Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Travis Nichols over at the Poetry Foundation, a few days ago, published a post about an online roundtable discussion (titled "Some Darker Bouquets") that was prompted by a recent essay at Poetry Magazine by Jason Guriel about the dearth of (and need for more) negative reviews, and by Kent Johnson’s response to that essay: another essay in which he makes an argument for bringing back anonymous reviews.

As I prepare to write my "Editor's Note" for Latino Poetry Review #2, I took the time to go to the online journal in question—it’s called May Day—that commissioned this roundtable. Over a few days I read all of the contributions of the roundtable—all thirty two of them. What I found myself doing, as I was reading, was cutting and pasting excerpts that I found useful onto a blank WORD document for future reference. And I found myself identifying the authors of the various excerpts I was saving. There was one response I enjoyed so much that I cut and pasted the whole thing.

My plan was to offer my findings here. In the end, though, in the spirit of what was proposed---more anonymity---I offer them below without attribution. The one I quote in its entirety includes its title, in bold face. If you’re interested in reading the entire roundtable (and maybe match excerpts with authors), go HERE.

Here they are:

There is no more value to a mere expression of praise than there is to a mere expression of blame, except insofar as these expressions might help us climb the ladder of the poetry world, or throw some other people off it. The relevant distinction we should make as readers of criticism is between reviews that are willing to make arguments and reviews that are only willing to make assertions. This is the difference between a good review and a bad one.


Silence = death for all writers, so a blast in print may be more useful than no response at all.

We DO need to have a culture where the issues of review & reflection are robust & we are engaging with work which leaves us unmoved or angry. We also need to be able to do this with some kind of generosity of intention & knowledge of where this lies in a larger human context. I think we can do this through right intention & seeing all of our writings as a serious form of play.

A good negative review, I think, should at least provide the author in question with some hard questions & the possibility of some options.

I don’t think it is a question of whether passionate / critical discourse should take place—of course it should—but how it should take place.


But one problem with provocation is that its traffic in hyperbole and empty generalizations often makes it inimical to intelligence. Controversy is not always a synonym for debate, and when provocation is done poorly it ends up sounding like a bad Slate article.

To my mind the most underrated way to avoid dullness is to make intelligent, instructive arguments: about goodness, yes, but also about how poems work and why they are (or are not) important.

The need for this kind of poetry reviewing would seem to be obvious, since poems (good ones, anyway) don’t surrender their secrets at first touch. But major print outlets seem much more interested in finding instructive reviews of fiction than they do of poetry.


There’s no reason why those disenchanted with the state of poetry criticism can’t start their own reviews. Yes, the going will be tough and the rewards initially small, but who ever became a poet to take the easy road? Moreover, if the last few years have demonstrated anything beyond the overwhelming absurdity of market capitalism, they have demonstrated that there is a large and hungry audience waiting for just such publications. Create them and they will be read.


I think this practice would encourage reviewers to be more honest and, more specifically, to take the reader’s side. As Kent points out, most reviewers at the moment are poets and, as such, are not really acting in the interest of a poetry reader’s needs and point of view. Since their names are involved, they are most likely acting in their own interest, as poets making a career. Anonymous reviewers could be more honest and, I hope, would be more likely to take on the responsibility of standing in for the reader rather than for po-biz. The reader would benefit, and poetry would benefit.


I’ve always been more interested in reviewing works that I find interesting rather than pummeling those that I don’t, although I enjoy a carefully written disemboweling as much as the next person.


Possible and Impossible Truths About Reviewing

Snottiness, contempt, unfairness, mockery, drollery, cruel wit: These are signs of vigor. So is generosity.

Vigor in art creates vigor in criticism, not the other way around.

Of course there should be negative reviewing.

Anonymous reviews may be entertaining, but seem unlikely to be useful. We may enjoy seeing poems we loathe (or poets more successful than ourselves) savaged, but how many of us really take seriously the anonymous reviews at Amazon?

Kent says editors would need to be responsible for holding anonymous reviewers to certain fairness guidelines. When have editors ever been nobler, or fairer, than the rest of us?
When a certain film critic for a Philadelphia publication says a movie isn’t funny, I know I will find it hilarious. When she finds a movie poignant, I know I will find it revolting. If she and her fellow reviewers for this publication wrote anonymously, I could no longer rely on her unreliability.

Critics who are consistently wrong are the most useful critics.

I don’t mind other people writing anonymous reviews. But I think I wouldn’t do it myself.
Maybe I would. If you paid me enough. I review for money and to engage deeply with work that interests me. But if someone likes my reviewing, positive or negative, maybe they’ll look up my poems. Therefore, for selfish reasons, I’d rather put my name to my reviews.

The important thing is to quote enough of the work so the reader can figure out if she likes what she reads. One of the worst reviews I ever got, from someone who really hated my work, quoted a huge amount of my poetry, so I felt I had been done a favor.

Even a negative review is better than damning with inept praise.

Irrelevant aside: Any review that uses the words “well-honed,” “well-crafted,” “wordsmith” or (usually) “verse,” is not to be trusted.

Many negative reviews incorrectly identify a book’s weaknesses, just as many positive reviews incorrectly identify a book’s strengths. Most people have no idea why they really like or dislike a poem, and some of those people write reviews.

Negativity in reviewing is no guarantee of reliability. A negative review may be reverse puffery to get in good with the other school. Other ways negative reviews can be irresponsible:

Blaming the poet for not writing the way the reviewer would have.

Blaming the poet for not fitting in with the overarching theme the reviewer developed in desperation as her deadline approached.

Blaming the poet for his blurbs, connections, prizes, popularity or media attention.

Nitpicking the poet on minor points of syntax or lineation when it’s clearly the poet’s politics that put the reviewer off.

One-liners designed to show off the reviewer’s cleverness are welcome, provided the reviewer is truly clever.

Often the reviewer is not all that clever.

Would even clever one-liners be pleasurable if delivered anonymously? Consider initials in old-fashioned newspaper gossip columns. Would anyone have cared that X was sleeping with her chauffeur and Y was seen lurking out of an opium den if they didn’t know exactly who X and Y were?

How often do you read negative reviews out of pure shadenfreude?

Me too.

Not being a poet does not prevent a reviewer from being wrong-headed, biased or just plain stupid about poetry. Neither does being a poet.

Excessive, continuous and repetitive lack of enthusiasm renders the reviewer unreliable.
Puffery kills the puffer’s, not the puffee’s, soul. Actually, maybe it kills the puffee’s too.
It’s probably best to be generous with, or else ignore, poets’ first books. There’s no point in telling people not to read what they weren’t going to read anyway.

Famous poets are fair game. As are critics who write poetry. And poets who write criticism.
Samuel Johnson: “No man rises to such a height as to become conspicuous, but he is on one side censure by undiscerning malice, which reproaches him for his best actions, and slanders his apparent and incontestable excellences; and idolized on the other by ignorant admiration, which exalts his faults and follies into virtues.”

The crimes of poets worth reviewing are generally the same things that make those poets worth reading. Few contemporary reviewers realize this.

Poets who receive negative reviews should toughen up. Either the reviewer is right, or she’s an idiot. Either way you learn something.

Friends of poets who receive negative reviews, who write in protesting the negative review, seldom do the poet any favors. Usually they end up repeating, unintentionally or not, the charges against the poet, without successfully refuting them.

We don’t need a lot of daring critics. We need daring critics.

Daring Critic: More or less of an oxymoron than Daring Poet?

Anything that gets people talking is good.

All assertions are to be met with suspicion, or why are you even in this game?

How often do you see a letter to the editor about a positive review?


There are now tons of different ways of getting one’s work into print and circulation. However, it seems the criticism has lagged behind. Brilliant work lingers in utter obscurity because it’s hard to get the word out there and if one manages to get a review it most likely will either be blandly praised (and thus defused) or criticized. But most likely it will just be ignored. The result? The same old hierarchies persist. People end up reading books published by University of California Press because they publish fancy looking books and they’re a university press, they have the old-fashioned caché.


What I have in mind is not hit-and-run criticism that relies on hostile generalizations and tiny out-of-context quotations, but conscientiously substantive, argumentative criticism.


What one sees in lieu of broader considerations is (mostly) balkanization into bold little republics and self-promoting fiefdoms, a happenstance exacerbated by ex cathedra tribal (elder) railings, divisive pronunciamentos labeling (and dismissing) various “camps,” slights made repeatedly by those unable or unwilling to read beyond their own provincialisms.


As a reader and as an editor, I want mostly to know that a reviewer has taken time and care with the art under consideration. If it deserves derision, I want that cut with something more interesting than mere wit—I want to be reminded of what’s at stake. And if it deserves praise let’s indeed get beyond the blurb-friendly milk of human kindness, and begin the hard work of excavating a space to consider why significant new work truly matters.
In calling for “more enigmatic” bouquets to be thrown at every new bride of a book, Johnson speaks closest to my desire that reviewing go beyond the thumbs up/thumbs down binary and say something that causes one to think.


Poetry criticism can similarly bring the news from Poetry Land to those who will never buy and rarely read a book of new poems; there’s an important place for essays which chart the terrain, inform an otherwise uninterested readership about the ranges of poetries being written, published, translated, and not-yet-written in/into English. Not everything need be an agôn of praise and blame; criticism can also be pedagogical.


What a review should be is critical; that is, it should view the work at an arm's length, identify its formal and cultural logics, understand them, and evaluate them plainly and clearly while also acknowledging one's own biases.


And I’ve always favored harsh reviewing over its cousin, the practice of simply avoiding what one doesn’t like and praising what one does. In theory (and for a few talented critics, in practice) this latter approach is a way of sorting out the good from bad without resorting to deliberate unkindness. But it can have unfortunate consequences. It can overstate poetry’s weakness and criticism’s strength. It can also lead to a culture of condescending silence, in which writers aren’t challenged to their faces, but dismissed behind their backs. So I prefer harsh reviewing; it keeps us all reasonably honest. But – and this is my reservation – it’s not to be engaged in lightly. As Clive James once wrote, using “someone else’s mediocrity as an opportunity to be outstanding … is getting pretty close to malice, for all its glittering disguise as selfless duty.” It is, at least in my experience, a chastening and useful thing to know that your name will be attached to whatever you write.


I ask myself what I mean to do when I review a book and the answer is this: I mean to enmesh myself in the poems, to learn as much as I can about how to read them and, if I enjoyed the experience sufficiently, to recommend others learn how as well.

In other words, the standards that inform our decisions about the aesthetic value of a poem rely on highly particularized experience. But what matters is that we, as reviewers, can draw together the specifics of our perceptions of a verse with enough cogency and skill to convince a reader that the poem under consideration is worth experiencing (or not) for herself.


I think we must view contemporary poetry reviewing practices with suspicion, but then the question for me becomes: where do we put our trust? And my answer is: where it always should have been: in valid, persuasive argument.


What I miss are not negative reviews, but what I guess I have to call—although I know it sounds kind of boring—judicious ones. Where is the critic who understands the value of the work of, say, Clark Coolidge, but can explain the difference between a great work by Coolidge and just an average one?


Many people apparently think that criticism and reviews are the same thing, but I don’t: I’d call Craig Morgan Teicher a reviewer and Herb Leibowitz a critic. Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and New Pages publish book reviews; New York Review of Books, Parnassus, and Essays in Criticism publish criticism. One isn’t better than the other, but they’re different.

For the most part, critical writing has been outpaced by the kind of prose that goes up on blogs, and by the daily-dish chatter that gets vacuumed into interviews, memes, and other instruments of the intellectual shortcut. I love blogs, tweets, and my Facebook friends, myself, and don’t want to return to the musty uncut pages of the past. But if the age doesn’t demand excellence in criticism and reviews then heck, there won’t be any. And that excellence requires the skills, finely honed, of having, documenting, and articulating an opinion - positive or negative.


A call for “necessarily skeptical” reviews sidesteps the issue of what makes for the best reviews: that they are informed, descriptive, substantive, insightful, and make plain the values of the reviewed text and the values of the reviewer. I read reviews to decide whether to read a book. I like reviews best that describe a book accurately, whatever the reviewer thinks of it.

Still, informed insiders can often be insightful, certainly more than hostile outside reviewers who are ignorant (perhaps willfully) of a text’s methods or intent.




Wondermachine said...

Wow. I really enjoyed reading this. I'd read the original PoFo article but found the commentary there a wash. Thanks for culling the best of these.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Francisco, this is an excellent summation of major points of this roundtable. As usual, you have a keen eye for the substantial and meaningful. Gracias!

Kent Johnson said...


This is great and thanks for the "review."

By the way, I tried getting your email through Harriet, to ask you to be part of the forum! Not hearing from you, I thought maybe you didn't wish to communicate-- but maybe that's not the case at all and there was a snafu? You might know Rosa Alcala, a poet I really like--I wish she would have contributed, too, but she had other commitments, and wasn't able.

I agree that Daisy Fried's whole response there is great-- almost all of them are, I think. Another standout for me is Maureen McLane's.

OK, thanks!


Francisco Aragón said...

Hi Kent:

Thanks for your note. I don't recall getting an e-mail from anyone about this forum. I would have been delighted to take part. I'm not hard to find, though:

I reference this discussion at MAYDAY in my "Editor's Notes" for the second issue of Latino Poetry Review (LPR), which is almost complete and should be going live in a couple of weeks or so. I pose the question about the "negative review" in the Latino poetry community. As for Rosa Alcala, she is a contributing editor of LPR and I'll be seeing her tomorrow night: she's one of the four readers reading in the Chicago stop of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry ON TOUR.