Wednesday, September 14, 2005


I’m a happy blogonaut these days: Henry Gould’s back! (Tho I wish he were reading something meatier than Ron Sukenick’s deeply lackluster book on Wallace Stevens…) And John Latta’s returned with a new blog, Rue Hazard, that’s even wilder & more eclectic than Hotel Point.

Kasey has two consecutive posts mulling the issues of poetry reviewing – in perhaps more self-critical depth than I’m willing to dive, being myself an entirely superficial creature. I’m interested in the contrast he draws between indie music criticism and what I think from now on I’ll call “alt-poetry” criticism: that’s an analogy between spheres that for some reason has never occurred to me – and now that it’s been dragged into my attention, I can’t get it out of my head. I wonder if the alt-poetry scene wouldn’t be a trifle more interesting if there were more “ruthless” reviewing going on. My own sense is that even a mixed review of a book by someone on the scene attracts far more unreasoned backlash than one might anticipate (or so I can testify from bruised experience).

I’m torn between two impulses: One is the critical impulse, to try to take apart a work and show where it works and where it doesn’t, and then to offer some kind of Eliotian ex cathedra pronouncement on whether or not my humble readers ought to be spending their time on it. The other, more congenial, is simply celebratory – to hold up something shiny or gnarly or crabbed or luminous – but something that I find above all exciting – and say “Lookee here!” That’s one thing that draws me to the blog form (despite all Barrett Watten’s recent pooh-poohings): when I read a book that rings some or all of my bells, I can write a couple-three paragraphs about it, quote a stanza or two – simply gesture towards it and say, see for yourself, if you’re interested. Casual text: which, like casual sex, can be brief, kinda nice, or very pleasurable indeed.

Kasey’s awfully apologetic when he complains about slack proofreading in new books of poetry (a “fetishization of the surface,” he murmurs): “I fully grant that each individual ought not to be held to exacting standards of spelling, grammar, etc., and that such skills are not synonymous with artistic competence. That's what editors are for.” Well, no. That’s what editors were for, back before the process of producing a book was something more arduous than downloading a poet’s word processing file and pouring it into a typesetting program. These days, it’s all down to the poet her- or himself to take responsibility for these little things. Editing is hard work, and proofreading is a drag; when you’re working on a shoestring to produce what you feel are artistically important books, a close attention to the poet’s text is (perhaps paradoxically) the first thing that gets discarded. (Not always: I’ve yet to encounter a typo in a Flood Editions book; but some of the bigger indies seem to regularly churn out books whose text is only as good as whatever file they’ve gotten thru the mail.)

On a personal note, having done a good bit of reviewing myself, I want to put in a plug for the editing of reviews. I’ve sent off a lot of pieces and never heard of them again until page proofs (or until the magazine in which they were published) showed up in the mailbox. But the ones I’m proudest of are those which have been closely and harshly edited, where somebody with a different eye and perhaps a different set of aesthetic investments from me has sent a review back with a maze of queries and objections: I don’t buy this argument; So what?; If you call this passage “beautiful,” you’d damned well better show why, because it doesn’t look beautiful to me; don’t be coy; I got your amphibrach right here… Whether we write out of a critical, analytical impulse, or out of that celebratory thing, we’ve got to keep in mind that there’s a readership out there which doesn’t share all of our investments and tastes, and part of our job is rhetorical, by whatever means necessary to persuade those readers over to our camp. E.g.: Kasey’s first take on Linh Dinh’s American Tatts left me pretty cold, but his super-snazzy image in the second post – “crudely hewn chunks of messed-up affect set in the middle of a big parking lot and spray-painted all over” – makes me want to run out and read the book right now.

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