What happens when poetry critics politely disagree
an exchange by Jason Guriel and Jonathan Farmer
I love @Slate, but its conspicuously safe poetry reviews (which say little) are the least Slatey thing about the mag.
Forgive me for what may be an especially strange email. I saw your tweet about my Slate poetry reviews and am curious to hear more. I promise not to argue. If there are ways I can get better as a critic, I feel like I should try to hear them, even if I'm unlikely to enjoy it.
It was good – not "strange" – of you to reach out. For what it's worth, I'm often on the receiving end of criticism, and don't usually write my critics.
None of your reviews, in and of themselves, are particularly egregious. As one-offs, they are clear and articulate, with stylish turns of phrase. But in the context of Slate – a magazine I go to for lively, feisty prose – your reviews strike me as, to quote the Tweet, "conspicuously safe," especially in the aggregate. You like a lot, but hate very little. When you write, "It's hard to resist, but it's also a stretch, this sense that if we can keep other people from loving what they love, we can get back to – or on to – something worthy of us, at last," I'm put on red alert and in mind of recent the debate about smarm, snark’s antimatter. Who's keeping anyone from loving what they want to love? Critics who steer me away from the bad (by acknowledging it) and towards the good are, in fact, teaching me how to love. In other words: don't hate the haters.
You do write of another book that "The weaker poems here aren't bad, and they often include good stories," but that word "weaker" hardly counts as hatred, or even useful steering. It's a qualification that capsizes your review, coming as it does towards the end—predictably, precisely where the off-note a reviewer thinks he must sound tends to be sounded.
My bias: I want critics to really own what they don't like if I'm to trust them on what they do like. I'm sure you're being honest about the books you seem to love—though I wish I myself encountered as much good new poetry. And perhaps you've registered significant reservations about other books elsewhere; I'm responding to your run at Slate, is all. Still, I can't help but feel a reviewer does his readers a disservice when he restricts himself to books he wants to praise.
Turning now to your Dawson review – and assuming you're still reading – I'm not particularly convinced by your enthusiasm for some of the passages you quote. To be fair, your reviews tend to be more descriptive than evaluative. But when you do praise – when you are evaluative – there doesn't appear to be enough proof to back up the praise. You claim Dawson's "management of form" is "meticulous", but then you concoct an elaborate simile, likening her work to "a drunk dancing sloppily but nailing every step with an I-told-you-so grin." Like the Wile E. Coyote comparison you start your piece with, the simile is distractingly flashy. Don't get me wrong; I adore stylish criticism, and can hardly bear to read any other kind. But these similes look like clever feints and are, quite frankly, better than anything in the poetry you've quoted. They only seem to say a lot about Dawson's work.
I'm sorry if you find any of this offensive. And I appreciate your willingness to suffer me as I dilate on your work. Most of the above sentences probably should've been preceded by "For what it's worth," but the constant qualification would've made for cumbersome email (and not very useful criticism). Please feel free to yell at me.
No yelling. No desire to yell. I'm grateful to you for doing this, even if I don't enjoy reading it. And I think the email is fair. I even agree with some of it.
I regret the bit about keeping people from loving what they love, not because I think it was wrong, but because I think it was hypocritical. I shouldn't have tried to write a top 10 list in the first place. My discomfort ended up controlling way too much of that article, and it's easily the piece I'm most disappointed in—both the writing and the evaluations.
But I'm still skeptical about the value of most negative poetry reviews I read. A lot of them seem like a kind of stylized carelessness, and I usually end up thinking of Bishop writing to Lowell about The Dolphin: “art just isn't worth that much." Too, I'm not convinced that I'm imaginative enough to rule out the different experiences of value others have in response to the works I dislike–and to be honest, I'm not sure a lot of critics who traffic in slash-and-burn reviews are either. And whether or not critics are keeping people from loving what they love, there seem to be lots of critics arguing that some kinds of love are illegitimate. (I'm curious, too. Because I keep reading the calls for more negative reviews, but I never really understand them. Why does love require hate? Or, to be more precise, what extra information is there in "Not X" that isn't available in "X"?)
But that's separate from your point about my tendency to praise and probably overpraise. I'm afraid you're right there—and right about some things I've been putting off admitting to myself. I have my excuses, of course, but those are only part of it – maybe a very small part. You write, "But when you do praise – when you are evaluative – there doesn't seem to be enough proof to back up the praise." I think that's right, and I think it's even possible that it doesn't go far enough. As I've tried to learn how to write engaging prose about poetry, I've developed a habit of trying to hit some especially high notes throughout – something that seems to aspire to oration and inspiration – and in the process I've often left the reality (and, yes, limitations) of the text behind.
What I need, I suspect, to learn – what I need to make myself learn for what I want to do – is a way to find more registers and modes within the descriptive approach, so that I can be more reserved (more honest, really) and still write something that represents a good read.
I don't have any desire to be feisty, for a variety of reasons, some personal, some aspiring to principle. But I do want to write in a way that's honest and precise, and I'm not sure I've been good enough in that regard. I'm cautiously optimistic that I can get closer to that next time, partly because this conversation has forced me to give it some thought. I hope you'll be willing to continue it.
I appreciate your gracious, thoughtful response. And it's still okay if we devolve into yelling. We're critics, right?
You note that you're "still skeptical about the value of most negative reviews..." Fair enough. But I'm skeptical about the value of terms like "negative review." As I once wrote – in a piece that generated a lot of negativity in the defence of, ironically enough, positivity – "Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative." I suggested, slightly facetiously, that we should retire that term "negative" in favour of something like "necessary skepticism." After all, isn't skepticism towards the negative review itself a kind of, well, negative review? Isn't it all just criticism?
In my experience, I've found much value in reviews that offer skeptical assessments. Such reviews have steered me away from movies and albums that might not be worth my time (or money). Why shouldn't readers of poetry enjoy a similar service? Here's the thing: the readership for poetry is to a large degree made up of other poets – many of whom don't want to view their work as having to compete for attention, as all commodities must – even the subsidized ones produced by gentle souls. Skeptical reviews wouldn't be a big deal if poetry enjoyed a larger body of independent readers who weren't themselves poets or creative writing professors, and who weren't so invested in the success of poetry as an artform. No one wants to buy a bad album. And no one, reading a snarky Anthony Lane review in The New Yorker, is worrying about the health of moving pictures.
Going to school in a small pond like Canada, where a nationalist agenda has nurtured and inflated to near-bursting many a big fish, one encounters a lot of bad verse that is nevertheless championed, cheerleaded. This can lead the consumer to question herself. I certainly tried to care about Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje and Al Purdy and bpNichol, because I was told to, over and over, in seminars. But why didn't I want to keep reading their words after the seminars wrapped? Discovering my editor Carmine Starnino's scrappy book of reviews about Canadian poetry, A Lover's Quarrel, however, clarified things; here was someone squaring up the sacred cows and confounding the consensus. Here was someone speaking to that part of me that simply couldn't accept the premise of the seminars. "Negative" was the last word on my mind, reading Starnino. Plus, he was great about introducing me to minor Canadian poets who'd been neglected—and who might've been 'major.' I felt a little less alone, after that book. And, to borrow your phrase, I needed to hear the "Not X.” An entire country has needed to hear the "Not X."
I'm not sure what the search for different modes of description means. Isn't description the business of marketing departments, and mainly in service of the poets churning out the poetry? I want to serve readers, and so I'm with Philip Larkin: "[The critic] must hold on to the principle that the only reason for praising a work is that it pleases, and the way to develop his critical sense is to be more acutely aware of whether he is being pleased or not."
I like what you say, though: "I do want to write in a way that's honest and precise." I think that being honest is in part about being honest with oneself—and being, as Larkin suggests, "more acutely aware of whether [one] is being pleased or not." I have thought I was pleased, when I really wasn't. Sometimes we need to hear the "or not."
"Necessary skepticism" is interesting—but also, of course, insufficient. Leaving behind, at least for now, my own excesses, I think it's worth noting how often reviews seem to make a spectacle of harm. Critics also tend to be entertainers of a sort; though we're rarely especially good ones, I think we owe it to our readers to give them a good reason to keep reading. And one readily available source of entertainment is tearing someone down—which really is entertaining, at least when we approve of the target. If we aren't going to talk about "negative" reviews, I think we still need to have a term for those reviews that put on a show by demeaning someone's work—and need to be honest about the kind of pleasure it entails. (I should be clear: I'm not immune; I take great delight in reading a good takedown. But I don't think I'm actually doing something productive in those moments.) (And you're right, of course, about the responses to such takedowns; they're also negative reviews, and they tend to make the same kind of spectacle.)
I like your point about the different ways we talk about takedowns of, for example, movies, as opposed to poems and politics. I admit: I like poems in part because they seem (to me) to carry an author with them. There's no straight line from writer to poem to reader, but I nonetheless enjoy poems as an unlikely place to meet, and I think that's true of a lot of readers, maybe especially true of those who respond most negatively to negative reviews. Because movies seem more corporate, in several senses of the word, and because in our imaginations celebrities are simultaneously larger than life and inconsequential, it's easier to read a slam of a movie and enjoy the feeling of power that comes with it even as we imagine the effects of our power are unreal or unimportant. We wouldn't, I suspect, take as much delight in reading a slam of a new line from IKEA, because there's no one there to tear down (for that, we need a takedown of a CEO), and we wouldn't take much pleasure in seeing someone insulted in person because it's too immediate and too obviously cruel.
Returning to your mention of skepticism: I'm not sure I can think of any examples of a review that feels legitimately skeptical to me, though I'd be very curious to read one. To expand on a point I made in an earlier email: I think there are all kinds of ways in which a poem can create value for someone, and very few of them do me or anyone else any harm. There are plenty of people who love a style of poetry that seems, to me, excruciatingly unambitious and aurally inert. And yet there are these large (at least by poetry standards) communities of people who are deeply invested in this kind of poetry. Are they deluded, ignorant, inferior? Maybe. Or more likely their needs are just different from mine. Either way, I think any attempt to say, publicly, that this has no value would have to reckon with the fact that so many people value it. It reminds me of the missionary atheists. I think of myself as a pro forma atheist; I live as if there is no god. But if someone tells me they've experienced God, as long as they don't use that experience to tell others how to live, how and for that matter why should I dispute it? And if I do, shouldn't I at least do so in a way that is skeptical about my own belief (that there is no god) as well?
I'll grant your relief in hearing "Not X." I've felt it, too. And I do think there's value in reconsiderations of high profile poets. That there's a point where a certain poet or style can obscure other possibilities. I think it's even possible that we can miss what's valuable in the work of a given poet because he or she gets praised to unequivocally. (I would love for someone smart to go through and assemble a 50-page Selected Ashbery to refresh the view; I used to enjoy him, but now it just feels like his poems pour off an assembly line.) But I don't want to read or write poetry's version of Consumer Reports. Books of poetry are easy enough to sample online or in stores. The criticism I value most doesn't teach me how to love, to borrow your phrase, but rather how to read. And so I do think that a mostly descriptive criticism can be useful. It's certainly not something I'm used to hearing or seeing from marketing departments, which are exclusively in the business of praise and largely stand in opposition to careful perception.
Having said all this, I also want to step away from it a bit. There are two issues here. One is my need to get more honest and more precise as a critic, while also recognizing my own predilections and priorities. The other is talking about the value of negative reviewing in general. As far as the latter goes, I don't want getting caught up in an interesting (at least to me) conversation overstate my case. I don't buy the justifications for a lot of vicious reviews, but neither do I think it's a huge deal. People hurt each other all the time for all kinds of reasons. But even as I hope to live in ways that are more humble and less harmful, I also recognize that the damage inflicted by this or that poetry review is infinitesimally small on the scale of available harms.
“Demeaning,” “harm,” “vicious,” “takedowns”—extreme language to associate with the negative review! But your appeal to such language is not uncommon. You observe that the “responses” to negative reviews “tend to make the same kind of spectacle” as the reviews themselves. Trust me: they tend to make a much nastier spectacle. In an exchange with the critic Michael Lista, the Canadian poet Jan Zwicky noted that “the writing of viciously negative reviews can satisfy sadistic impulses” and that “In sexual encounters, our culture condones sadistic behaviour only between consenting adults. I see no reason to think that our standards should be different for critics and the critiqued.” Zwicky’s absurd argument, that negative reviews constitute a form of rape, was published in a national newspaper, north of the 49th parallel. Are you familiar with it? It may have been too sickly a notion to go viral. But then I’ve seen one of my own reviews, a mixed response to Alice Oswald’s book Memorial, likened to a “Twitter rape threat.” In short, the most vicious and personal reviews are often produced by those who purport to be above the negative review.
You say you “like poems in part because they seem (to me) to carry an author with them.” But poems are also in part the product of a larger culture—of MFA programs, granting bodies, publishers’ needs, blue pencils, nepotism. Sure, poems are less obviously “corporate,” to borrow your adjective. But they’re not untouched by the hands of others, by interests that exceed the individual bard’s. I’m usually the last person to fumble for the French theory, but Roland Barthes’ notion that “it is language which speaks, not the author” comes in handy here. Poems aren’t people. Reviews aren’t assaults.
Still, I’m glad you “recognize that the damage inflicted by this or that poetry review is infinitesimally small on the scale of available harms,” even if I wish you would question your use of that weird word “harms.” A skeptical review may – may – harm the odd poet, but I’ve never much worried about poets (and I myself write poems!). If anything, I’m worried about potential readers. A culture that cares too much about the poet, and not enough about its audiences, is a culture that has institutionalized poetry and taken for granted its worth. Poetry in and of itself isn’t valuable. Neither are poets.
Can I end my half of this engaging exchange with a pumped fist of praise? Your concise but honest evaluation of Ashbery, which I will not stick with the label “negative,” is a relief. “I used to enjoy him, but now it just feels like his poems pour off an assembly line”—thank you for confirming what I’ve long felt, and in an alliterative, entertaining way. Thank you for being aware of your enjoyment and, by extension, mine.
Jason, you’re right: my language is betraying me. You had originally said you wanted something more “feisty,” which may also be revealing, in that it suggests, at least to me, an ability to be combative without doing harm. You maybe already knew this, but it turns out the word comes from “feist,” which is apparently a small, “ill-tempered” dog. That seems about right for “feisty,” in that it seems to have a protective smallness, one that makes any aggression seem harmless. But I wonder if it isn’t revealing, too, that the negative responses you’ve received seem to have bothered you so much. It does seem to me that they’ve harmed you in a way that sticks.
I find myself wondering, lately, about our tendency to have different values in different contexts. As a sports fan, someone who grew up adoring Michael Jordan, I’ve been running up against the ways we celebrate athletes. Jordan wasn’t necessarily more talented than other elite basketball players of his era. He was more driven. His need to win, to be the best, was relentless, and we honor him for that. And it cuts the other way, too: we regularly criticize athletes who don’t have that desperation, even though in almost any other situation we’d see it as terribly selfish and obviously unhealthy. And so even as I still tune into sports looking for greatness, I wonder if I shouldn’t be looking for something else. And I wonder, too, if what we ask of artists and critics shouldn’t also be a little more consistent with our values outside of art. I say this knowing it’s problematic. Too rigidly or narrowly enforced (enforced in any way, really) it will rule out too much. But I think we can aspire to kindness as artists and as critics without losing the ability to say what needs to be said. Heck, look at us here, disagreeing, without insulting each other.
I recognize your points about poems being the product of all kinds of institutional forces. Same goes for poets. Same goes for people in general. Everyone we meet, in every way we meet her or him, is something both more and less than a single, organic, essential, untouched individual. But that doesn’t make anyone any less worthy of being sought or found. Poems aren’t people, sure; but they’re things that people make out of and in response to the culture they inherit and alter—just like your reviews or mine. And I do think that matters to us. At least for me, if those same poems were written by a computer program, they would immediately become less interesting. And even when I read something as gentle as your tweet about my reviews, I do read a description of my own insufficiency, a claim, perhaps an accurate one, about my work and my being in the process of making them.
I agree with you that poetry isn’t valuable. I wish I could resign from the entire conversation each April, when poetry turns into a fetish. Honestly, it makes me feel lonely, all that celebration of something that seems by itself so neutral, so vague, to me. It’s as if there were a National Purple Month each year, and suddenly everyone I knew were talking about purple as the most important thing in the world. I like some things that are purple, sure, but I end up feeling like an oger by May. But poets? They’re valuable, not because they write poems, but because they’re people. That’s terribly corny, but it’s also true, and I don’t think we do a good enough job of remembering it. One of my favourite etymologies is the one for “kind,” which is related to, among other words, kin and genus. To be kind is, essentially, to enlarge the circle of kinship, which strikes me as a complicated and necessary imaginative act and, admittedly, a tiring one, too.
You talk about serving readers. Yes. I would add to that respecting readers. To go back to an earlier point, there are typically readers who love the writing that annoys me, and it seems like a negative review should give that some consideration. Is the value others find here imaginary? Is it dangerous? If not, how important is it that I don’t find similar value? And which readers, exactly, am I serving by insisting on my (negative) experience of this particular work?
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t write negative reviews. I’ve already stated a couple of instances in which they seem especially valuable to me, and more generally, I think it’s important that we be able to write to each other honestly. Kindness seems to require that, too. But the reviews I have in mind—the ones I recall when I hear the word “feisty”—aren’t just negative, they’re insulting, wilfully insulting. Some of those are reviews that have given me quite a bit of pleasure. It’s a relief sometimes to tighten the circle of kinship, to give in and be a little mean; I suspect we all have it in us. But I think it’s worth, at minimum, being honest about that, too. The insulting review serves its readers by being unkind, by making a spectacle of knocking down not only the poem but the person behind it.
I see so much unkindness these days, hear so much rhetoric about the ways we need to be less generous, toughen people up, etc. I see so many people, including my students and their families, including my friends, who lead lives of financial and emotional insecurity. Maybe it’s unfair of me to conflate any of that with what happens in an insulting review, and maybe I’ll feel differently in a few weeks, months or years. But I’d like to live in a world that’s a little kinder, and if I’m serious about that, I don’t think I can exempt my work as a critic.
This conversation started with my hope to learn something that would make me a better critic. I think it has, though not in a way that feels easy to apply. I suspect kindness can be a discipline—an intellectual discipline—and I hope I can learn to write in a way that more fully engages the labor and rewards of thinking hard not exclusively in service of the poet or the reader alone, but of the imaginative terrain in which one can create (and, yes, fail to create) something of value for someone else.
JASON GURIEL co-edits Partisan. His recent work appears in The New Republic.
JONATHAN FARMER writes for Slate, and is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of At Length.