As part of its November feature on "rethinking" poetry reviewing, The Volta conducted interviews with 22 critics. Here are some answers that stuck with me.
K. Silem Mohammad:
Rather than thinking in terms of positive or negative, I want to see critical intelligence at work. Negative reviews can be just as superficial as positive ones. I consider a review good if it makes me think in ways I hadn’t thought to think before.Marjorie Perloff:
I’d like to see more critics ask the hard questions of the poetry they review. Why does Jorie Graham use those long lines and set some of them over on the right? Is that a tick or a meaningful gesture? How has John Ashbery’s poetry changed in recent years? In the case of conceptual poetry (now causing such a brouhaha), how is the work in question actually put together, what governs length and word choice? If a poem involves appropriation, why appropriate that particular material? Too often, reviewers depend upon the poet’s statement of intent and ignore what’s actually there on the page (or screen). I still believe, with D. H. Lawrence, “Never trust the artist, trust the tale.” I was taught to avoid the “intentional fallacy.” No matter how often Kenneth Goldsmith declares he is a boring or “uncreative” writer, or how energetically Vanessa Place insists her own feelings are not involved in her work—and these are good old Duchampian and Cagean gestures—the reviewer has to read the text itself!James Pollock:
Too much of our criticism is undermined by a refusal, or inability, to see contemporary poetry in the context of poetry per se, by which I mean, world poetry from antiquity to the present. Many of us seem to want to leave that up to the scholars and academic critics. But criticism of contemporary poetry needs this wider context, too; otherwise the whole literary culture quickly becomes ingrown and provincial. It’s easy to assume that the U.S. is the center of the poetry world, even though that’s not necessarily true. And I won’t be the first to say that, generally speaking, American culture tends to be culturally biased against the past, and that’s deadly for criticism. Cultural amnesia is planned obsolescence.Elisa Gabbert:
One wrong way to write a review is to spend too little time with the book, to come to it with a closed mind or a preconceived idea of what it should be, and then write your review as a kind of rationalization of your kneejerk opinions. Another wrong way is to like it but have nothing interesting to say about it, thus filling your page with empty adjectives like “beautiful” or making weirdly aggressive statements like “I loved this book so much I wanted to tear off my own head and stuff the pages down the hole.”
I find it mystifying that I run into so many poet-critics, my age and younger, who continue to venerate the same thinkers who were Marquee Names back when I was in college in the late 1980s. It’s a full generation later, and we’re still hearing about Adorno, Benjamin, Butler, Derrida, Lacan, Zizek, and so forth, lightly augmented by the likes of Agamben and Bourdieu. True, these assorted figures are nowadays generally invoked in relation to the politics of/in literature, not so much to ground an abstract inquiry into language and form. Even so, I feel sad when I turn from discussions of poetry to, say, debates over computer games, where you’ll find a slew of inventive attempts to create new humanistic tools adequate to talking about contemporary realities. Go read Ian Bogost on E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)—a notorious stinker of a console-based video game—in Alien Phenomenology (2012) and you’ll discover somebody pell-mell and energetically inventing a method of analysis that is suited to, and in dialogue with, the artifact being analyzed. That’s what I’d love to see more often on our side of the fence. And fewer covers of the hit parade circa 1988.Craig Morgan Teicher:
Focus on your prose, which should be at least as good and important to you as your poems. Cultivate skepticism, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone, otherwise you will always be on the poets’ side, which makes the prose boring.
Every critic finds their own way to hell, but remember this: if you are going to hell regardless, you might as well go on the strength of your own sins and passions and tastes and thoughts. There’s nothing to be gained other than the chance to share and to be increased by another’s willingness to do the same, so make sure what you chance is yours. The most effusive review doesn’t matter if the subject knows the praise is tactical or impersonal, and the reader is even better equipped to detect chicanery than the poet. Even if the truth you tell is only one of many possibilities, make it one a reader can trust.