Friday, 21 June 2013

You Must Work Harder To Write Poetry of Excellence

Darren Bifford tries to find common ground with Donato Mancini's book on the state of Canadian poetry reviewing:
It’s easy for me to sympathize with the very general claim that one of the ways poetry reviews must work harder is to avoid the lazy kinds of hypostatization that Mancini discusses. The common reader is indeed no reader at all, and Mancini is probably right to say that such invocations often function as empty receptacles for the reviewer’s own ideological predilections. He is probably right to say that the specter of accessibility or humanity or craft or tradition can simply be a way for the reviewer to reify his or her ideas about what poetry is—and isn’t. Thus what I think most useful about Mancini’s argument, i.e., that it makes a case for the necessity of more imaginative critical practices in order to negotiate the very broad range of poetries that have developed in this country over the last sixty or so years. If that’s the case, the terms by which those postmodern poems are to be engaged by critics and reviewers ought not be identical to the way we might, for example, engage a book of sonnets.
But he finds plenty to dislike:
Take the tropes of craft and tradition, both of which Mancini goes to lengths to dismiss. I agree that when taken as static fetish-like ideals, they may be less illuminating than otherwise. But when I praise a collection for its author’s attention and attainment of a high level of craft and of interestingly engaging with the English literary tradition, it seems possible—indeed, good critics show that it is possible—that I’ve used those tropes to point to actual features of the work of art as such. Of course these are not neutral categories; but it takes more than pointing out that fact to give us grounds for rejecting them.
And he sometimes gets exasperated:
It’s not obvious to me, however, why judgment and assessment of any kind is either precluded or opposed to the sort of hermeneutics Mancini calls for. It’s thus easy, again, to distrust the strong dichotomy Mancini asserts. In art, as in life, we do well to encounter strangeness with curiosity and an open mind. Even that supposedly conservative critic, T.S. Eliot, disparages the “dogmatic critic, who lays down a rule, who affirms a value.” Such a critic, Eliot continues, “has left his labour incomplete… but in matters of great importance the critic must not coerce, and he must not make judgments of worse or better. He must simply elucidate: the reader will form the correct judgment for himself.” Critics and reviewers are just those partial and fallible readers who publically articulate their responses to texts as best as they can. A good critic’s evaluations are always tentative; he or she knows very well the risk of attempting to judge a work of art. He or she will acknowledge that evaluation is never neutral and no perspective is from nowhere. Good critics, in other words, wear their aesthetic biases on their sleeves and, like Nietzsche remarked, match the courage of their convictions with the courage to challenge those convictions.


Zachariah Wells said...

Just watched the painfully awkward video that precedes this post. Funny thing is not just that Mancini takes issue with one of the very earliest pieces of criticism I published, a piece too slight to have made the cut for my forthcoming book, but that he rather conveniently ignores the actual thesis of the piece: "Fortunately for readers of Canadian poetry, a number of talented poets have opted to pitch Wayman’s protestant prescriptions and have produced fine work poems that are apt to find friends in faculty and factory alike." So much for appealing to the common reader. Just as there is no common reader, there is no common review.

Carmine Starnino said...

Figures. The irony was that I being accused by Michael of poorly reading a book that itself cherrypicks reviews and distorts intentions to construct an avant-gardist fantasy about how poorly “official verse culture” critics—or whatever the fuck they call us now—read them! If readers want a better example of how reviewing tropes can hide an excellent and original and experimental poet in plain sight, I would suggest they track down your long essay on Peter Van Toorn, which appeared in Language Acts: Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st century. In fact, I'll send a free copy to whoever asks for one.

Zachariah Wells said...

The essay will also appear *cough, cough* in my book, which is out this fall. No freebies.