Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Negative" Reviews Of Poetry

Thanks to Zach Wells for pointing out this interesting post by Jason Guriel, with its follow-up flow of response.

Guriel's right, of course. (Notice my highly subjective, arrogant, opinionated, exclusionary, close-minded tag-on -- "of course".) If one plans on reading indiscriminately (which, ironically enough, means that the reader/reviewer keeps an open mind, a hopeful one), then inevitably he or she will encounter oceans of mediocrity, streams of interesting material, and dribbles of indispensible craftings. It's simple math. But if one wishes to be pollyanish and boost the mundane, giving bland work a pass though praising to the skies one good line amongst a wilderness of incomprehensible squawks, then what does that say about, oh, let's see (let's be "shamefully" evaluative here) Macbeth or Paradise Lost? Everything exists on a scale, and on that last note, I'll answer with my own shockingly insensitive ideas on common arguments against "negative" poetry reviews.

"Who are you to judge what poetry is good, and what is bad?"

A lover of poetry. One who gives a great deal of time and attention to it. One who cares passionately about doing a small part in seeing that the notable -- firstly -- even gets recognized simply for its existence, and then that the work(s) get considered by others for their own reading (at which time they'll make up their own minds, blissfully unconcerned about my own biases and opinions, which is as it should be). One who reacts passionately against many failures (mygawd, another nasty word!) of all kinds -- egregious concentrations or effusions of sentimentality; sloppiness; didacticism; superficiality; dullness of language and insight; unmeant ambiguity; cuteness; dull conclusions, or conclusions which don't follow, either logically or emotionally, from what has preceded it; preciousness; false or unearned spirituality; unmusicality; faulty linkages between music and meaning; grandiosity; cynicism; theory-infestation; bloodlessness (or rampant abstraction); narcissism; the personal without the universal; prolixity; unfair minimal suggestiveness; unconnected or highly-specialized and unneeded allusiveness; cloistered periodicity; archaic thrall; modern (as in "right now") faddishness; derivative blandness (linked to the last charge); hyperselfconscious "originality" and "iconoclasm"; mismatched or incongruous tone, voice, mood (not a thrilling and purposeful change of tone, which is not the same thing at all); lack of variation in tone, form, narrative, organic shaping; and on and on, just to name the first few qualities off the top of my Dickinsonian head.

Ultimately, it's not even a question of "good" or "bad". The question many are afraid to even consider is if what they're reading is poetry at all. Perhaps much of it is more appropriately categorized (another "conservative, limiting" word!) as propaganda or parlour-games or personal messaging or proselytizing or pulpit-pounding or pop songs.

"Why don't you open your mind and try reading and thinking about a book you initially don't like more from the author's perspective rather than your own interpretation of how it should be?"

This is my favourite response of all, and it seems to be the "positivists" so-called strongest, proudest charge.

I can only respond to a book of poetry with my own perspective. I don't doubt that the book can and often does resonate with others. Good for those people, and good on the author for reaching them. I have my own strong opinion. What is yours? If it's different, wonderful. But I'd like to read why and how you think it works. I may be able to understand your position, even if I don't see how you made your way there, or how you could be enthusiastic. If I can't respond to how a poem moves me (or doesn't), then all that's left with this narrow approach is to describe the verse, and to place it in a contemporary (usually) or a past context with what's been written now or previously. Those kinds of reviews are mind-numbing, unrevealing. Aside from the bland descriptors and voice, who even cares about redundant gems such as "writes from a luminous connection on the natural environment"? I want to know if the poetry sings and moves, not about "topic placement" and "modernist influences". That kinda critical spillage says nothing about the verse itself, and is akin to a movie review which states that "here we have the director concerned with the continuation of Kurosawa epic forces and personal responsibility". But when one is not allowed to detail how and why a particular poetic mode or trope falls flat, this is the claustrophic room one is allowed to manoevre within.

I can't get into the author's head, so it would be presumptuous and superior of me to float hermeneutic directives at the reader when I can't negotiate meaning or clarity for myself. It would also be evading the responsibility of a review by simply saying: "oh, I can't make heads or tails of it, but maybe you might, so have a go at it." No. I read the book. I didn't like it. Here is why. Even without comprehension, and often because of incomprehension, it's useful to point that out, and to give examples from the text when appropriate.

Of course, the deeper reasoning behind the "look at it from the author's perspective" argument is that we're supposed to believe that all poetic approaches are equally valid, and it's only in how good or bad one uses them that matters. Again, I disagree. Whenever I encounter (for example)a "poem" that's been shredded through a ringer of theoretic incomprehensiveness, emotionless quibbling, cute self-referencing, I'm going to be very impatient (ah ha, another insensitive word! what a cad -- a cad, I say!) with what it has to say, and how it says it. This is really simple stuff. It shouldn't need elaboration, but the inclusive communal set is constantly irked about it. Poetry, like music, is visceral, in the good sense of that word, that is to say, intuitive. Imagination and emotion are more immediate, more powerful than all these logical arguments we ( including me) make about poetry. If it don't grab me, why the hell should I apologize for my "narrow-mindedness" or "obtuseness"?

"Why review a book of poetry at all if you don't like it? Surely, silence damns more than negative comment?"

I agree with the second question in one sense. What's not talked about is more apt to be unknown, which is far worse than being forgotten. At least the latter category means it (at least) once had its chance. But speaking "negatively" about a book means that it's still in the public mind, to some extent (Canadian poetry makes this rather a mild relative boost, I realize).

As to the first question, it would be unfair to do the book justice by writing a review after only giving it a brief once-over if I'm not immediately knocked over by its content. So .... even those books which are tough going, and in which it certainly appears as if the work (not joy) involved will be without noticeable payoff, I still want to give it a fair try. Some books are so murky that I don't finish, but I won't write a review since I can't fairly comment on my response to it. (I wrote a blog piece on a McCaffery volume, but I only got through 1 1/2 pages, and made that fact known in the "review".) But if I do make it through to the end, rereading certain poems, some many times, and am frustrated, pissed off, irritated, annoyed, puzzled, bored, sad, numb, irked, peeved, steamed, sarcastically-engendered by what I've read, why shouldn't I express my opinion? To spare the author's feelings? I maintain that to misrepresent feelings to the extent that a line from one otherwise throwaway piece in a book of dull offerings should be singled out as if this is good enough, or that the author is praised for his or her intent (though, curiously, the poems' execution are spared parsing) is doing a disservice to the reader and the poet. The former is left to wonder what the fuss is about, and the latter is made to think they're on easy street when they're actually in a dead end (in my highly "oh, it's only my opinion, my 2 cents, just thought I'd throw that out there, don't mean to offend, simply taking one side of the question" subjective view-- but, then, I'd have to state the same after every opinion, wouldn't I? Can one be redundant in responding to redundant attacks on the redundant?) .

"You have an ax to grind."

Nope. I don't know anyone whose book I've panned. Should I happen to know any of them in the future, I'd approach them with neutrality, until the personal connection itself made it positive or negative. I wish that every book of poetry I pick up would be a hit, but this is unrealistic, and I've read enough to know that a good book is always a wonderful surprise, not an expectation. Oh, and Mao wrote better verse than Lincoln, Villon and Rimbaud than Lilburn or Hilles.

Besides, ax-grinding usually gives itself away with transparent ad hominem repetitions, either nasty or subtle.

"There's enough grief in the world. Why do you feel the need to add to it?"

I enjoy giving "bad" reviews. It tones the system, sharpens the wit, awakens intellectual arguments, keeps me honest, makes me review my own opinions from time to time to see if they've changed in any way, and disrupts what I often think is an undeserved churchly tradeable benediction.


Anonymous said...

Um, this is only my opinion, and the axe I grind is the angel's! I too love it when my critical opinion is "challenged" with the riposte that I failed to approach the work "on the author's terms." The reason why this charge is made is because it sets up a context of indefensibility: if every work of art were approached with its wretch in mind, then it could never fail. The author's terms are not important; the work's terms are. It's a kind of free pass, you see? When someone writes, "I see what the author is trying to do here" a factory whistle goes off in my mind and I think, Monkey See, Monkey Do.

This "Ask not what poetry can do for you, but what you can do for poetry" argument is nonsense. Poetry must approach me; poetry must attend to me. This is the basic point of poetry: its selfishness. Even the broad public poems are ultimately self-expressions, poets are writing poems for themselves first, and meanings are internal, and even public poems must consider the public, who will meet bad and obtuse poetry with indiffence and bafflement.

Anonymous said...

D H Lawrence said much the same thing: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." I've always found it sad when a poet, anticipating or noting incomprehension or a different take on his or her work among readers, tries solemnly to "set the record straight". Messages without music, and, because of the aesthetic failing, usually facile ones, as well. What's the point?