I paints and paints,Me, I’m kind of envious. The critic calls the work as she or he sees it, consequences – both to the critic and to his subject – be damned. Ruskin doesn’t give a rat’s ass if half the painters in England hate him, as long as the good ones know he’s on their side; and he doesn’t give a rat’s ass if he destroys the market for someone’s second-rate work – that just means someone should be working harder & painting better.
Hears no complaints
And sells before I'm dry,
Till savage Ruskin sticks his tusk in,
Then nobody will buy.
There’s precious little of that out there in the poetry reviewing world right now (aside of course from the perennially bilious William Logan). And in the poetry blogosphere, bad reviews are very hard to find indeed. Reviews seem to come in three varieties: more or less enthusiastic recommendations; expressions of doubt about the direction a poet’s taken, cushioned by mounds of respectful praise for her or his previous work and overall “project”; and attacks on established figures, mounted more or less on the basis of the labyrinthine socio-political-aesthetic politics of the “scene.”
Here’s an example of a bad review – indeed, an über-bad review, titled “Worst. Book. Ever.” It’s by a blogger who calls himself “MT,” and it’s of a collection called Black Life, by Dorothea Lasky. Up front: I do not know either MT or Dorothea Lasky. They are not my “friends” on Facebook, nor have we exchanged books, addresses, or offprints. This is really the first time I’ve ever heard of her poetry; yes, I don’t get out much. (I have it turns out heard MT’s real name, & at some point I may have read an essay of his, but more on him later.)
It’s a savage review, which reads like the sort of thing I’m tempted to write at 2 in the morning after I’ve had a few dog’s noses (gin & bitter) & am feeling particularly rejected by the world. Read the thing yourself; it’s not as beautifully crafted as one of Logan’s hatchet jobs, or as unbalanced as one of Franz Wright’s tirades, tho it has some nice moments of saevo indignatio. But note: MT feels, for whatever reason, that he needs to keep his bile (his “crankiness,” as he calls it in the blog description) anonymous.
What I’m really interested in are the comments, however. One sympathetic soul asks, if you hate the book so much, why bother reading it? To which MT replies:
i was reading/hearing about the book, there were poems in it that had been published in some high-profile and reputable places, so i picked it up and gave it a try. then the motivation was intellectual curiosity. as you know, like you, i think about this stuff for a living. so i wanted to understand how, why, by what definition, these were good poems. i'll admit failure on that score: i could not find a way to find them good.The negative comments were rather interesting, however. One read simply “you really really just don't get it. Sad for you. Oh well.” Another:
It's kind of entertaining how clueless this review is. I'm just trying to figure out what's more pathetic—your nonsensical fundamentalism regarding "correct" grammar and punctuation, your lack of a sense of humor, your lack of a sense of poetry, or your malicious, tedious, and baseless attacks on the author's character.But the final response really takes the cake. It's by someone I'll call "T"; I've met him once or twice, we are indeed friends on FB, he's always struck me as an intelligent, personable young poet-critic. T begins by emphatically "outing" MT, revealing his real name & his academic position:
It is especially sad to me that this person (Associate Professor of English ------------- for anyone who may not have cared to figure out the abbreviation "MT") teaches young women at ----------, and may in fact be a tenured professor, since the arguments he's making and his criteria for judgment are both paternalistic, if not misogynistic, racist, and very possibly anti-Semitic. In terms of the charge of misogyny, women's writing in particular has often been accused of being sentimental, effete, ill-formed, and naive (or in this case "faux-naif"). It is one of our unfortunate Victorian inheritances, and one that ---- proves has not gone away despite the efforts of countless artists, intellectuals, and writers in the 20th century. In terms of the charge of racism (which also obviously applies to the first), to assume that there is a standard or normative English (i.e., "well-written prose") reinforces a power structure that maintains its hegemony by policing certain forms of language use and marginalizing the language use of various “others.” Given that much of Pound's writing could hardly be considered normative (now or then), it is not just a little ironic that ----- holds up Pound as a model of normative English grammar. I'm not sure what ----- means by "Chagallery," but I also find it curious that the one example of "ugliness" he holds up, other than Lasky's poetry that is, happens to be a Russian Jew who survived pogrom and drew on Russian-Jewish folk traditions for his art.(For the record, I can't abide Chagall's nostalgic surrealism-and-water. Does that make me anti-Semitic? Ask my Jewish daughters or my Jewish in-laws or my Jewish friends. And if we're going for full disclosure, perhaps T should have been more up front about the fact that he himself happens to be married to Dorothea Lasky.)
All this is rather beside the point. MT is an intelligent reader, generally well-disposed (as his blog demonstrates) to a pretty wide range of contemporary aesthetic modes. His review of Black Life is an ill-disposed savaging, but at the same time he's clearly trying to make sense of what sort of aesthetic criteria within which Lasky is operating. And none of his commentators are the least bit interested in helping him out. As MT puts it,
maybe it's a failure of critical imagination. maybe i got punk'd and this book was really a brilliant, flarfy critique of precisely the slackly vapid bid for a gig at a fifth-rate, low-res mfa program that it pretended to be. if so, when ashton kucher and camera crew show up, i'll sheepishly accept my punking.If post-Romantic literary history has taught us anything, it's that when a writer is retooling the terms by which poetry is to be received – refunctioning what has been stigmatized as "weakness" into contemporary strengths, reshuffling what is to be taken as "bad" and "good" – she or he, & those who value her or his work, need to work double hard in making explicit the terms of those revaluations. Just ask Wordsworth, Whitman, Stein, etc. Just ask the Flarfistes. I don't know Lasky's work (tho I'm interested enough now to seek it out), but the bits that MT presents don't seem to conform to most definitions of "good" poetry: so show me, those of you in the know, what new definitions are being advanced.