Writing this letter is a depressing task.

Dear Editor,

Writing this letter is a depressing task. There is no inspiration to be got from criticizing a critique that is itself uninspired. But I cannot in good conscience let a review as disgraceful as Michael Robbins’s [“Live All You Can,” September 2009] pass unremarked, even though two of the poets concerned are (in different degrees) friends of mine and consequently my response might be construed as prejudiced or self-serving. I trust that it is neither. I’ll add that I have not been in contact with either of those people since I read the review.

The review is lazy on several levels. On the one hand, it disposes cavalierly of a whole (though characteristically undefined) period of Jorie Graham’s poetry in a passing parenthesis (“the pretentiousness of Graham’s recent work”), and on the other it commits nonsensical phrases (“[Jack] Gilbert occasionally indulges a penchant”) and cliches (“the style is exhausting as well as exhaustive”), and along the way it mangles metaphors (Gilbert’s conceit of “the woman” as a “meniscus” that upholds a skater gives Robbins the excuse to claim that Gilbert makes her “serve as a poetic Zamboni machine”). Or take the sentence opining that Susan Wheeler’s “Debtor in a Convex Mirror” “owes its lucidity and art-critical affectations, and not much else besides its title, to Ashbery’s most rigorously argued long poem.” For one thing, Wheeler quotes on a number of occasions from Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” so that her use of his work is integral to her project, even as her use of his use of quotation is an important and pervasive tactic. For another thing, at the same time that Robbins wrongly implies that Wheeler owes so little to Ashbery, he manages also to suggest that her poem gets from its predecessor no less a quality than “lucidity.” He also intimates gratuitously that both Ashbery’s and Wheeler’s ekphrases are superficial (“art-critical affectations”) without bothering to justify the aspersion and in spite of other commentary on their poems. Again, in one sentence he offers that Wheeler “picks up the rhythms of simple and sweet tunes,” and in the next he observes that for her “the poem is an information processor. But as often as not, the noise is indistinguishable from the signal.” I do not see how these points are reconcilable, and although I have reread the passage that follows that last quotation many times, I cannot, thanks to the noise, pick out a signal. I invite the readers of this letter to try to do so.

The ostensible problem is that Robbins is not bearing down on his prose. One suspects, however, that the basic issue here is one of perspective and tone, that the insouciance is an effect of condescension, most evident in the section devoted to J.D. McClatchy’s recent volume. But whence that attitude? The contributor’s note sheds no light. In any event, there is nowhere in Robbins’s review a hint either of humility or of true admiration (which I distinguish from the passing compliment lightly paid and easily countered, as when he writes of Wheeler: “This book’s a beaut, but . . . ”). Both of these qualities seem to me inseparable from good faith, itself indispensable for any genuine, responsible, or even useful “review.”

Originally Published: October 30th, 2009

Editor, critic, professor, and poet Stephen Yenser is the author of the poetry collections Stone Fruit (2016), Blue Guide (2006), and The Fire in All Things (1993). A winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, he has also received an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in...

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