Friday, February 19, 2010
All of which mystifies most critics, given the scorn heaped on them for practicing a craft which, while admittedly minor compared to the arts, seems so indispensable to the people who complain about it the most. Still, let’s for the moment give unhappy poets their due and imagine for a moment a conversation in which a critic is brought to the bar of aesthetic justice. The poet’s simple quest: to learn why the critic has it in for him:
Critic: You want answers?
Poet: I think I'm entitled to them.
Critic: You want answers?
Poet: I want the truth!
Critic: You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has words. And those words have to be guarded by people with sensibility. Who's gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for the negative review I qave you and you curse the critics. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that that review, while tragic, probably saved careers. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves careers...You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me at my laptop. You need me at my laptop. We use words like technique, imagination, feeling...we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a blurb on a dust jacket. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to someone who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very publicity I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I'd rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a pen and stand at post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you're entitled to!
Okay, apologies to Aaron Sorkin and Jack Nicholson. Still, the point remains that critics, the good ones at least, do believe they’re defending something, though what that something might be seems to shift with changing tastes and moods. But rather than spend too much time outlining my own preferences, I thought it might be worthwhile to ask if the poets are right - that the only thing indefensible are the standards critics apply to their work - to look at, if not the biases, than at least the practices that characterize a great deal of Canadian poetry criticism.
I have to say from the outset that it’s not all bad; in fact there are at least half a dozen reviewers in this country who do a superb job. The problem, of course, is that they can only write in so many places at one time. Which has left it to a mid-level coterie of moderately capable reviewers and a small army of discursively challenged poets to fill the breach. Consider our good fortune upon learning, for example, that a new book of poems contains imagery that is “fresh and startling in its beauty” and that the verse is “pleasing both to the eye and ear.” Or that what commends another book of poems to us is “the strength of its voice” or that a poet’s latest offerings “are not only haunting for their language, but also for what they tell us about humanity.” A poem “resonates with power”. Another speaks “directly to the reader”. Still another is “meditative”, a wonderful word which, if used well, can aptly describe a mood or tone, but which too often becomes synonymous with any soft feeling or poetic attitude that escapes the reviewer’s capacity to describe accurately.
There are other irritants, of course. One of the most common is the reviewer who heaps great praise or scorn upon a poet that is wildly disproportionate to the amount of poetry actually cited in the review. The preoccupation of at least three reviewers I’ve encountered recently was with cover art and epigraphs, with one insisting that the poet had failed to use enough epigraphs in the middle of the poem, and even going so far as to supply an epigraph himself. Or the reviewer who, not content to cite part of the epigraph at the beginning of the review, ended the review with the rest of the epigraph, ignoring whatever poetic felicities the poet herself might have offered.
One favourite recourse of reviewers unwilling or unable to discuss the work in front of them is to compare some aspect of it with the work of another poet. Often the parallel is tangential at best, with the reviewer eventually backtracking to say why it is the two poets are not alike at all. In one case, a reviewer spilled at least as much ink writing about the poet being used for comparative purposes as the poet whose work she was commissioned to write about. And the name dropping is legion: Lowell, Hopkins, Yeats, Williams and Eliot. Crane, Whitman, Pound and Bishop. It appears a great many of our poets enjoy talents to nearly match the capacity of the entire western canon, though most reviewers are cagy enough not to overstate the parallels. Simply to have drawn a connection suffices, redounding, I suppose, both to the talent of the poet being reviewed and the erudition of the critic.
Our greatest susceptibility as commentators, however, is our capacity for thinking in rhetorical tropes, i.e. ready-made phrases or sentences that sound intelligent, but which upon closer examination make us sound…well, idiotic. Consider one reviewer's comment that the poet “writes of the primal experiences of death, birth and sexuality and their intrinsic and metaphoric relation to the natural world.” While these are certainly important themes, experiences such as sex and dying don’t “relate” to the natural world; they are the natural world.
The lines in another poem, says the reviewer, are “dreamy and descriptive”, all rather vague and more reminiscent of a teenage crush than the language of critical analysis. Concision is a much sought after virtue these days. Thus, one reviewer writes endearingly of another “The brevity became him, his terseness punctuated only by his clarity.” I might have reversed that, i.e. “his clarity punctuated only by his terseness”, but I don’t think even that saves the line. And why brevity “becomes” this poet as opposed to anyone else, or some other human trait, remains a mystery, too.
Structure is always a tricky thing to talk about intelligently. Opines one scribe “The structure does, however, also yield some poems that seem formulaic, especially those in which Mierau’s propensity for juxtaposition and non-sequitur overpower the poem’s coherence.” What is more intriguing than the weasel words used here, i.e. “seem” and “propensity” (another way we have of writing without conviction) is how something “formulaic” can be made up of non-sequiturs. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but what would that actually look like? Unfortunately we can’t know because the author won’t show us.
All of which leads us to one of the more frequent problems in poetry criticism: the failure to provide evidence, though worse still is to mis-read the evidence, to see precision or rhythmic variety or sensual imagery where there is none. Nearly as bad are those among us who read into a poet’s work a philosophical or aesthetic stance that is not there. A case in point, the following:
“Zieroth is at least as concerned with the historic underpinnings of post-modern thought and perennial questions about death and dying as he is with the materials and strategies of contemporary poetry (e.g. lineation, typography, counterpoint).”
The fact is David Zieroth couldn’t give a hoot about “post-modern thought”. His philosophical thought extends principally to Marcus Aurelius and St. Thomas Aquinas, enriched by his own musings about life and death. The culprit in this case was yours truly, caught up in my own preoccupations with formal philosophy and contemporary poetics.
My only excuse is what any reviewer anxious to do a good job quickly discovers: reviewing poetry is hard. My inspiration is the critic who gets it right, who brings style and critical acumen to his or her judgments: Connolly, Jennings, Starnino, Graham and Guriel to name a few. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that only the writer who invests the same effort and imagination and linguistic skill to their analysis as the poet brings to the poem is worthy to be called critic. It’s a notion I have great sympathy with. At bottom the only truly compelling force in play, though, should be our desire to read well and convey what we read with a measure of insight and precision. All of it supported, I hope, by humility for the enormous gift of the poet.
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