Here’s a kind and thoughtful review of Forever Will End On Thursday from Peter Stephens. As I said about the last review of the collection: “it’s wonderful, it feels tender and respectful – and nourishing – when someone pauses in their life to make a moment of stillness and focus centered on your poems, gathers their thoughts on the poems, and writes them down.”

Beyond that, there are two things I especially like about Peter’s review. One is that he makes connections, as they present themselves to his mind, between my work and others’ work. It’s not really important for the purpose of marking this feeling to whom, or how, these connections are made. Just the fact of connections is very good. It’s a nice and new (for me) feeling to be ‘situated’ like that – as part of a tapestry, a stream, a wholeness, a poemy aural bigness.

Which sort of contradicts the second thing I especially like about Peter’s review, which is a lonelier and more separate thing, but – I don’t know – just as whole, too. Which is where he says:

There’s a longing to connect inherent in the act of creation, but it can’t come on the cheap. Poetry that fails to take risks or that papers over the inherently difficult relationship between author and reader is rarely worth reading. I don’t expect those issues to underlie a newspaper article, but I love it when I feel it in poetry. I want to feel in poetry a kind of existential tug, a sense that the writer is on her own, the poem is on its own, and I’m on my own, too. Only then can the three of us work to build real bridges.

Here is a a Peter poem at Whale Sound and there is also where Dave Bonta made it into a video poem. You can also hear Peter reading someone else’s poem in this Whale Sound group reading.

poetry reviewing – do they do it differently in the UK?

I ask for a couple of reasons. One is a passing remark by UK poet Dick Jones, who recently commented on this blog in response to a whining post on poetry reviewing in the US, one of a few resulting in part from Kent Johnson on poetry reviewing.  Dick said: “Not true, by and large, within the UK poetry community. Whilst oblique strategies of critique might be employed – damning with faint praise, for example – flame wars are frequent.”  Which made me think.

Then there are the online chapbook reviews accompanying the latest edition of the UK poetry review/publishing journal Sphinx. If you skim through, you’ll see that a good number of these reviews quite matter-of-factly highlight negative aspects of the work they are reviewing as well as positive aspects.  This one by Liz Bassett, this one by Helena Nelson, or this one by Rob Mackenzie, for example.  Which doesn’t seem to be at all how we do it in the US as a rule.

Rob (one of a handful of UK poets who also frequent the US poetry blogosphere) has a post on the Magma poetry blog today recapping the recent US blogosphere discussion on poetry reviewing and seeking comment from Magma readers. I look forward to seeing what our UK counterparts have to say on the topic.

Maybe they’ll give us some ideas…?

Late update: Because I just saw this at Todd Swift’s Eyewear. Not about reviewing, but pertinent, I think.

Do American and British poetry ignore each other?

And if they do, is that good or bad?

Galatea Resurrects

Is all new with feast upon feast of poetry reviews and other delectations. I have a review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s amazing collection Harlot up, and don’t miss Tom Beckett’s interview with featured poet Reb Livingston.

This is my first published review and it took me on all sorts of adventures. Jill’s poems are rewarding material in that sense — they remind you deeply of things you didn’t even know you knew and send you scurrying off after connections and make you want to work out and connect with the ideas inherent in them. It was a lot of work but thoroughly rewarding on many levels.

Many thanks to Galatea editor Eileen Tabois for the opportunity and for the riches on offer once again.

the case for non-poetry-writing poetry reviewers (cont’d)

“So when Guriel wonders why it’s no big deal when movie or music critics pan movies or music, yet why it’s so rare that poets pan the work of their contemporaries, the answer seems somewhat clear: The fields of criticism in the other arts operate with a relative degree of autonomy from the fields of cultural production they critique (most movie critics aren’t directors, for instance), while poetry, poor sister, has no substantially independent field of criticism that shadows it. Or to put it another way, critics in the other arts can and do operate like writers for Consumer Reports, and they readily lambaste poor products in their purview; ladder-climbing poets inhabit the cubicles of the very industry whose products they would and should lambaste, but if they do, they know the whistle-blower tag may ensue.”

And lots more other good stuff in this letter by Kent Johnson in Mayday Magazine. The comments are just as interesting.

woe is us

“.. what we need in poetry are more people who don’t have a stake in it, more people who don’t know the people, the real people behind the words to care about poetry enough to write about it. This is true in every other field, it seems, but us. This is a problem because there is hardly any “demand” for poetry beyond practicing poets.”

Victoria Chang making an excellent point. When was the last time you read a review of someone’s poetry by a practicing poet that said: I consider this work weak, for the following reasons…?

Either people (and that includes me) say stuff is great, or they say nothing. I’ve been on a recent roll of ordering and reading chapbooks and collections by poetry blogosphere poets. Some of it is really good stuff and I have been and will continue to write enthusiastically about it.

Some of it, though, makes me go WTF?! and wonder what the publishing world and standards in general are coming to. I could defend my WTF reactions meaningfully and respectfully in reviews, I think, but I’m choosing not to. Choosing not to even begin to go there.

For snivelingly cowardly reasons, mostly related to my self-interest as an aspiring poet myself.

Woe is me. And us. Where are we going to get the critical feedback we really need, if we’re all so busy scratching each other’s backs…?

Related post here.

Galatea Resurrects

Woohoo! Just heard I’ve had a poetry review accepted by Galatea Resurrects for the upcoming issue, due out towards the end of the month.

Formal reviewing is a new interest for me. I was surprised by how much reading, work and thought and connection-making went into it.  I’ll write more about the process as I lived it at some point, but it did confirm one thing for me — that ideas in poetry are important to me, and their importance is not just a matter of intellectual apprehension. The intellectual apprehension feeds the emotional response. And vice versa.

Or something like that.


Many thanks to Richard Epstein  for this illuminating comment below on a distinction that has long perplexed me:

I think you have “critique” confused with “criticism.” It is a confusion which is epidemic on poetry boards. Even if you are right, and at a certain level of competence and sophistication, critiquing is no longer useful, criticism always is. Criticism explicates a poem, unfolds it, shows how it works and what it does, places it historically, places it in an author’s oeuvre. When we think of criticism, we are thinking of Eliot and Johnson and Jarrell and Brooks; they weren’t trying to help a writer improve himself. Theirs was a dialogue between the critic and the audience, not between the critic and the poet.

Critiquing is useful, but only at a rudimentary level. Our goal as poets is to move past critiquers to the critics; our goal as critics is to find poems worth, not critiquing, but criticizing.

Here’s an old discussion on the difference between critiquing and reviewing.

Here are the not-very-illuminating relevant bits from Merriam-Webster, for what they’re worth:

2: the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature; also : writings expressing such evaluation or analysis

: an act of criticizing; especially : a critical estimate or discussion
: to examine critically : review

6 a: a critical evaluation (as of a book or play)

(Negative) Critique/Criticism

As many of you know, I have huge repositories of wisdom on this blog from heads far wiser than mine on the Ten Questions and related pages. Each interview is a fascinating read of itself, but I am also slowly working on a cross-referenced index (in the column to the left) with separate pages, each holding the collective wisdom of the contributing poets on just one of the Ten Questions. So far we have Online Workshops  and the Role of the Poet and today, I’ve added a new one, (Negative) Critique/Criticism. This was based on No. 4 of the Ten Questions, which was:

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

Some respondents focused on Prevallet’s remarks concerning the inability of many poets to take criticism and how reviews/criticism are sometimes used to back-stab or back-scratch and advance personal agendas. Rob blames “the poetic ego, which is usually huge.” Scavella talks about the advantages to meaningful critique of anonymity and/or an absence of personal relations between critic and poet. Julie doesn’t see much changing with regard to the general sensitiveness of poets to criticism and Greg seems largely to agree, while Steve says that although poets may be sensitive, it is not always without cause, given the reviews out there that “blur the lines between commenting on the work and make ad hominem attacks”. Tony is my personal hero on this one, go read his response. Howard, Katy and C.E. Chaffin focus mainly on the formal literary criticism end of things and maintain the picture is nothing so dire as Prevallet claims.

I have to say that the referenced article is somewhat all over the place, as more than one of those responding remarked, but it seemed a handy jumping off point for Question No. 4, since it seemed to me to cover pretty much the full range of criticism – from the problematic of venomous and/or simply backscratching individual reviews of a peer’s work, to the big guns of formal literary criticism, which evaluates a body of work in relation to its broader socio-politico-whatevero context.

And the two are surely part of the same continuum and what therefore might be of concern - if I understand Prevallet correctly - is that the flaws and contaminants present (writ small) at the small individual end of things are bound to show up (writ huge) somehow at the larger collective end, to everyone’s detriment.

Do they?

Anyhow, go read the page.

Warmest thanks once again to the contributing poets. Yours is most definitely the gift that keeps on giving.

a book trail

I have Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God to hand. It’s been on my shelf for a few years now. What I want to write about is not it, particularly, but I’ll do that quickly and move on.

Much interesting about Rilke’s attitude to God at this period. In paraphrase: – You are not where or what I have thought you to be. I create you. You need me as much as I need you. And oh, what will you do when I am gone? You are my heir, my protégé.

He writes, and this strikes one as  signature:

I feel it now: there’s power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
my looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

Who knows what would have happened if I had read this at the right time? Which would have been, would it not, the time I bought it. But I almost never (that bad fairy at my christening) buy a book and read it. The burst of light and eagerness in which I buy, and that in which I read, always seem far removed from each in other in color, in quality, in intensity. With my books I have to squint hard - very hard, sometimes - to remember that first light, how first acquisition felt. So, puzzling over the presence of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God in my bookcase, I have thought a bit, squinted a bit, and reconstructed the book trail, the thought/feel trail, that led me to it. As follows:

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

Story of a high-powered female executive in the very early 20th century who throws it all in to join a Benedictine monastery, she becomes a Benedictine nun. This is where I first focused on the beauty of the Divine Office, in concept and execution, and on the Liturgy of the Hours, the eight of them: -Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.

Then China Court also by Rumer Godden.

A story about a story about a story of a strained, impoverished country house and a fabulously valuable Book of Hours.

Then (or before, or during?) - the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, that of a sudden sprang out of worn mumbo-jumbo meaningless back-groundness into clean bristling gleaming language. Suddenly, just like that.

Followed by The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark.

About many things, including and especially that language. The steadying, rallying bone-clean language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

And so to Rilke.

But, once again, the light in which I bought is not the light in which I read. I read it as rather thin,  now, and disappointing. Its appeal very intellectual. One is constantly presented with broad literal (if that is not a contradiction in terms) abstractions -  love, blindness, peace, wretchedness, loneliness, silence. As a reader you are asked to do a great deal of filling-in (fill in lonely, loving, wretched sensation here), but not in a bracing challenging way, just in wearying  draining way, at the end of the day.

Much spiritual shorthand, requiring the sort of brainwork that would be (one can easily tell) easier and more joyful and much more resonant were one in the proper spiritual place.

Which one isn’t at the moment, but, oh well.

Update: Thinking about it and realizing that St. John of the Cross and On A Dark Night should be in there too, somewhere. George Herbert and Henry Vaughan too, probably, if one were going to be properly accurate. I haven’t ever tried to map a book trail before. Better luck next time.

on poetry criticism

Check this out. A long article on poetry criticism (lamenting the state of) by Kristin Prevallet, from the April 2000 issue of Jacket Magazine, entitled: Why Poetry Criticism Sucks. It’s very long and presents a lot that needs thinking about (for me, anyway), but I extract the following four points, which she offers as her personal “two cents” about poetry criticism:

1) poetry reviews are seldom poetry criticism. They are usually fondling acknowledgments demonstrating likeability, and serve the absolutely essential purpose of keeping us sane. I write them, and will continue to do so, with pleasure.

2) criticism rarely gets written among people who know each other personally; as a rule of thumb, critics do not socialize with those they critique. The fact of the matter is that poetry has very few actual critics who are not poets, or who are not interested in socializing with poets. This is of course a problem, and means essentially that poetry criticism needs to be defined separately than ordinary criticism because it serves a very different function.

3) Poetry bantering and the inevitable personal repercussions are not poetry criticism. The poetic exchange is critical, but is not necessarily criticism; poetry criticism is a critique that takes into account the larger contexts – theoretical, social, cultural – that led to the production of poetry. The issue of whether poetry or a particular poet does or does not function within a particular scene is merely anecdotal; the real question is where does poetry intersect with larger contexts? Are poets willing or interested in forging that bridge?

4) It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed (ask Jarrell). For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal. Just ask anyone who has been in the ring of fire: even the grandest provocateurs of the EP's – people like Dale Smith, Brian Kim Stefans, Alan Gilbert, Henry Gould, Ben Friedlander, Dodie Bellamy, Juliana Spahr, and a host of others, including myself, who are opinionated when they write about poetry – can testify to feeling the pain of critique. Friedlander finally went underground, writing his reviews under a pseudonym. Gould launched such an assault on the poetics list that he was ultimately kicked off. Smith’s mocking sense of humor gets taken so painfully literally. Ultimately the general feeling among poets that I hear over and over again in conversations is the same: poets who make waves are annoying.

Thursday’s review

Is this some kind of diabolically clever satire? Or is it a bundle of repetitive and clichéd questions lacking any original insight or perspective? wild desires? ripping off of clothes? the fire that used to rage? the runaway locomotives of our lust? derailed and frozen in our Arctic hearts? Yeek.

Zimbabwe on Wednesday

Looking at Poetry International Web today, at this out of Africa, by Zimbabwean poet Ignatius T. Mabasa. His poems are originally written in Shona and what you have on the site are translations into English by the author himself. The translations are not word for word, nor are they meant to be direct reproductions of the originals, but are intended to function as original poems in their own right, says the site. Okay.

A lot of work still needed on all of these, in my view. I was struck by Poetry, though - mostly because every poet and ersatz-poet you have ever known in whatever country has a poetic opinion about what poetry is, which makes it an excellent transnational topic of poetic conversation.  And one which always starts: “Poetry is..”

Mabasa seems here to be defining poetry as the legitimate domain of the politically and economically downtrodden. Well, why not. Committed poetry. Collectively, we probably need it more than we acknowledge and surely someone has to keep feeding the committed base fires, somewhere, while the rest of us are not. 

That said, if I had the editing of this one, I would be pretty savage – I'd cut S1-3, 6 & 8 completely and draconianly tighten up the rest. That said, I find this scenario particularly appealing:

Poetry is an old man in dusty fields
A scarecrow, talking to himself
Poking the stunted
rapoko crop
And asking himself
‘What happened to the land
That the government redistributed?
Was it all taken by the news-reader
Because he got the news first?’

Miniporc on Tuesday

This, the next thing down the Bloglines feeder this morning, is charming, lots to like. I’ve been over it several times today and keep finding good new stuff. I like the short lines and clipping pace and the slant rhymes you keep going back to savor. I’m a sucker for religious references, and love the way the piece is pinned down by Judas-Lot's wife-Jezebel-Satan. Some super cool line- and strophe- breaks (favorite: I am tall//in my sins). A bewildering-in-a-nice-way array of really strong images that hint at theme-upon-theme and keep you going back to work them out. On the down side, some of the odder line/strophe breaks don’t work for me (you already know//this and the exact edge I’m//on (can see the thinking behind this last one, but it ends up too gimmicky for my taste)); and some obscurities that trip me up semantically and sonically (I am chrism/in the mouth.//Schlaf, Traum) and just seem to  get in the way. The last line is totally to die for. All in all: More, more!

Miniporc (cont’d)

Hm. Yesterday’s act of reckless self-endangerment  yielded some interesting fruit (in addition to a wildly crazy spike in the traffic of this humble blog, I might add). One thing I did this time was to focus exclusively on the piece I was looking at, without due regard for the person behind the piece — that certainly was ill-mannered and I do apologize for it.

I very much liked this thoughtful comment at the second link above, directed at the subject of criticism at large:

This is interesting. Situations like these always raise the question, “What should people be asked to expect when they publish or post their poetry?” Many people hold the firm belief that published poets should be prepared to see their poems subjected to harsh critique, because artistic endeavors that have been released into the public arena are fair game for both criticism and praise. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this position. I do wonder, however, why poets should really be asked to expect the sort of end-stopped evisceration of their work that occasionally occurs and, moreover, to greet it graciously when it comes. I think poets can well be asked to expect discourse, but a critique that answers its own questions does not really invite discourse. These days I tend to judge critiques, online and otherwise, by whether they sound like the beginning or end of a conversation. Otherwise, what use are they?

I liked this, too, from Julie: Each day when I write a review on WEE, I expose myself to potential ridicule. The act of criticism is a vulnerable one, a revelatory one.

Thanks to all who participated in creating this experience and in laying down food for continuing thought.