Saturday, September 18, 2010

bad. review.

Ruskin did more than write big books critiquing Renaissance art & architecture; he was a pretty busy critic of his contemporaries, as well, issuing a number of volumes of “Academy Notes” which assessed each year’s offerings from the Royal Academy. And he became quite an influential critic, more than fond of puncturing established reputations. Punch ran a brief bit of doggerel as a “pathetic lament of an Academician”:
I paints and paints,
Hears no complaints
And sells before I'm dry,
Till savage Ruskin sticks his tusk in,
Then nobody will buy.
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.

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 ├╝ber-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.


Thom Donovan said...

Hi Mark. Thom here. Thom Donovan. I don't mind my full name being used. In fact, I thought my blogger profile would show up under Michael Tracy Thurston's post. Indeed I *was* outing what I took to be a complete lack of responsibility shown by someone who holds a significant degree of power within the academy. I did not recognize my relationship with Dottie because I felt it was beside the point, and something that people would have discovered on their own had they followed my blogger profile. In other words, it would have taken away from the rhetorical effect of the comment. That you use my first initial and then recognize my marriage to Dottie in this age of Google actually seems a bit disingenuous and insincere. That said, if anything good can come out of this exchange I hope it will be that people such as Associate Professor Thurston will think twice about disguising hate speech as criticism in the future. Best wishes, Thom Donovan
PS: if you would like to read a brilliant exposition of Dottie's work you may check out Robert Dewhurst's essay in ON Contemporary Practice vol 2. Highly recommended!

Archambeau said...

Saying "I thought my identity would be known" and also saying "I didn't want to draw attention to my identity because if people knew who I was they wouldn't think I was being objective" could also be called a bit disingenuous, there, Thom. I mean, I respect that you are in a tough spot -- you want to defend someone you love and whose work you admire, but you find you are not in a disinterested position. It's difficult. But I'm not sure I can get behind your shot at Mark for disingenuousness, since the pot does seem to call the kettle black.

I should point out that I am in no position to judge the review or your wife's work -- just this exchange with Mark.

I should point out that Mark and I are married, but not to one another.


Bob Archambeau

Mark Scroggins said...

Hi Thom--

I'm not entirely sure why I used your initial -- may just have been playful, given the whole game of anonymities being played here; but meant no disingenuity.

I'll check out the essay; you'd be well served to post that reference on the original review, as well.

Mark (MS)

Hermagoras said...

Oh come on Thom Donovan: the review isn't hate speech; it's performance, a kind of deliberate rant. Of course, one might say the same thing about Lasky's poems -- that would put the excesses in context. But then, as Mark (FB and meatworld friend) points out, it's a good idea to make the terms of such excess explicit.

David Kellogg ("Hermagoras")

PS: You overestimate Thurston's power in the academy.

PPS: I'm married to Bob, but only in my mind.

Thom said...

I think you'll like it, Mark. Full disclosure: I co-edit ON Contemporary Practice.

--Thom Donovan
tadonovan [at] hotmail [dot] com

Anonymous said...


That review, scathing and misguided (in places) as it may be, is not "hate speech." You really water down the whole concept of "hate speech" when you apply it to something like that.

--A Reader

Matt said...

"he's clearly trying to make sense of what sort of aesthetic criteria within which Lasky is operating"

I sincerely doubt that. If he seemed interested in learning something, I would have been nice. I would have patiently tried to explain what it is I like about her work, and let him think about it. Well, he just doesn't seem interested in thinking, only in being a jerk. And I'm surprised to learn he's an English professor—he really does seem ignorant about poetry!

E. M. Selinger said...

Hmmm. Of two minds, here.

On the one hand, I completely agree with Mike--I don't see any evidence that MT is "trying to make sense of what sort of aesthetic criteria within which Lasky is operating." I've spent a lot of my life as a critic trying to make sense of aesthetics that I don't initially "get," and I don't recognize any of the signs of that effort in the review.

On the other hand, I don't see much in the review that suggests MT is "ignorant about poetry," although that may simply signal that we share the same ignorance. (I've been out of the loop for a while; who knows what you crazy kids are up to these days?)

For what it's worth, word of Thurston's power hasn't reached me yet, so perhaps it's not as great as all that. And, frankly, if Lasky's had a "brilliant exposition" of her work published already, she's been luckier than most poets. Perhaps that luck will outweigh whatever negative impact this review has on her work and her career.

Anonymous said...

You little tiny nobodies will never stop swarming out of the woodwork, will you? I have loved great poetry all my life, have set the bar as high as I could, slaved and revised endlessly, only to hear from those of you who will never take the art seriously enough to rise above a certain competent and severely boring and discouraging sense of instant oblivion, while you try to have it both ways--save your lives, and offer them to art. You can't do both. There are no more tirades from me--and so what if there are. I have written and am writing, for four decades, work that can stand alongside anything being written by anyone in this world today. You ought to have a little respect, whatever you think of that work. You are hardly in a position to talk down to me, your fucking hellbent on being utterly forgotten worm. FW

Anonymous said...

Can someone hook up a breathalizer to Franz Wright’s computer?

Archambeau said...

"FW" is really Franz Wright? Then my question is this: in what way has anyone here attacked Franz? I mean, he seems to think he's been jumped by a bunch of "nobodies." But on what basis? Unless I totally missed a Wright reference, this is the Hermeneutics of Narcissism ("everything is about me") in a particularly embittered form.

Claude Levi-Strauss described a kind of thinking in which someone walks around with an excess of emotions, just looking for something to which they could be attached. His term for this was "pathological thinking." It looks to me like Franz has been walking around with a huge sense of bitterness and aggrievedness, and has attached those feelings (through some pathological alchemy I can't follow) to this post. Kind of sad, really.


Archambeau said...

Oh, wait, there it is: Mark says some of Franz's writing is "unbalanced." Well, I think Franz sort of proved Mark's point.


Anonymous said...

MS: I'm trying to make sense as to the sort of aesthetic criteria you used in placing the Mirbeau visual under your 9/11 "half-way point" entry.

It would work quite nicely here. Just my 35 cents worth. ;)


Mark Scroggins said...

Q: that's one's easy. Criterion 1: completely forget that it's 9/11 & we're all supposed to be obsessing on the past; Criterion 2: find a "Torture Garden" graphic which isn't a) an ad or photo from the famous s/m nightclub or b) outright pornographic, but which is still kinda y'know creepy/erotic -- or maybe just exploitative.

Nicholas Manning said...

Hi Mark,

I'm not sure I entirely agree with you here, and have just posted my take on the issue at Michael's blog and my own. It is below. Would be very interested to hear your thoughts...


Dear Michael,

Negative or critical reviews are fine, even laudatory, but one must analyze! Don't you think? I am asking this question in good faith: I would be very interested to hear if your view of the critical imperative is somewhat different. In other words, isn't it necessary not simply to quote a relevant passage in support of a hermeneutical idea, but to analyze its working, at least somewhat, in order to support your claims. This is what I feel to be rather absent from your engagement here. Mark Scroggins has noted that you are "clearly trying to make sense of what sort of aesthetic criteria within which Lasky is operating". This is the claim I'm not so sure about! I say this with good will, and am trying to get at the core of the critical problem here, so let me explain.

My personal hypothesis regarding Lasky's collection is very different to yours, namely: of course Lasky is playing with a variety of lyrical and rhetorical personae! Though I of course respect your right to your opinion on this Michael, it worries me greatly that you have in no way analyzed the passages you quote here as evidence for your opinion that Lasky is demonstrating a singularly transparent or unselfconscious use of language: that she is, in brief, utterly unaware of the irony or proclivites of her own ambiguous speaking position (or the respective positions, in the plural sense, of her interlocking masks). This absence of textual analysis in your piece seems to me a possibly egregious error. As what you take to be unwarranted hubris and energumen seems rather to be an explicit playing up of established tropes and conventions.

Put differently, I feel that what you take to be unwarranted hubris here is quite clearly ironical and rhetorical play. I wonder Michael at how you could so quickly presume this tone to be non-equivocal and didactic, when there are so many textual markers which point us to the amusing game Lasky is playing here regarding notions of poetic address.

In any case, let me very briefly attempt to do Michael what you do not do here, namely: give an appropriate analytic account of the rhetorical functioning of these lyrical subjects own positionings and self-definitions. Here is the offending passage from Lasky which you quote:

I am a great woman, I have the wiles
That make the poet
But I am also gentle
And when I kiss a man I really mean it
Have you felt this too, upon my kisses
That I gave you in the nightsky
As your eyelashes hung over the moon?
Or were you too young to see it too,
My little feverish butterfly

Firstly, do you think "Lasky" 's statement "I am a great woman" here is truly to be taken at face value? Surely not! Do you not think that it perhaps echoes and plays with certain established forms of rhetorical and poetic address from Romanticism on, and may thus rather be read as being in direct opposition to the ecstatic consecration of poetic utterance present in Baudelaire's journalism, Coleridge's Biographia Litteraria, etc.?

Secondly, I believe it is rather clear that the ethos or persona of this voice is explictly playing with established gender biases and representations, more specifically regarding the common definitions of a female poet or "feminine" language generally (though a "great poet" I am also "gentle" and passionate as I "kiss" men etc). We are thus made to reflect on the pertinency of such a misogynist view of poetic identity, and the ambiguous interplays this introduces regarding the status of such poems' self-conscious declarations.

[. . .]

Nicholas Manning said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicholas Manning said...

Hi Mark,

I'm not sure I entirely agree with you here, and have just posted my take on the issue at Michael's blog and my own. Would be very interested to hear your thoughts...

Mark Scroggins said...

Without revising the original post, I bow to others' better readings, & amend

"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"


"His review of Black Life is an ill-disposed savaging, but it stems from a radically different set of aesthetic criteria than those under which Lasky is operating. And none of his commentators are much interested in setting him -- or his readers -- straight on the specifics of those criteria."

David (Michael) Wolach said...

What's with the anonymous reviewer obsession? Mark with yr T's, this reviewer--whose review I haven't read yet, might not, as this rather bores me. More interested in writing on Lasky's aesthetic practices, which I have done and, in point of fact, she has herself, better than I.

Also, the negative critique, especially when poorly done, breeds further closed-minded bs. Of course especially when coupled with anonymity. This, I think, is why the blogs that tend to be well-trafficked tend often to like these games and accept anonymous reviewing, commenting, etcetera. It's rather like watching a car crash.

In full disclosure Dottie & Thom are friends of mine. I don't know either the reviewer, the review, or most of you, tho know yr work, Mark, & work by some of the other fine poets here. & in full disclosure, I have less of a problem with the charge of hate-speech, even if it turns out to be too strong, than I do the anonymity. Once after anonymously attacking something when I was a punk kid, my bio teacher, who like much of my family who got here, was a Holocaust survivor, said to me, quite rightly: if you are going to say something, always put your name on it. And I knew where she was coming from.

David Wolach

Mark Scroggins said...

The "T---" was sorta a joke. Not a good one, clearly.

Your final remark on anonymity may be the most pertinent thing said here so far.

mongibeddu said...

Anonymity while hardly a neutral device, has no single ethical implication. It can be a mask for bullies; it can be a retreat from surveillance. And many other things as well. In the vortex of history, proper names can themselves become a form of anonymity, witness the queries that occasionally turn up for biographical information on authors known only for the work they signed.

It fascinates me that anonymity is never criticized with regard to positive reviews, only negative ones. Our objections to it in the latter case--and I certainly include myself among the objectors, though I've also, in the past, been objectionable--is intimately tied to a belief in punishment and/or discrediting. We want to stigmatize those critics as well as answer them; or else we want to answer them, not their arguments.

To my point of view, nasty anonymous reviews are indeed pathological, but it's a social pathology, one we all tend to share in. And no, I don't have a fuller diagnosis, let alone cure.

Ben F.

David (Michael) Wolach said...

Hi Ben,

I don't disagree with you at all. I think my point implies the non-neutrality of anonymity. It's also making the small "a" argument about negative critique/blogging and anonymity, and what I've noticed to be a trend in the coupling of these.

Of course there is anonymity and anonymity. And anonymity. And so forth. Anonymity, by this I mean (here) giving direct cues as to what can only be quantitative (problematic, but this is what google and blogging amount to) identities of the individual by way of some form of overt signification that can then be used to address the reviewer while knowing something about what the reviewer's aesthetic positions are--whether, e.g., the review is largely ironic or underhanded or whether it is an honest even if rather nasty review. So the proper name here is not an indication of any deep identity--it hides as well as makes perceptible. I agree with that. And so for me "Thom" above is not an anonymous note. I can easily press the link to his name and know it's Thom Donovan. And read his reviews etc. And this is helpful to forming an albeit surface, yet a bit more informed, sense of how to address or approach. Of course that doesn't remediate the negative--all I can say there is that's not my thing. I don't think that should be criticism's function.

Identity formation and the use of even the proper name as biopower, as point of subjugation, these are important points to make, but here I think besides the point (where here, I mean the review Mark links to) is indicative of a phenomenon that is nearly always coupled with the negative, the put-down, etcetera. I think we don't often mine anonymity per se because a) the anonymous positive review is not currently a widely performed practice and b) in poetics we get there in round-about ways via discussing identity(ies), agency, and use value--of course starting with the death of the author and then going circuitous isn't necessarily a great way to discuss what I take to be an important and beguiling question: how does anonymity function in various contexts, and why?

I think on the blogosphere--on Silliman's blog, eg--it's just rather plainly obvious what's happening with the anonymous postings, often accompanied by aggressive self-identified male comments. Motivation here doesn't seem particularly complicated. Perhaps its underlying social structures are, but viz. intention, I don't think so.

--David Wolach

David (Michael) Wolach said...

...sorry, ran out of space:

so to sum, yes I do think it's a social pathology, one I was trying to point to. But this point is--yrs--is also complicated by the problematic I mention above. We could stand to start with why/how this occurs in, to use LW's phraseology, the most simple language games, which, too, are not simple, but perhaps a place to start: Agambian power & the blogosphere would be my place of departure.

SMS said...

I would suggest that positive reviews might themselves be critiques, just as publishing is a positive critique of what is not there. This is here, and I like it, is another way of saying I am ignoring all that I do not like, or I am publishing these books because I do not see them available otherwise. A bit of a stretch, I admit, but I would rather intervene in a sometimes rancid literary scene by adding to it something I think valuable than by trying to destroy what I don't like. aloha, Susan

David Wolach said...

Hi Susan,

I think that's right-- there's no getting around that subjective aesthetic, nor, like you, do I wish to say "hell with it..." and dis-engage. I think Thom's "desiring criticism" (published in part on the old Harriet blog) articulates a position that the positive review is, by matter of choosing, a form of critique too, unavoidably -- but that like your position here, it says I'd rather spend the little extra (non-work) time I have publishing and writing about what deeply engages me. Which doesn't preclude criticism either, rather the simplisitc put-down. Long winded way of saying that I don't think it's a stretch, what you've written here.
Aloha, david

Donald Brown said...

Hi Mark,
I got to your blog through the comments on Poetry Pill, and, as the "sympathetic soul" alluded to in your initial post, just want to clarify that my question was asked in the spirit in which MT took it: not "if you didn't like it, why did you bother reading it?" (your paraphrase), but asking for more context (as in: you were asked to review it? it came highly recommended by someone you trust? you were thinking of assigning poems from it for class? everyone's talking about it? etc.).

About the discussion here: Hermagoras is very sensible in noting that "the Pill" is a performative blogspace; it's a place for MT's musings and bemusements. The use of initials or anonymity is actually a way to keep comments on such a site from carrying the full professional weight of what one would say in a publication or classroom. I'm sure if MT had reviewed Lasky in print, with his name attached, he would've been more circumspect.

And on that topic: I think MT would agree with me that there are many things one may not like, or even detest, that one feels obligated to teach because of their importance. Gertrude Stein comes to mind, in my case. I can assign her work and discuss it even though it's not work I would seek out to read for my own pleasure. But, in my own person, on a blog, I reserve the right to say what I feel about it. In MT's case, "the poetry pill" is a persona that is used to be more forthright than one can be in print or in the classroom, primarily for the sake of entertainment.

That Lasky's husband was offended is unfortunate, I suppose, but it seems to me that his defense of the poetry indicates that her work is intended as risk-taking and unique, the kind of work that should make us recall all the times when an artist outraged existing tastes. If so, he should be glad her work is making some critics, at least, angry or irritated. And if he's irritated with their irritation, well, that's simply not allowing critics the leeway to step away from the polite conventions of reviewing and invent for themselves a site and a persona to air their irritation.

MT read the book at least (and, as he clarified for me, he didn't have to!). I haven't, so my comments were restricted to what was quoted (and that jacket copy which, to reference MT's Pound reference, isn't as well-written as good prose).

Donald Brown said...

Hi Mark,
I got to your site from the comments on Poetry Pill. Just want to say, as the "sensitive soul" you mention in the post, I asked my question in the spirit MT took it. Not "if you didn't like it, why did you bother reading it?" (your paraphrase), but for context (were you asked to review it? was it recommended by someone you trust? were you considering assigning it in class?, etc.)

Hermagoras is sensible in noting that the Pill is performance space for MT to air his views in a manner different (more casual and entertaining) than he would in a published review with his name affixed. Rather than "anonymous hate speech" as some have said, it's simply the difference between speaking in one's professional persona and speaking a bit more "off the record."

When it comes to teaching, it's possible, even mandatory at times, to teach something objectively (because of its importance) that one is less than enthused with. And also to review with an eye to what critical opinion says, rather than go with one's own gut reaction. But if, as Thom says, Lasky's poems should put us in mind of all the times when art outraged existing tastes, then gut reactions might be all to the good. In any case, it's disingenous to say a poet is trying to offend canons of taste and then be offended that a critic/reader is irritated.

MT read the book at least (and, as he clarifed for me, he didn't have to!); I haven't, so I restricted my comments to what he quoted and to that online blurb (which, to borrow MT's Pound ref, isn't as well-written as good prose).

Mark Scroggins said...

Thanks, Don. Sorry to have misparaphrased you. And "sensitive soul," in my lexicon, is not a put-down.

Fuzz Against Junk said...

I saw Lasy read two weeks ago. I was disappointed.

I became interested in Lasky because of her poem-essay, Poetry is Not a Project. I went to the reading hoping that her poems would celebrate the lyrical in a way that made it seem fresh and exciting. They didn't.

I thought, "Perhaps I'm missing something," but forgot about her poems until I saw this blog post. Then I went and read some poems online. Now I know I'm not missing anything.

However, it is interesting what you have said Mark, about there being no negative reviews of poetry (at least beyond the the examples you identified in your blog post). Recently, I searched Coldfront Magazine's database to look for the lowest rated books possible. I found two or three, and they were just as mean as MT's review. Interestingly enough, I found no books (or very few anyway) that had received a rating of 1-5 stars. Everything seemed to get six or more stars, but rarely more than eight. What do you make of this?