Friday, February 19, 2010

Who's Guarding the Guards?

If the audience for poets is small, it’s a safe bet it’s smaller still for those who write about poets. The poetry reviewer’s audience is typically divided into two parts: non-poets, i.e. those who read poetry for pleasure - and poets themselves, anxious to discover how their poems fare under the judicious gaze of writers steeped in literary tradition and analytical know-how. Unfortunately, the truth may be harsher than this: that the only people who read poetry reviews are poets.

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.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


a very sympathetic treatment of criticism and critics in Canada. But mine won't be.I hope you'll tolerate from me (perhaps this one time only) a radically opposing point of view.

I've always been disappointed with the quality of criticism in this country (as I have been with its poetry) both for its elitism and its subservience to the dictates of mainstream lit mag. format and philosophy: both of which cater for easy popularity and creative writing classroom-appeal.But elitism and the most narrow-minded views never do constitute literary excellence anyways. I've seen some pretty shoddy writing (particularly from people like Starnino,McLellan et al). As any two Canadian poems today so any two literary essays sound virtually the same, seemingly written by the same hand.

Magazines like Arc, Fiddlehead, Malahat,Open Letter et al are notorious for their reluctance to publish anything that doesn't conform to a certain, fairly identifiable 'type' of CanLit writing that's sadly had the effect of discouraging and marginalizing a lot of talented people.I've written a series of blog posts on poet Andreas Gripp, for example, a fairly typical example of a marginalized poet whose gifts have found a limited market because of the blinkered publication policies of Canada's mainstream mags.

It's the reason I started my "Word-Dreamer" blog: primarily as a forum for critical discussion about the pretty dismal scene in Canadian poetry.And I've found (typically enough)a reluctance on the part of most Canadian writers with academic and publishing connections to engage in the sorts of critical discussions I'm hungering for. The apathy & sycophantic instincts of a lot of the writers I've encountered in the blogosphere are not to be believed.

Adhering either to strict nationalist (Canada Council)dictates of literary suitability or decidedly academic biases, most literary critics (and their work) seem all to swear allegiance to the same League of Writers club.Writing that springs from state-funded, legislative fiat is bound to be mediocre, second-rate and not very relevant to a global literary market. A system that makes literary acceptance a function of academic and governmental control in this way produces a nation of literary lackeys.

It's perhaps the reason Bok made the statement that most poets he knows (presumably in Canada) are stupid and lazy. A harsh indictment of the Canadian literary scene to be sure but probably fairly close to the way things are. I'm not an admirer of Bok's work, probably as typical as any other of the mediocre (in my view primarily 'imitative') quality of literary productions as compared to what's going on elsewhere.

What do I like? I've always admired the true 'otherstream' publications of the more daringly innovative chapbook,or e-chaps or other visual or language poetry experiments: I admire work, in a word, that's located outside of academic and governmental control (as it is in Canada), never relying on established ideas of literary worth and suitability, never afraid to condemn work that's been made-to-order (as it too often is in Canada).

Harold Rhenisch said...


I do not think that the state of Canadian poetry is any worse than that of poetry elsewhere in the language. Problems universally abound, but the problems are not universal. Embracing American or British critical styles, or their poetic styles, is no solution, because those are no healthier than those in Canada. As for criticism, well, that's not doing well, either, but, really, who is the audience? Poetry and criticism are largely academic pursuits now. They are endeavours with certain social rules. When one steps aside to gain a larger perspective, one is outside of the conversation. Societies have rules. The particular rules of Canadian poetic society are scarcely different than those of our society as a whole.

best, Harold

John Mutford said...

I'm one of those few non-poets reviewing poetry. While I have certainly gotten much food for thought from your post, I don't know how I now feel about the reviews that I've written, nor if you'd think I'd any business doing so in the first place. Would it be fair to say that the point of your post is to suggest that more non-poets need to review poetry but they need to do it better? That's a question, by the way, not a condemnation of a lofty goal.

I'm more often than not guilty of some of those weak reviews you mention. I use "seems" quite often. Not a great strength of conviction, but then, as a non-poet I'm not always confident in my abilities to review poetry, nor to even to read it sometimes. Maybe it doesn't suffice to say "This seems formulaic. I can't put my finger on what the formula is, but there's something about it that sounds by numbers." But, I enjoy reading poetry, I read it with the limited understanding that I have, and my thoughts on a poem may be those of someone else with my amateur reader/reviewer status. If I'm lucky, the two of us will discuss it, understand it better, and alter our opinions if warranted.

I don't always spend a lot of time reading my books of poetry. I'll go through them, read each poem once, if it catches my eye, triggers something in my memory bank, stirs an emotion, I read it again. If the 2nd reading holds my interest, I spend a lot more time dissecting it. The suggestion 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" is a tall order (then, I also think there's a huge distinction between critic and reviewer). Again, I'm not throwing out the idea that tall orders should be placed, but it makes me nervous. I enjoy reading poetry. I enjoy reviewing the poetry books that I read. Do I want to spend forever on it or take a masters course in poetry to analyze it? No. Poet reviewers can do that. I'm a reader reviewer.

Perhaps I'm not the target of your post. I review on a blog, just for the hell of it. Anyone reading it probably takes my opinions with a grain of salt. I wasn't hired to write reviews based on expertise or writing ability, I've simply volunteered my views on my own. Really, what I do offers little than what those customer reviews are at Amazon or Chapters. (The little more is the invitation to discuss the book-- an invitation that sometimes gets taken up, but more often than not, gets brushed aside with a casual, "sounds interesting" type comment). My readers can judge whether or not they value my opinion, for that's all I offer.

I submit two of my reviews for your consideration:
1. Unsettled by Zachariah Wells
2. Postcards from Brueghel by William Carlos Williams.

Your post brought to mind a stance I decided to take a couple years ago after chastising myself for writing bad reviews. I used to ask myself, what business had I to review a book when I wasn't an author myself? It then occurred to me that authors write books for readers, not writers, so I have every right to do review those books. Of course, you haven't suggested that I, or other people like me, shouldn't. By my understanding, you've suggested the opposite. I suppose any of us reviewers should aspire to write better reviews, and you've offered some good suggestions. I wouldn't want a manual telling me how I should read or review a book, but I don't see that as what you've done here.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, John. A very thoughtful, sensitive response to my entry on critics. If you're writing here is anything to go by, I'm betting you write very good reviews.

I am not a poet; I am a reviewer (yes, like a few others I'm not quite comfortable with the title "critic"; one of these days I'm going to sit down and try to sketch out the differences). So, naturally, I do think the non-poet has something to offer criticism; they bring a different kind of personal and professional investment to poetry criticism, a kind of non-attachment, which I think can be helpful; more particularly, they lack the fear of retaliation which bedevils poet-critics, worried about how their own work will be received.

To answer your question, this blog is for readers, i.e. poets, critics, non-poets, non-critics, everyone. That means it's for you, if you've a mind to keep on reading. And I hope you do.

Thanks for the pieces by Wells and Williams. I shall take a look. If you'd like to read what others have to say about reviewing, check out Lemon Hound under the "Great Links" section of this blog. There's a very good piece by Marjorie Perloff who speaks directly to the issues that have been raised here.



Ken said...

Poems are about ideas. In fact, poems are ideas. There is no conflict between the concrete and the abstract, between the concrete image and the abstract ideal. For the former, in both cases, illuminates the latter.

Ken Stange

Ken said...

Poems are about ideas. Poems are ideas. The abstract is illumined by the concrete, which is why the image can embody the ideal.


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