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.


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.

Critical Slough of Despond

Still in a very plastic hot-wax indeterminate sort of state about critiquing others’ poetry. Where I used somehow to be able to just march in briskly say oh, yes, this and oh, yes, that, I now don’t seem to be able to determine what this or that or anything else is any more.

Once a writer has got beyond the usual yeek-cliches-and-abstractions stage and has stopped obssessive-compulsive telling, once they have a good grip on the basics of the craft – what is there to separate one poet from another but the personal taste of the reader? We respond to what we read the way we are.

Critiquing others’ work now just seems an exercise in talking about myself. And a rather futile one at that.  


Criticism is a misconception: we must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves, as secretary-of-his-sensations Emile Cioran would have it.