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.

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

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