For some, life is most vividly experienced in the pages of a book, or, to update the gathering repository, on the metastatic lucubrations of the interweb. Take the backlash on poetry reviewers.
Jacob McArthur Mooney, a subdued contributor in the tempest-in-a-shot-glass backs-and-forths over a decade ago during the arguments re negative reviewing, has, last week, scattered his twitter buckshot about like Rooster Cogburn coming off a three-day bender while attempting to ride a bronco down a sixty degree rockstrewn wet creekbed in interlocking shade and chasing a single hare. This reaction to his reaction of a reaction of two reviews proceeds into the deep canyons and crevices of twitter's deep web of stertorous borborygmi, exploding dragonflies, and cloudy oysters disguised as literary argument.
The origin for this Chinese puzzle is Alden Nowlan's Collected Poems, released in 2017. Shane Neilson wrote an essay-response to two of the resulting reviews, one each by Trevor Cook and Richard Kelly Kemick. This appeared, with the title "We Shall Know You By Your Reviews", in the Miramichi Reader, and is available for perusal online. In it, Neilson takes to task each reviewer for what he calls the sins of a new reviewing phenomenon, the moral scolding by New White Male, whose response is always through the lens of the supposed power imbalance which inheres with the evil White patriarchy. Neilson is singing to the choir here as to this reviewer's stance, though, before turning to Mooney, I'll take minor issue with the label in Neilson's premise: the New White Male is not always New, not always White, and not always Male. Some now forgotten female academic waited, gutlessly, until Irving Layton was addled in his eighties before skewering him in a particularly petty, poetically ignorant, illogical, stumbling, personality-driven, exhaustive review of his entire corpus. There were many others, but that takes care of parts 1 and 3. As for 2, Mooney's own champion as counter-example to Nowlan (gawd, I can't believe I'm juxtaposing these names), Gwen Benaway (I'll come back to his twitterism later) covers that, along with, lately, 3. Now to the tweets.
“You might be as pleased as I was to learn this was the preamble to a defence of Alden Nowlan against a reviewer who noted he was problematic in 2019. It's like a Rex Murphy column's comment thread came to life and turned its attentions on Canlit.” -- JMM
Anyone not well-versed and up-to-speed on the tactics of progressive priests would obviously be baffled by the simile. Remember, Neilson is critiquing the two reviewers, Cook and Kemick. There are many ways to approach a review of the prodigous output of a major and complex Canadian poet, but Cook and Kemick both saw fit to emphasize Nowlan's “latent chauvinism” (Kemick's words), and “vulgar content” (Cook's words). In other words, what Mooney slyly doesn't tell his followers is that identity politics were introduced methodically into the springboard and guts of the review. A reviewer commenting on these reviews would be remiss and cowardly if he or she didn't bring up the political slant. But when you're serenly confident that your side has not only won the argument vis-a-vis moral purity vs hidebound 'soft' racism, sexism, or the other ten or so reflexive -isms and -phobes, there's no need to even entertain flat out contradictions, lies, and spiritual hypocrisies prevalent in that 'approach without reproach'. Even more baffling is this facile confidence when what we're discussing is the complexities of a worthy poet, where quality is almost always tied up in ambiguities, ambivalencies, and, most certainly, moral shortcomings. (We'll leave aside poetic personae, though some wokesters are so ideologically brainwashed or cynically power-mad, they'll even leap on those fictions as evidence of evilthink.) It's a testament to Nowlan that he had the guts to reveal his inner life honestly, however unfashionably and unsexy it unfolded. But poets now must either take on the roles of saints, or present as victims who would certainly be saints if it wasn't for the cis-gendered, heteronormative, White patriarchal colonial male.
“Stuff like this is a symptom of the decline in paid poetry reviewing. Who, demographically, has yime to write 1000 word reviews of 40-year-old Alden Nowlan poems for no-ish money? What are their aesthetics and politics? Do they fear the contemporary? What axes do they grind? Etc.” -- JMM
At a time, and increasingly so, when poets are desperate to get any reviews of their poetry at all, even embarrassing ones in a huge backlog of 100% guaranteed raves from Michael Dennis, the few intrepid souls – and Neilson is certainly among them – who take significant time out of their busy lives to think and write creatively and honestly about all kinds of poetry releases, often for free, should be afforded, if grudging respect or thoughtful debate is too much to ask for, at least silence. Most poets cry about not getting reviewed. What they really mean is that (in most cases) there were one or two reviews (and what more can you hope for when book publication far outstrips demand?), and the reviewer didn't recognize their obvious brilliance sufficiently.
You may notice, dear reader, that I've ceased to spend any time on Neilson's essay, or the words of the two original reviewers, or of Nowlan himself. That's because Mooney thinks his dismissal of Neilson by scary, ominous, but not-quite-clear labels is enough. No content necessary. “[D]emographically”, “40-year-old Alden Nowlan poems”, “no-ish money”. Astounding. Neilson shouldn't have written in support of Nowlan because he's ... well, in the so-distant past, who really reads him any more? So much for every single poetry great. Once they've got a few reviews written about them, especially by the likes of Cook and Kemick, then it's on to that younger “demographic”, because that's what the community is currently reading, and if it hasn't come out in the past ten years, and especially the past year, it's not worth remembering, and certainly won't cross-help with promotion. One may think I'm exaggerating, setting up a straw man. But Mooney has admitted that he doesn't read any book more than once. Firstly, that immediately disqualifies him for the reviewing of any book (not that he's interested in reviews, anyway, the few he's penned having more to do with advancing the community than detailing a poem's inner workings). Secondly, how revealing that a poet who's also at the forefront of poetry promotion doesn't care to read a book more than once. The passion is for politics, for reflected feel-goods, not for poetry. As to no-ish money, again, I can only commend any reviewer or commentator who spends time discussing poetry in the public sphere out of a sense of mission first, not bucks. Of course it's good to receive a small cheque for one's work, but if that's your inspiration, you're not too good at economics as it relates to the value of labour. “What are their aesthetics and politics?” Why is that important? Of course non-ideologues are wise to you by now, because as good children of Foucault, every exchange is really only about power. Who has it, who doesn't have it that needs it. What a grim, cynical, simplistic philosophy. But “we shall overcome”! You might want to go back and take in the many different upbringings (and bourgeois lifestyles) of those French structuralists who want(ed) to stick it to the man. And hell yes, I fear the contemporary. I'm formulating a long essay on that very topic right now, although fear isn't the exact word. More like sadness. Now, as promised, back to Greenway.
“This is how very contemporary-facing books like Gwen Benaway's last one can win our grandest national poetry prize and get maybe 1 substantive review but apparently this Collected Alden Nowlan now has eight (8!) and counting. It's not a coincidence.” -- JMM
What does winning the GG matter? Seriously. Because one or two or three poet-judges anointed Benaway's book (often times it's through compromise) means that it has to be sprung to the top of the “to read” pile for the rest of us? Isn't the 25 Gs enough of a reward for now? Shouldn't those who “lost” have a more legitimate argument for review seeing as to how they need the attention more than the immediate cachet, and positive advertisement, such an award confers to Benaway? Mygawd, Nowlan's garnered eight reviews of his Collected! The socialistic imbalance! Formalism's winning. Call Zhdanov! I'm having fun teasing with the hyperbolic political references, but I kinda like doing that once the opposition has already set those terms, even though Mooney's too coy to come out and actually go into more concrete detail about it. As to Benaway's politics? Well, I haven't read her book, and wasn't that impressed by her reading of several poems from it on youtube, but I did note her smug (much giggling in the audience) and often repeated (throughout the first few minutes preamble) frank hatred of cis-gendered heteronormative colonial patriarchal men -- “shitty White cis-men” were her words, and stated theme of the book. She followed up that promising opening by saying (exact quote): “my own personal shitty White cis-men, but I think they're all pretty much alike”. How much self-hatred does a White man have to harbour to not only give her the time of day after that, but to actively promote her book? Between two of her poems, she said that if you (any, or collective) cis-White men wanted “to get me, you can probably track me down pretty easily in these shoes, but I have a knife in my bag, so fair warning”. But of course I'm just being overly sensitive about that, it's just a joke, right?, lighten up. If a White man said the same words, with the reverse labels, about a First Nations transexual, not only would the poetry community permanently shun him, he'd be charged with hate speech. Uh, yeah, I, for one, am probably not gonna review her book any time soon, but that's OK with Mooney, he doesn't want carefully assessed reviews, he wants promotion.
“Anyway, Alden Nowlan is fine. Read the books that call you.” -- JMM
In other words, “Ha ha, just kidding about everything, you can read Nowlan if you want to.” I don't know what I'd do with my literary choices without Mooney's permission.
““Aesthetic excellence" doesn't have any meaning outside of the value system and relative merit weighting of the critic.” -- JMM
Only someone disingenuous or historically stupid would say such a thing. Every poet, in his or her own way, argues for, or reveals their own version of, aesthetic value, unless you're either cynical or completely uninterested in poetry while professing to write it. There are both objective and subjective standards that anyone can use. Both are important, but the former wins out. All one can honestly request is to know where the critic or reviewer is coming from. Sometimes, those aesthetic hierarchies will become muddied, even shift. Such a statement from Mooney exonerates a reviewer from making an evaluative judgement on any poem, book, or artist. All's relative, and all assessment has its own equally valid terms. We're already forehead-deep in those kinds of reviewers. They're more properly called descriptive blurbers. If there's any evaluation, it's always, always positive.
“The value of those voices lies in their ability to confront, expand and deny received aesthetic systems. Valuing them only for excelling within them isnt enough, it's just colonialism in the end.” -- JMM
The verbiage above sounds like the hurried student cribbing straight from a cultural studies prof.
You'll have noticed, still, that Nielson's essay, the two reviewers who stimulated his response, and Nowlan himself have faded away in a miasma of social justice jargon, thanks to Mooney's using those entries to stoke his own obsessions. But I'll quote here what may seem, at first glance, a rather innocuous sentence. Here are Neilson's final words, which occur in footnote (3):
“Embarassing too to point out that the best we can get from the New White Male (and many of his “modern” ilk) is thematic criticism utterly devoid of a discussion of metaphor, metonymy, sound, you name it.” -- SN
Doesn't that just about say it all? Instead of contending with the many delights contained within this fat Collected, Mooney would rather wave it off in a “whatever”, and instead promote a hate-filled poet who fits the most important bill in current poetry – identity politics.
Fortunately, Mooney, as said, has given me permission to engage with Alden Nowlan. I've been sitting on his Collected for too long. Time for a soon-to-be-released Nowlan review #9!