Saturday, May 17, 2008

"No such thing as bad publicity,"

I keep telling myself, stiff-upper-lippishly. But that doesn't mean receiving a 3500-word panning – nay, spanking – nay, drubbing – from August Kleinzahler (now known as "stinky-feet Augie" to two small girls in my household) in the 22 May London Review of Books doesn't hurt. Man, it does.

(And no, I'm not giving you the link. Look it up your own bad self.)

Casting my mind back to the Kübler-Ross "5 Stages of Grief at a Bad Review," I suspect I'm somewhere on the "depression" side of the passage from "depression" to "acceptance," having passed thru the stages of "denial" (surely they sent him the wrong book?), "anger" (cf. Franz Wright, passim), & "bargaining" (but even a bad review in the LRB will surely sell some books to masochistic types?). But the sting is still too real & immediate for me to say much coherent about what's wrong with Kleinzahler's take on the book, and what might be right about it.

Suffice it to say, for those of you who might be taking up pens & cudgels on my behalf, that Kleinzahler's version of Language Poetry makes Tom Clark's (remember "Stalin as Linguist"?) look sophisticated, & that while he spends the better part of a paragraph excoriating my final appendix, he seems to have entirely misread it. Man, I have so many other nasty things I want to say that I've just gotta close now.

Expressions of sympathy – flowers, bonbons, bottles of booze – entirely welcome.


Anonymous said...

I wish I could read this review, Mark. I ain't willing to subscribe, but I'd like to see just how he misreads your book. The Poem of a Life is such a clear, even-handed book, I'm at a loss to what could cause someone to try to shred it. Your book is a model of real intelligence and meticulous scholarship. AK must not be getting enough bran in his diet . . .

Paul Naylor

Vance Maverick said...

Condolences. The excerpt over at their bookstore is certainly unpromising:

Zukofsky, like Charles Olson and Jeremy Prynne, is a monstre sacré: his reputation precludes any serious discussion of individual pieces of work.

This could easily be disproven by a glance, for example, into the goddamn book under review.

F.W. said...

people forget about these reviews more or less instantaneously (don't you, after reading one?), and nobody really gives a shit about them in the first place. Think about it--how much do they affect you, when you read one about somebody else? The book review is an even more evanescent form of writing than a blog entry. The pain will pass, fast.

Paul Sweeney said...

Did you respect this guys opinion before? if so, then ouch. If not, then its the luck of the draw and the managing editor's agenda at LRB.

Vance Maverick said...

Also, this piece on Kenneth Cox, a critic, gives some context. AK quotes paragraphs from Cox on Bunting, Joyce, Niedecker, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Yeats, and Zukofsky. The Yeats passage is somewhat negative, but the Zukofsky one is a determined rejection of a whole poetic, with prejudice. Cox pretends to adduce separate strands of evidence, but it reads as though a general dislike has poisoned all his reactions. And it's quite clear that Kleinzahler takes Cox as a model.

I have mixed feelings about connoisseurial, judgment-making criticism. I take the point of cultural conservative types that the test of poetry is pleasure (to coin a phrase); and I owe a lot personally to the enthusiasms of critics who convey such pleasures. But the reverse of that practice -- attempting to convey negative judgments convincingly by expounding displeasure -- is worthless, where not toxic. Consider Kenner on Joyce etc. vs. Kenner on Auden or HD. (It's otherwise in poets' manifestos, articulating a personal poetic, but I take that to be an essentially different sort of writing, and I won't grant Kleinzahler that dispensation here.)

Anonymous said...

Okay -- now I've read A.K.'s review, which ultimately isn't about your book at all. He does take a few swipes at you, which strike me as unnecessary and unsupported by anything other than sarcasm. And he clearly does misread your appendix on Niedecker; it's not a complex point you make there, how can he get it so wrong? Unfortunately, your book is merely collateral damage. Like most reviews of biographies, A.K. doesn't bother to review the book you actually wrote. He kind of reviews the book he would've written -- one with Bunting in the starring role -- and takes you to task for not writing that book. Your book simply provides A.K. with the occasion to take Zukofsky down at notch or two. Anyone who thinks "A" is a "mess," as A.K. does, isn't being very precise or insightful. If there's fault to be found with "A" it's that the book is a bit too tidy; it's the opposite of a "mess." A.K. seems to have written the review just so he could end it with his endorsement Kenneth Cox's retraction of his earlier judgment about the worth of Zukofsky's work.

I'd be pissed about such a review too, Mark. A.K. makes no mention, let alone offers an evaluation, of your readings of Zukofsky, which is the focus of your book. The few times he actually writes about your book, he's dismissive, but that dismissal is powered by mean-spiritedness and not argument.

Stinky-feet indeed.

Paul Naylor

Anonymous said...

Disgusting that AK would even take the time to write something so small minded.

I'm slowly making a way through _The Poem of A Life_ (and my copy of "A" within reach, which I've struggled with, intermittently, for some years).

I am grateful for your work, Mr. Scroggins. I love the "inter-chapters". Fascinating to read something like this. Thanks. Maybe I'll drop you a line when I finish my initial reading of _The Poem of A Life_.

Don't let the thing eat at you.

Do you remember hearing what the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Ford did after living with one particular bad review for two years and then encountering the critic at a party?

I just googled and here's one link (below) which mentions what happened:

Thanks again for your work,

Christian Roess

_Richard Ford, pissed about negative review, spits on Colson Whitehead_

In any event, at a March 2 party in New York for Poets & Writers magazine, Whitehead says, Ford approached him and said, “I’ve waited two years for this! You spat on my book.” “Then he spat on me,” says Whitehead. “We had a few heated words — he said, ‘You’re a kid, you should grow up,’ which coming from him was a bit funny — and then he stalked off. This wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last. But I would like to warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”

Research reveals that Ford was defensive even before the review came out, telling Powell’s:

I haven’t read the review yet that’s in this coming Sunday’s Times, but apparently somebody [Colson Whitehead] took me to task for the very thing I want to do…. To make all the words count, and to put the words in the right order. I don’t want to be e.e. cummings. I don’t want to be interesting because all of the words are in the wrong order. I want to be interesting because all the words are in the order that I think make sense to the reader. And at the same time not sacrifice complexity, not sacrifice good sense, not sacrifice felicity, not sacrifice intelligence.

E. M. Selinger said...


Well, I've read the review, and I'm unimpressed. I'm sure it was fun for him to write--a chance to puff the poets he likes and smack down those he doesn't--but as a review of, er, YOUR BOOK? Feh. Self-indulgent, even lazy.

Dirda is a reviewer, Kleinzahler is a poet who sometimes writes reviews. The difference shows.

You wouldn't have wanted to write, let alone read, the book he was hoping to find: "The Prince and the Pauper: Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky (with special attention to my speculations about the Louis / Celia marriage)."

I recommend retail therapy. Something with strings and pickups.


Craig said...

Well, to heck with him. I just ordered my own copy from Amazon.

Ron said...

When I tell people that the School of Quietude doesn't like to play fair, I still get denials that it exists, but it seems perfectly clear that this is exactly what this is. He sounds eversomuch like Archie Bunker, maybe doing a John Wayne imitation.

I'm going to presume that it was the LRB editorial staff that removed quotation marks & equal signs -- which is why any intelligent reviewer should have included them in the text itself (even if only to taunt them -- I mean "A" is not exactly a marketer's dream of a title).

As somebody who has gotten this treatment enough times to be amused by this, I say welcome to the club.

Don Share said...

Oddly (SoQ or no SoQ), somebody - either A.K. or a subeditor - also confused Poetry's founder, Harriet Monroe, with... Harold Munro?

Hi, while I'm here, to Eric, who has the mag's review copy of Mark's terrific book. Hint, hint...