the successful 10%s of various schools/movements actually have more in common than the successful and unsuccessful parts of any one school/movement?

    These are big, vital issues, and, so far as I know (I've not yet read the book Close Calls with Nonsense...Bob, any input here?), Burt's not really substantively engaged these issues.

    I'm guess I'm for resurrecting Hazlitt, and Keats, while we're at it.

  23. March 4, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    "Do the successful 10%s of various schools/movements actually have more in common than the successful and unsuccessful parts of any one school/movement?"

    This is an excellent and important question. I think the answer is yes. All the nomenclatural fence-raising done by people like Silliman obscures this, as does the ubiquitous blather about 'poetries' as opposed to poetry. I'm reminded of Irving Layton writing to Cid Corman that he didn't want to see any more demonstrations of theory, he wanted to see some good poems from him. Methodology, in and of itself, is irrelevant.

  24. March 4, 2009
     Joe Amato

    I take it Stephen Burt is too, uhm, elliptical?

    I'm going to have to hold the line here: I'd like to know how one gauges "Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love" alongside "Adam's Curse" alongside (an excerpt from) "Paterson" alongside (an excerpt from) "Hard Country" alongside (Neruda's) "Poetry" alongside "Tell Me Lies about Vietnam" alongside a Berrigan sonnet alongside (an excerpt from) "Artifice of Absorption" alongside (an excerpt from) "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions." Dick Allen (e.g.) can wish away some of the latter by claiming it's simply "not poetry," but all of the latter -- depending on my mood -- can satisfy my poetic yearnings.

    As can the ditty, "You Are My Sunshine," which isn't to say that I find it an example of great poetry. But just to be clear. "The Idea of Order at Key West" is great poetry, sure, but the conceptual push of "lighght" is pretty great too.

    I don't think one can make an aesthetic argument here, strictly speaking, unless aesthetics itself becomes (or is couched in) something more profound than style and the like. That is, unless one is willing to limit considerably one's palette. And I'm just not willing to do that, whether as a poet or as a teacher of poetry.

  25. March 4, 2009
     Joe Amato

    Sorry -- moving too fast.

    "Unless one" etc in my prior post is fuzzy at best. What I meant to say is, if aesthetics is tantamount to something like "message in the bottle" -- and I've been arguing that, ultimately, it's not that -- then trying to mix & match texts as diverse as Ronald Johnson's "Radi os" and Harryette Mullen's "Muse & Drudge" is bound to produce myopic critical appraisals (e.g., "it's not poetry"). In fact masculinist assumptions about value can lead to the latter too, and in my experience, they have a tendency to creep in the back door when we narrow our purview.

  26. March 5, 2009
     G the Art Star

    I am glad this review is expressing its opinion, intelligently, with quotes that back up what it says. I am not sure it is accurate, though I just did leaf through the DA Powell book, and thought, "pass." I like some of Powell's recent work in this magazine.

    That being said, in terms of blogs, do not posters above know to be pithy? Please, publish essays elsewhere; keep the posts to 3 or 4 breath-lengths.

  27. March 5, 2009
     Robert Archambeau

    Re: Mike Theune's "I'm guess I'm for

    resurrecting Hazlitt, and Keats, while

    we're at it" --

    Motion seconded! Motion carried! To the

    secret laboratory at once!

  28. March 5, 2009
     Henry Gould

    I'm starting to think that the missing key to both good poetry & good criticism - in a culture of febrile overproduction & circular chit-chat - is the writer-person's inward, private connection with everything that falls under the term UN-literary.

    Somehow they have to master the tools of writing, but nevertheless remain, somewhere inside, aloof - because in touch with something else entirely.

    It's not just about being "raw", rough or sub-literary. There is plenty of that already.

    It's twisting & forcing poetry to address atmospheres & realities which are completely outside & inimical to our present-day writerly salons & curriculae.

    Whitman, for one, tried to do that. I can think of 1 or 2 contemporary poets who seem to aim in that direction. I don't know of any contemporary critics who are aware of or dealing with this dilemma/situation/opportunity.

  29. March 5, 2009
     G The Art Star

    Mr. Gould gets it right in describing the "febrile overproduction & circular chit-chat" that marks much work in periodicals today. So much seems dashed off in the worst sense, un-wrestled with, no angels present, better nature or otherwise.

    This essay also is spot-on in lambasting blurbs. When I peruse a decent poetry section, blurbs and book often seem on chasm-engulfed, separate planets. Poetry that "blows you away" is rare, and as Guriel notes, and should be. Adrienne Rich blew me away with her last book; other contemporaries also.

  30. March 5, 2009
     Katy Tried

    Poetry that "blows you away" is

    rare, and as Guriel notes, and should

    be. Adrienne Rich blew me away with

    her last book; other contemporaries


    See, it's comments like this that

    convince me that as a criterion for

    judging poetry, mind-blowingness has

    no merit. It's too subjective.

    As lyric, Rich's work has never blown

    me away. (Her convictions & ideas

    make her important, yes.)

    There have to be other ways to

    evaluate poetry. Some people value

    lyric condensation, some figuration,

    some meter & rhyme, some wit, some

    "emotion," some "message." No poetry

    does all these things. But let us at least

    acknowledge criteria differ.

  31. March 5, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    That being said, in terms of blogs, do not posters above know to be pithy? Please, publish essays elsewhere; keep the posts to 3 or 4 breath-lengths.

    Wow, you're really new around here, huh, G.

  32. March 5, 2009
     G The Art Spy

    I agree KT that "mind-blowingness" is subjective, but also one of the most important, personal yet objective catagories of art. I think T.S. Eliot in his essay on Goethe talks about being able to recognize "mind-blowingness" in Goethe, but not experience it, until years later. Anyway I am not arguing it as a criteria. As a subject for an essay, it should be handled only by a dancer.

    Guriel's essay above did a good job of being specific (vague, predictable, limited cleverness) and backing it up with passages.

  33. March 5, 2009
     Katy Tried

    Art Spy, I agree Guriel did a fine job

    being specific -- and asking for more

    specificity from poets. I have no problem

    with that. I just don't think framing the

    piece with the "having the top of your

    head taken off" trope was necessarily the

    best idea. It's nice when it happens, but

    you can't go around accusing poets of

    failing to take the top of your head off. It's

    like complaining that God didn't talk back

    when you prayed.

  34. March 5, 2009
     Christopher Hamilton-Emery

    I think the best negative criticism is the paying readership. If

    you want to know which poetry succeeds, look at the sales

    figures. Reviews in the poetry world rarely reach the general

    public, and the strategies for appraising talent often miss the

    fundamental point that literature is formed from readers, not

    writers. If we want to balance the shop talk with an

    understanding of where poetry is, we need better information

    about what people are reading and what readerships are like.

    Poetry's audience is highly fragmented and some aspects are

    artificial, but the broaden reception one needs to talk to

    readerships and whilst "Poetry" is an august organ, that

    dialogue could be significantly enhanced by talking to the

    (supposedly) mythical General Reader, shops and

    broadsheets. Too often the critics are poorly informed about

    what readers want and why they want it.

  35. March 5, 2009
     Chris Hosea

    Reviews can be attentive to the peculiar goals and aims of the author's project without occasioning any sacrifice of aesthetic priniciples by the reviewer. Too often, reviewers treat books as colorful blocks they try to cram through the windows (or roofs) of their own poetry playhouses. Just because an author doesn't fit a particular reviewer's current prescriptive limitations and theories doesn't mean that penning a few more rough generalizations about what poetry should or shouldn't do is a useful exercise for anyone. Rather, reviews (whether "negative" or "positive") can be generous to the writing, give it the benefit of the doubt, and work outward from that doubt. Couldn't critical doctors heal themselves a bit by eschewing assessment ("thumbs up!";"thumbs down!") and daring to expose their views on particular subjects? I'd like to hear Guriel's take, for example, on the value of metaphor in persuasive argument. Are there implications in addition to aesthetic ones (particular political and social implications, for example) that result from taking pleasure in watching "minds struggling to cut a crisp path through the dry ice," as Guriel puts it? Even if a reviewer finds only a hazy trace of a mind in a given book, he can dare to suggest its specific course and intended (if in his view failed) purpose, all the while relating it in some partial, non-generalized way to his own vision as a writer. People sometimes say how small the "poetry world" is, but actually poetry is a very big tent, and there are a lot of things going on under the big top. Neither Kent's reasonable explanation that positive reviews are dictated by academic careerism nor Christopher's rather absurd suggestion that the marketplace dictates aesthetic merit quite capture my sense that a lot of poets, myself included, aren't working creatively enough to frame the terms of a fresh, lively, and useful discourse about current poetry--though I am cheered by the excellent criticism to be found in places like the Chicago Review and Thom Donovan's ON magazine.

  36. March 6, 2009

    "If you want to know which poetry succeeds, look at the sales



  37. March 6, 2009
     Christopher Hamilton-Emery

    Don't dismiss that too quickly, Chris. I

    think it would be misleading to argue

    for an aesthetics outside of

    consumption. You can't have great

    literature which is unread. Paying

    readerships and the poetry economy

    have a far wider impact on reception

    and notion of value over time. A

    classic, after all, is what the general

    public continue to buy. If we abandon

    the relationship to the economy we

    submit ourselves to an abstract

    relativism. That has no bearing on what

    people actually buy. We all read plenty

    of intelligent and vibrant criticism, but it

    can also be something entirely outside

    of the inevitable and intimate evidence

    of writer and paying reader.

  38. March 6, 2009

    "Too often the critics are poorly informed about what readers want and why they want it."

    Critics ARE readers.

    It's not their job to keep up with the Garrison Keillors of the world.

  39. March 6, 2009

    What were Moby-Dick's "sales figures" between Melville's death and like 1920?

    Squat. He had to be rediscovered. Like Bach. Like lots of people.

  40. March 6, 2009
     christopher Hamilton-Emery

    It does look funny, Matt. But the opposite

    position would be to assert that great art

    has no reception. But of course, the

    reality is that you can't publish works

    which don't sell — unless someone else is

    paying the bills, and that runs the risk of

    vanity publishing. I'd widen this to say

    that there's plenty of great writing that

    cannot be published, because no one want

    to buy it. And perhaps that's what you're

    getting at. And that is an interesting issue

    to unpack.

  41. March 6, 2009
     Christopher Hamilton-Emery

    I completely agree that sales figures need

    to be looked at over time, Matt. But

    publishing for the unborn is, like

    publishing for the dead, a rather

    depressing exercise. Great art isn't always

    a matter of rediscovery and there are

    plenty of unread dead writers who won't

    be coming to a bookstore near you any

    time soon.

  42. March 6, 2009
     Henry Gould

    I'm no gourmet, but hamburgers must be pretty good, because the last time I went to a hamburger joint, it was full of people scarfing down hamburgers.

    Any other big philologico-critical questions out there you'd like me to deal with today, folks?

  43. March 6, 2009
     christopher Hamilton-Emery

    Well, Henry, I'll not be disagreeing about

    hamburgers, but if Wallace Stevens

    remains popular I don't think that's

    because of his beef content.

    I think I'm groping towards saying is that

    we ought to pay attention to poetries

    which sell (in any number) as readers are

    telling us something about the art. Unless

    we want to argue that poetry readerships

    are all stupid?

  44. March 6, 2009
     Jane Holland

    If we assume, for the sake of argument - and there's plenty of that here - that one role of good criticism is to shape the way we read, as well as what we read, then it immediately flags up for us the danger of shallow, toothless, puff-reviewing. Following on from such criticism, if we can continue to call it that, we would eventually read in a similarly shallow, uncritical way and choose to buy poetry which makes few demands on our own critical faculties. The end result would be the death of poetry and the rise of doggerel.

    And perhaps we are already beginning to see the early signs of that, as lyric poetry continues to dominate, becoming ever shorter, thematically linked to the everyday or commonplace occurrence, and more 'message'-oriented.

  45. March 6, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Shakespeare, Sonnet 21 :

    "Let them say more that like of hearsay well;

    I will not praise that purpose not to sell. "

    & he should know!

  46. March 6, 2009

    "One of her go-to gimmicks is the question"? There are 64 questions in the Duino Elegies. These goddamn poets & their syntactical gimmickry! "Her ultimate goal is not clarity but mystery"? Goddamn poets for being capable of of being in mysteries, uncertainties, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason, for not making the inneffable effable by the final line. How'm I supposed to deal with that? "And anyway, I already know that my mind is unreliable, meandering, fucked-up; why would I want to see it represented on the page?"? Goddamn the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.

  47. March 6, 2009
     Christopher Hamilton-Emery

    Ah, the Beefy Bard, hisself, he was a

    rather successful Ham, bless him. He's a

    good example of commerce breeding

    great art.

  48. March 6, 2009
     Kent Johnson


    You run a great press (and thanks for what you help to make available), and I can understand the matter of sales would be an important one for you.

    But you can take the argument only so far. After all, the two best-selling poets in the United States are Susan Polis Schultz and Rod McKuen (I think). They sell maybe five thousand times more copies than, say, Robert Duncan. I'm not saying that makes the people who buy these books instead of Duncan's "stupid," as you put it, but you see what I mean...

    Anyway, here's to ever-growing sales figures for Salt!


  49. March 6, 2009
     Susan Gubernat

    At last! we lift the haw lantern and

    discover: an honest poetry reviewer. I

    intend to have my undergrad and grad

    students in poetry workshop read his

    comments on Jane Mead, in particular.

    Perhaps that will put an end to their

    specious arguments about sloppy

    abstraction in their own poems,

    arguments that otherwise might be

    buttressed by poems he refers to in his

    review of Mead's latest book.

  50. March 6, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Surely the best-selling poet in the States now is Billy Collins? & probably E. Alexander most recently? I can't imagine that anyone is still buying McKuen books, if any are even in print.

    Most poetry-book sales figures hover somewhere around zero. Eighty percent of a poetry collection's sales occur within six months of publication. Poetry has never had a large audience or been a moneymaker, & contrary to Chris's claims quite a few poetry publishers of the last century (City Lights, Grove Press, New Directions) were perfectly content to lose money. Small presses always lose money: it's what they're for. Since poetry doesn't make money (what percentage of poetry books do you suppose break even? one percent? less?) there will have to be other criteria for publishing to consider. It may be that publishers will decide poetry's not worth it, & vanity presses will indeed take their place. Hardly a new condition, & it's the insane idea that millions of books should be published each year that's the historical anomaly. Let many fewer flowers bloom.

  51. March 6, 2009
     G the Art Spy

    There is a point to be made about sales figures in the short, but more in the century-long term. Robert Frost crafted his poems to work on the surface to entice surface readers (new readers, conscripted students, glancers), while also fulfilling the literary readers and re-readers.

    Collins was cleverest in early work; this poet's mass audience would have been fine reading Frost 50 years ago, and before that, the Spoon River Anthology, and maybe Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" (the book, 1916), which is excellent.

  52. March 6, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    "But publishing for the unborn is like publishing for the dead, a rather

    depressing exercise."

    - christopher Hamilton-Emery


    For You Not Yet

    As I write, right now, your mother

    is the size of a pea.

    She will grow and be born

    and not hear of me.

    You at this time

    do not even exist and only

    by luck and grace will you be

    if your mother survives

    and gets married.

    But I write not for your mother

    or even right now.

    Now knows nothing of me.

    Now knows not what I do.

    I write for tomorrow, for they

    not yet here.

    I have written for you.


    Copyright 2008 - HARDWOOD-77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  53. March 6, 2009
     Tom Thompson

    Here's to one of the better, more

    productive threads I've seen on the

    state of poetry reviewing. No age has

    been without its negative reviews,

    though ours feels more worked up

    about it than most that may be simply

    because we're so near-sighted. (For

    famous example, the specious

    assertion that Keats was "killed" by

    lousy reviews.) What's missing in the

    mix is the feeling that those negative

    reviews that do slam out the door

    every once in a while (from Logan or

    whoever) are doing so because the

    work means so much, has so much

    potentially at stake. If anyone has done

    that kind of review lately, it may be

    Michael Theune--with whom I'm apt to

    violently disagree (even if only in my

    head) but whose devotion to both the

    poem-at-hand and the larger stakes is

    never in doubt. So here's to more of

    that, and to the Poetry Foundation for

    sparking this debate in the first place.

  54. March 6, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Chris Hamilton-Emery certainly has a point. It's a publisher's point. I've heard it from other poetry publishers - in person. I mean publishers of high-quality poetry, some of the best in the US, anyway. They have to think about the survival of their enterprise; hence they have to gamble & bet on what might sell, as well as look for the work they like the most, personally.

    But that's why we have criticism. Public taste is an imponderable. The People Judge - but there is no calculating what they will like. That's one of the great things about aesthetics, as about life. Unpredictable.

    A critic is a member of the public who not only likes poetry but is obsessed about it, learns all she can about it, & is willing to write honestly & intelligently about it. Valuable lamppost in the fog of world discourse.

    So it's good to have both of these two perspectives. & it's a mistake to try to yoke them together in one perfect logical system (since those darn imponderables remain in play).

    p.s. Shakespeare's conclusion to Sonnet 21 is hard English to make out. It's easy to mistake what he's saying. The context is a poem in which the speaker distinguishes himself from fashionable flowery & phony high-flown rhetoric about His Beloved. The speaker is going to be honest & straightforward, because he simply loves : & his Beloved is not up for sale.

    He's saying the exaggerated praise of other poets is "hearsay"; whereas he's not going to "praise" his cutey-pie in public, since she's not "on the market".

    Poetry, on the other hand, is one staring, back-talkin', whorish jade, by Crumpet, I daresay.

  55. March 6, 2009
     Edward Mycue

    Robert Duncan, mentioned above, is a good reference point in all of this discussion. Wallace Stevens also. But nothing of George Oppen in any of this or even Josephine Miles. Nor was Robinson Jeffers invoked. Certainly not Richard Hugo. And where is James Tate or Charles Simic. Though there were many references to weak models. That may tell something. D.A. Powell is a poet who attracts interest not disinterest. It will be what he will be and probably is becoming that will seal the discussion as he seems here to be the target of pique more than John Poch and Jane Mead. Edward Mycue

  56. March 7, 2009

    The saddest part of this whole

    argument is that the negative review

    achieves very little. In a time of

    shrinking review space this seems

    particularly ill-conceived.

    Great criticism engages, challenges,

    informs, opens--it brings readers to

    work and work to readers. It may even

    broaden the audience for poetry.

    Negative reviews are sometimes useful,

    but to say they should be the default is

    ridiculous--though it has gotten hits

    which was likely the point. And that's

    sad too. To think of poetry as a train

    wreck. The more one trashes another

    the more hits.

  57. March 7, 2009

    Quite the pissing contest guys. Whew!

    It's enough to make a compulsive Poet retreat (quashed and quavering) into even deeper, darker candle lit corners than the one where initial inspiration arose. So, does the Poet need to constantly be looking over their shoulder for the specter of criticism looming judgmentally above their creative effort to express their humanity? Hmm. Guess so. Thus, seems the greater difficulty in finding the bearer of a 'mentool' weapon, or a gloried some such, capable of blowing one's mind and saving Poetry forever, amen.

    I certainly hope these discussions don't stem from a re-posing of that humorous adage, "them that's Poets Poetize, them thats can't Critisize."

    [Just funin withya Jason, guys.]

    Rave on boys and girls.

  58. March 7, 2009
     Roddy Lumsden

    Interesting debate, but let's cut to the quick of it. Guriel's remarks about Mead and Poch seem to be the rather limp bread to the sandwich filling which is his take on Powell. Now why on earth would a rather kitsch, pomo-lite poet with a taste for OTT poem titles ('Fellini's Whore Executes the Rumba', 'The Day Frank O'Hara Died. Detail' etc) have a go at D.A. Powell, increasingly, and rightly, regarded as among the most vibrant and skilled poets writing on this planet at present?

    'Negative' (as opposed to constructive) reviewing rarely springs from iconoclastic truth-telling and generally from troubled (or at best youthful) personal pathology. Those who pride their 'reputations' as caustic reviewers are always misfits who are determined to swank uninvited into the party, however they can.

  59. March 7, 2009
     Henry Gould

    So, the quick of it, Roddy - hunting for Jason Guriel's fallacious intention? Comparing his own poetry to his reviews? Asking how dare a critic challenge contemporary blurb opinion? Pop psychology of negative response?

    Thanks, Roddy, for the little lesson in petty literary spite.

  60. March 7, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    >After all, the two best-selling poets in the United States are Susan Polis Schultz and Rod McKuen (I think).

    Well, OK, Michael, I suppose this shows 1) that I don't pay close attention to the sales figures and 2) that I am still living in the early 80s.

    But I'll bet Susan Polis Schultz still sells a lot more books than Robert Duncan!



  61. March 7, 2009

    I'm usually interested in reading a poet/critic's poetry when the critic is basically saying what poetry should not be. Is it fair to assume that the poems of the negative poet/critic are then the 'right' sort of poems, the corrective? Logan, Hourihan...Guriel?

  62. March 7, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    I don't know who Susan Polis Schultz is, but you've convinced me not to find out.

    I happen to agree that Doug Powell is a fine poet & I'm enjoying Chronic a hell of a lot, but Roddy's comment is laughable. Critics' job is to confirm received opinion!

  63. March 7, 2009
     Fred Bear

    I really enjoy Archie Ammons & Edward Cummings. Tom Eliot is great too.

  64. March 8, 2009
     Manoel Cartola

    In response to Grant about the critics' own poetry as the "right" type:

    Well, that maybe for Logan or Kirsch... I don't think for Guriel's case (though we'll have to look into his work more carefully). It is quite plausible that a critic who is also a poet struggles to meet their own ideals. And this is true for anything in life as well, but it doesn't mean it shouldn't be said. Criticism can actually move art forward in a lot of ways. I'm sure Guriel realizes that his work is out there and has its own flaws. It doesn't mean that his criticism is invalid in any way. I thought it was very good, although I sense a formalist bent to it that I don't fully align with.

    I really apreciate his critiques here. However, he has taken good poets like Powell as realy dug into the work. But, if you read this month's POETRY you'll find some extremely weak poems such as the one about the *sigh* american girl who wants to sleep with the French Musician. Ho hum. As if my teenage sister submitted her diary. C'mon POETRY... really.

  65. March 8, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Michael Robbins kindly sent me this poem by Susan Polis Schultz, the poet who has sold more copies of her books than all of the Salt authors put together. Enjoy.



    If you have a goal in life

    that takes a lot of energy

    that incurs a great deal of interest

    and that is a challenge to you,

    you will always look

    forward to waking up to

    see what the new day brings.

    If you find a person in your life

    that understands you completely

    that shares your ideas

    and that believes in everything you do,

    you will always look forward to the night

    because you will never be lonely.

  66. March 8, 2009

    "Critics' job is to confirm received opinion!"

    I'm lost as to whether this is ironic or not, Michael, but of course, you're cut from the same cloth - and might well regret it. At the age of 42, I feel reluctant to be wagging fingers, but I've seen two generations of iconoclasts go under cringing at their own snow-pissing.

    If anyone missed (or misconstrued) my point by reading too quickly (a common online flaw), I wasn't speaking out against negative points made about poems but about reviewing that sets out to be negative and reviewers (most of them none too bright or perceptive in my experience) who make a name for themselves by continually focussing on the negative aspects of books.

    Guriel's three reviews here fall into such obvious categories of faux reviewing:

    Mead: this poetry isn't my style or taste but I'm not sure how to say so, so I will clip lines and make them look vacuous;

    Powell: this guy writes like I'd dearly like to and so I'm going to get him;

    Poch: I'm not quite sure what to write about this one so I will take a tack of comparing it with something REALLY good and hope I get away wth it.

    Don't let your schadenfreude lead you too much, people. It's not good for your souls.

  67. March 8, 2009
     Roddy Lumsden

    Incidentally (and that's my post above which has come up without a name somehow), our 'best selling' poet in the UK is a guy called Giles Andreae, a near exact contemporary of mine. I notice from his biog that he has a house in Notting Hill and a seaside retreat in Dorset. This means he is seriously wealthy. His poems have appeared in the guise of 'Purple Ronnie', a stick man character who appears on birthday cards etc.

  68. March 8, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Oh, please, Roddy, you don't know what you're talking about. You're 42, so what. I'm in my mid-thirties, kiddo, & I don't go around "making a name for myself" by "focussing on the negative aspects of books." Guess you missed the vast majority of my reviews, which are overwhelmingly positive. But no need to get yr facts straight when you're making sweeping generalizations, right? I don't know where you get the idea that when I or Jason pan a book we do so because we want to set tongues a-wagging. I've received much more attention for my poetry than I've ever done for my reviews, & that's as should be.

    Speaking of sales figures, I note Kent Johnson's Homage to the Last Avant-Garde is outselling Armantrout, Bernstein, Bök, & Silliman on Amazon: make of that what you will, & you always do will.

  69. March 8, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Michael Robbins,

    Homage is now plunging fast and things are not looking good: I see it's lost 80,000 places in less than 24 hours! When I went to bed last night, it was 120,000-something; now it is 200,000-something. How this could happen, I simply can't explain. Was there a Guriel-like bad review somewhere I don't know about? I don't mean to be too forward about this, but perhaps you could arrange for me to have an interview with the Village Voice.

    This is quite distressing. And it is very important to my self-esteem and my sanity that my ranking stay above Eunoia, The Alphabet, Girly Man, and Sea Change, as it has been for some weeks, so may I PLEASE ask that everyone reading this IMMEDIATELY purchase my book on Amazon. There is a very large amusement park immediately outside my window. If it falls to 2,000,000 again, I don't know what I will do. Thank you, and good luck.


  70. March 9, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    Wow, pissing indeed.

    Of course, as soon as I posted I regretted letting myself be dragged into the either/or conversation in the first place, which is what these comments come down to, veering back into the territory of good/bad and again, bolstering the us/them.

    Surely there is more than two rhetorical stances? And surely we can hit on a few more in our discussion of poetry?

  71. March 9, 2009

    Kent Johnson wants us to punish him for

    his poetic trespasses.

  72. March 10, 2009
     G the Art Star

    I was thinking today after continuing a draft of an essay how excellent this thread has been; intelligent conversation on art (agreeing or disagreeing) is refreshing. I quoted Keats' "unheard melodies" in my essay; thanks for reminding me of that.

    Jason Guriel essay was thoughtful and specific enough to spark more smart thoughts. Poetry Magazine needs to publish more essays like this: not just in terms of its opinion, but especially in the way it quotes passages to back up what it says.

  73. March 10, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Some further points, Roddy:

    You're not sure whether "Critics' job is to confirm received opinion" is ironic? Well, it's an accurate paraphrase of what you wrote, & it's not an impression I received by reading too quickly (an all too frequent occurrence online, thanks for reminding us, you're too gracious). You wrote that Jason is having "a go at D.A. Powell, increasingly, and rightly, regarded as among the most vibrant and skilled poets writing on this planet at present." The ONLY reason to drag received opinion into this is to suggest that Jason errs in deviating from it, & that because many people affirm a thing it must be true. You are of course aware that being "increasingly regarded as" is not quite the same thing as being "rightly regarded as"? The first requires citation, which I'm sure you can provide; the second requires argument, which ditto, but you don't. The point is that you clearly slam Jason for not hewing to the party line on Powell (again, a line I hew to myself), not for any defect in the details of his failure so to hew. The implication is that he is taking Powell to task simply to be contrary -- an assumption of bad faith on his part you fail to support. Why is it so hard for you to believe that perhaps Jason disagrees that Powell is "among the most vibrant and skilled poets writing on this planet at present"? (And thanks for those final qualifiers: good to know no one "regards" him as among the most vibrant & skilled poets writing on Venus 19,000 years ago.)

    "You're cut from the same cloth" would seem to imply that I "set out" to attack a book, no? This doesn't deserve a reply, really, since it assumes such bad faith on my (& Jason's) part that it reveals far more about your own churlishness & pettiness & ressentiment & cynicism than anything I could say in a review. For the record, OF COURSE I read books I have been assigned to review without an idea of what I want to say about them. This is tautological.

  74. March 10, 2009
     eve cointreau

    After making a case for "negative" reviewing Guriel's own reviews above don't really, in my view, live up to that description. For me "negative" reviewing implies not honestly stated opinion that backs up its claims, but a perverse illogic that flies in the face of evidence.

    Guriel's assessents seem on the basis of the quotations provided, at the very least, plausible. I've not read any of the books reviewed here, and can't therefore have an opinion on them, but the review and some of the discussion it's generated have piqued my interest sufficiently to want to read them for myself.

    Surely that is the point of a review, whether it calls itself "negative" or not?

  75. March 10, 2009
     Michael Theune

    Belated thanks, Tom, for your comments on my criticism—

    * * *

    Chris Hosea writes:

    >Reviews can be attentive to the peculiar goals and aims of the author's project without occasioning any sacrifice of aesthetic priniciples by the reviewer. Too often, reviewers treat books as colorful blocks they try to cram through the windows (or roofs) of their own poetry playhouses. Just because an author doesn't fit a particular reviewer's current prescriptive limitations and theories doesn't mean that penning a few more rough generalizations about what poetry should or shouldn't do is a useful exercise for anyone. Rather, reviews (whether "negative" or "positive") can be generous to the writing, give it the benefit of the doubt, and work outward from that doubt. Couldn't critical doctors heal themselves a bit by eschewing assessment ("thumbs up!";"thumbs down!") and daring to expose their views on particular subjects? I'd like to hear Guriel's take, for example, on the value of metaphor in persuasive argument…

    The above seems quite reasonable to me. I’d like to emphasize how I think it points, implicitly, to a limitation in Guriel’s recent reviews in Poetry.

    In his most recent reviews, including the one under discussion, Guriel opens with these really big, provocative introductions—the fact that the singular poem is on the outs, the need for negative reviews—but then when he starts reviewing, Guriel’s critical standpoint doesn’t seem significantly shaped by that provocative introduction. For example, in his previous review, Guriel writes about the decline of the singular, distinctive poem, but he never closely investigates what it takes to make a singular, distinctive poem. Rather, it’s just back to Guriel’s critiques, which tend to talk about everyone else’s poems as if they should be written like his own.

    Now, I like the few poems I’ve read by Guriel. They are—and I mean this sincerely—neat: well-crafted, pretty sharp, often witty, polished. But there are at least two problems here. 1) I don’t want everyone writing like this. And 2) even on some admittedly very limited evidence (two reviews…), as I wrote in response to Guriel’s review of Jorie Graham’s Sea Change, there in fact are some poetic values Guriel seems to have which could use some exploring. (In my response to Guriel’s review of Sea Change, I note that Graham crafts some pretty great turns in her poems, and I suggest that the turn may be a part of poems that Guriel really admires but with an admiration that Guriel himself so far has not articulated, or perhaps even realized.)

    And this is why I like Chris Hosea’s ideas: I like the friendly, and necessary, challenge it offers. I like the idea of Guriel selecting some big themes for some of his future reviews which actually challenge, or at least press/push, Guriel’s own ideas about what makes poetry worthy of a positive review—where he questions or critiques a value he thought was certain, or he entertains some new evaluative criteria. If Guriel doesn’t do this at some point in the near future, he runs the risk of revealing that his provocations are mere ploys to bring readers in to read reviews which, in fact, generally offer simply more of the same. And when these provocations lose their sparkle, all we’ll have to go on is Guriel’s sensibility. We’ll want to make sure when the provocations are gone, or simply seen through, that Guriel’s sensibility is tested and true, which, for me, includes a readiness to deeply and thoroughly and self-critically engage, to be surprised and, so, surprise.

  76. March 11, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Just to note, perplexedly, that a few of these comments seem to be written by students in a composition or rhetoric course: nowhere else have I seen such fetishization of "backing up claims" with "support" & "evidence." Of course this is important, sometimes, but it's not spoken of in such terms outside comp class, as far as I know. I would like to think that Poetry magazine is a professional journal, & none of its reviewers need be applauded for adhering to professional norms, particularly in oddly pedantic comp-speak.

  77. March 11, 2009
     Chip Corwin

    Michael (Robbins),

    I think they teach those things in comp class because they are the basic elements of effective writing and argumentation. Calling into question a person's claim, support, or evidence in his/her argument is a perfectly legitimate way to make a counter-argument.

    You seem to recognize as much when you write in this very thread March 5 in response to Christopher Hamilton-Emery: "Poetry has never had a large audience or been a moneymaker, & contrary to Chris's claims quite a few poetry publishers of the last century [...] were perfectly content to lose money."

    And again on March 9, responding to Roddy: "The implication is that he is taking Powell to task simply to be contrary -- an assumption of bad faith on his part you fail to support."

  78. March 11, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Not my point, obviously. My point was about the terms in which the critique is couched, which are unheard outside comp class. Calling into question evidence or support for argument is one thing; applauding an author's essay for "the way it quotes passages to back up what it says" is straight out of comp 101.

  79. March 11, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    P.S. Not trying to be a dick, just wondering about the language, which struck me. Stupid internets needs intonation indicator (emoticons no count).

  80. March 11, 2009
     Sean Smith

    On March 01, 2009 at 07:03 Manoel

    Cartola wrote:

    Thanks Jason. Poetry needs a bit of

    house-cleaning and freshening up from

    time to time.


    Ahem... So you're saying no more




  81. March 11, 2009

    "a few of these comments seem to be

    written by students in a composition or

    rhetoric course"

    Maybe they are, Michael. Aren't students

    and young people allowed to participate?

  82. March 11, 2009
     Austin T. Ashes

    To lubricate the path to eliminating a

    cliche of "sympathy for small animals."

    "Squirrel Nutkin 2"

    Small brown and furry with a wispy tail

    the squirrel nimbly bounds from limb to


    A mouth full of nuts does not hinder her

    dexterity, nor does a gust of wind

    fluster her buster. The thick green waxy

    magnolia leaves harbor little green

    cones that will grow into large red and


    homes for baby trees, but the squirrel


    thinks of her nest and her babies,

    waiting hungrily for the feast she is

    ambling upward with. The majesty of

    a simple cousin of a sewer rat.

    Sadly, the poet lusts

    for something more

    substantial than nuts.

    He yields his pen and paper then he


    his laser taser phaser and erases

    the final thoughts of a bounding vermin.

    "Eat my nuts will you," he hollers aloud

    as he bounds amiably whistling

    a hymn of bounty and squirreling away

    his laser taser phaser, after an

    amazing sixgun whirly brandishing.

    Picking up the rat-kin, wiping the sweat

    from his brow brim, he flourishes his


    antler handled pocket knife, grabs the


    before the hind quarter, legs just above

    his thumb. With his finger he folds the


    ass to mouth, inserts the blade between


    and tail, and with a mighty pull, he


    the shiny blade plum off, cursing China.

    By Austin T. Ashes

    Bacon Wrapped Squirrel Legs

    squirrel legs, 8-12, usually come in fours






    Beef Flavor Packet from "Beef Ramen"

    Wishtasaur Sauce

    Marinate legs in beer mixed with the


    Beef Flavor packet and Wishtasaur


    two to three hours or until hungry

    has hit the point where you can eat


    (highly recommend marinating self

    in beer for two to three hours until

    proper hunger mind frame has been


    Remove legs and pat dry, wrap with


    Use toothpicks to secure the bacon if

    you have teeth. If you don't have teeth

    I'm sure

    a twist tie will work just fine. (You know,


    the ones that come with a roll of trash


    Lightly grind fresh black pepper onto the

    bacon wrapped leg. Sprinkle with kosher


    Apply heat until you can chew the meat

    and swallow, without worry of vomit.

  83. March 11, 2009
     Em. Bareassed

    Holy mother of bad formatting, I

    promise it looks better on my screen. :)

  84. March 11, 2009

    Michael Roberts wrote: "reviewers need [not] be applauded for adhering to professional norms"

    True indeed if these norms were seen to be more generally adhered to. But in a climate where vague generalisation based on nothing specific appears to be more common, it seemed worthwhile to risk making some rather basic points.

  85. March 11, 2009
     eve cointreau

    Sorry, the above comment is mine; forgot to add my name.

  86. March 11, 2009
     Fred Bear

    Austin T. Ashes has just written the Greatest Poem Ever.

  87. March 11, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Eve, I don't know who "Michael Roberts" is.

    Matt: once again you have crystallized my thoughts perfectly. I was indeed calling for a ban on all students from the Poetry Foundation, nay from the internet itself!! I do not think they should be "allowed to participate"! That is clearly what I was saying, & I thank you for elucidating it.

  88. March 11, 2009
     Garman Lord

    Very refreshing, Jason

  89. March 12, 2009
     Eve Cointreau

    Sorry Michael, my mistake.

  90. March 12, 2009

    Thanks for putting me in my place, Michael. Your sarcasm is always so helpful.

  91. March 13, 2009
     Steve Amato

    H.L. Mencken and William Hazlitt wrote negative reviews, but can you name one poet, artist, or writer who gave up verse because of them? No? This is because imaginative reviews, negative or positive, are written by poets; some negative reviews are too endless and wordy to bother a poet: the poet wouldn't read it; I spent a certain amount of time reading this one when I could have been writing a poem instead. Come to think of it, a Jimi Hendrix concert on YouTube is a good alternative to this endlessly wordy blurb.

  92. March 13, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    oh hai steve jason's a poet k thx bye

  93. March 15, 2009
     Ken Victor

    Taking a poet to task for a blurb that appears on the back of their book is just a cheap shot. Sure, who hasn't grown tired of every book proclaiming the poet as some kind of essential voice, defining their generation, etc...but don't jump on the marketing of the book as some sort of valid poetic critique.

    Aren't you, in trying to correct a genuinely out of balance propensity toward praise and appreciation, just swinging across to the opposite end, when what's needed is a critical stance that comes to rest in the middle?

    Negativity as a "natural posture" can have it. Your stance will, no doubt, lead you to discover vast fields, usable or otherwise, of poor poetry. Is that about the poetry? Or about you?

  94. March 23, 2009
     Bruce Dale Wise


    Poetic criticism

    would lean on empty hope

    without the likes of Dryden,

    or Alexander Pope,

    with the dislikes of Johnson,

    or words unworthy thrown

    out by the wit of Byron,

    on that Romantic drone,

    without the morbid Po-et,

    or Arnold's blandish brew,

    without the Pound of T.S.

    or his discordant crew,

    without a Marvell sober

    or J. R. Lowell smirk,

    no amiable robber

    't would ever make it work.

  95. March 26, 2009

    Даа... По моему мнению, минусы значительно превосходят плюсы. Думаю, не стоит заморачиваться.

  96. March 30, 2009
     Muiris Killeen

    Poetical Perfections

  97. March 30, 2009
     Muiris Killeen (spacerz)

    I'm so sorry how it appears i may be over using that phrase upon meself shure to my admiration both for + of Poetry appears to presently be Extaticly Un-discribable really n i'll always B sorry 4 something as we'd be learning...

  98. April 2, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    I sort of agree with Muiris.

  99. April 10, 2009
     Austin Bailey

    Why am I always the Rodney King of
    poetry: "Can't we all just get along!"
    Maybe it's because I get nervous when
    critics attack contemporary poetry
    because I feel like, as a reader,
    perhaps I have been duped by cliched,
    pedestrian lines, or as a wanna be poet
    I feel like I couldn't do better if I got
    lucky, so I am only slaving away
    towards, at worst oblivion, and at best
    pointless obscurity. But we need, I
    think, more honest critics. More over,
    we need critics who are assholes with
    bottomless egos, who do not write
    poetry themselves.

  100. April 11, 2009
     Donald Brown

    Resurrect Keats and Hazlitt? Really? Would either of them recognize much of anything published today as poetry?

    One reason the criticism of poetry is so difficult is that there are no definite criteria to shape the critic's evaluation. That said, I'd rather critics genuinely lay out or at least strongly imply their criteria than go for point-scoring or being glibly witty. A problem poetry reviews seem to suffer from at times is that comparison offered above to film and music reviews: those reviews are about, first and foremost, entertainment and aim to be entertaining as well. It's not that writing about literature can't be witty, but the burden of saying something worthwhile about a book of poems is quite different than the 'thumbs up' approach. And, pace Joe Amato on Rosenbaum, when film critics attempt to talk art (with Spielberg as 'artist') they often wander way off their expertise.

    The points about practicing poets being reviewers is good and all-to-true, in terms of self-serving instances of both praise and blame. I'm thinking of Byron's brutal putdown of 'Johnny Keats,' for instance.

    But, as to this review, I think Guriel's effort to point out the overly familiar tendencies of the day (using Powell as whipping-boy) merits some praise; and I will also add that, after reading a selection from all Powell's books to date, I was more impressed by poems from Chronic than by the earlier work; Guriel's review may have the salutary effect of making me think more about what I liked and disliked in the poems -- which is what I would like a review to do. But one risk of Guriel's approach, with its snarky tone and those opening, tongue-in-cheek paragraphs, is that it's easily dismissable in its own right.

    And this I think brings up the point discussed about the difference between what Poetry publishes and lauds and what it's reviewers diss and dismiss: I don't think overwrought reputations are taken down by sniping; more to the point is an effort by the critic to see what 'everyone' agrees is laudatory in the work, and then to offer a view or take a stance on why that does not convince 'this reviewer' as to the merits of the poems. In other words, discuss the poems in their own terms and then shift the discussion to the terms that the reviewer considers more to the point. Such reviews may not be as 'fun,' but they would be more substantive, and not simply 'negative,' but as we say when critting students, 'constructive,' maybe even 'creative.'

  101. April 11, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    >>A problem poetry reviews seem to suffer from at times is that comparison offered above to film and music reviews: those reviews are about, first and foremost, entertainment and aim to be entertaining as well.<<

    This simply reveals a complete lack of familiarity with film & music criticism. To say that Greil Marcus, Sasha Frere-Jones, Robert Christgau, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kent Jones, Gilberto Perez are just "about entertainment" is as sadly ignorant as the assumption that the best critics today lack criteria.

  102. April 20, 2009
     Colin Ward


    Fascinating article and thread! I'm sorry I've come so late to the party.

    In other artistic endeavors critics silence the inadequate; the opposite seems to be true in poetry. As others have pointed out, Sturgeon was an optimist. There is so much wretched poetry out there that to "pick out" may appear to be the same as to "pick on". "Why me?" isn't such an unreasonable question, given the target-rich environment.

    I agree with Michael Robbins that the best critics of today have objective criteria that are obvious to anyone who has studied the craft. Unfortunately, though, some serial blurbers seem set on disseminating the self-vindicating convenient poetic that all poems are meritorious. This will get them one step closer to the Fantasy World notion that poems are equally so, such that their meager works are on a par with those of a Margaret A. Griffith or an A. Michael Juster. Or a Shakespeare, I suppose. "Hey, it's all poetry, right?"

    I think that analogies to Siskel and Roeper are tenuous. Even sophisticated people who will spend $10 on a mediocre movie won't read a good poem for free. A film reviewer can spare thousands the torture of a "Howard the Duck". Who is the reviewer serving? Unlike film, today's poetry doesn't have an audience, it has constituencies. I think the central paradox is that, on the one hand, we don't need anyone to tell people not to read poetry (they don't!) but we need honest, informed reviewers to counteract the effects of group sycophancy.

    On the subject of best selling poet, I believe that, based on her Hallmark income alone, Maya Angelou outsells Billy Collins, Susan Polis Schultz and Rod McKuen. Of course, another American poet outsold all contemporary U.S. poets combined.


  103. April 22, 2009
     Don Share

    Colin and everyone, on the subject of "the self-vindicating convenient poetic that all poems are meritorious," check this out:

    But.. you don't like "Howard the Duck"???

  104. April 22, 2009
     Don Share

    Oops, darn formatting trouble; Google:

    "Poets' Puffery" by JEFFREY H. GRAY

    ... orig. in The Chronicle Review, from the Chronicle of Higher Education

  105. May 19, 2009
     Beverley Bie Brahic

    Me too, just discovered all this and find
    it fascinating. Agree and disagree with
    much that has been said, but a couple
    things strike me, so two questions:

    1) How come so few women are in the

    2) Sure, much--maybe most--of the
    poetry published is at best mediocre.
    But outside the US, say in Britain and
    France, two countries I am a little
    familiar with, and where less is
    published and where the MFA industry
    is less developed, is the poetry of
    higher quality?

  106. July 1, 2009

    Wow. The cat's out of the bag. Or is it
    the freezer?

    Finally, the nakedness of the king (or
    queen) is revealed. We all need a good
    laugh. Let's enjoy the truth. It won't
    last long. I'm sure Jane Mead is already
    at work on another book about herself
    and little else.

  107. November 9, 2009
     joanne hart

    As a middle-aged new comer to this world of writing and to be sure the world of pondering the work of a poem, this article landed on my mind with a bounce of relief. As a neonate writer of poetry I carry around a painfully cautious nausea with any finished poem. A poem shouldn’t be pounce on with flesh ripping ferocity. As a child of sorts I prize and am dependent on those who care deeply and necessarily that a poem inhabit the page as transcendently and as nutritively as possible. My primary concern, in the end, might be with the poet within their life time of writing. Subsequently, then, with the poem throughout time. Or maybe a simultaneous concern is needed. I agree that a response must be blind to the poets heart smattered sleeve. Yet the need to transcend all poetry politics is large. I also hope for any poem to be jarring throughout the years. Those are the ones we suckle repeatedly. I think any competition within writing should have the same feel as though we were parents competing to parent with the highest regard for our insanity, for each offspring and the offspring of generations to come. There’s always the question of the frightening parent as with frightening poem. It’s not our position to decide who parents; who writes. But the mark left on me by this article is knowing my journey may, fortunately, not be into a pit of lions but rather a set of (dare I say) peers rooted in animate visions and not controlling fears.