(Negative) Critique/Criticism

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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.”

I’ve read some terrific criticism that does advance these parameters – for instance, Robert Hass’s book, Twentieth Century Pleasures, although that book is full of criticism of poets he loves, so there’s not a lot of maiming going on.

But yes, there seems to be a lot of back-scratching and back-stabbing going on when poets review each other. The problem is the poetic ego, which is usually huge.

Newspapers these days usually have little space for reviewing poetry books and I can’t say the criticism often enthuses me. But it’s not easy to write reviews. I’ve done it several times for Sphinx magazine, and have felt the fear of tearing books (and, by extension, their authors) to pieces and, at the same time, not wanting to over-praise books that just happen to conform to personal taste. There has to be a balance struck between rigorous honesty and fairness, and a good critic should provide justification for criticisms. I think strong and imaginative literary criticism that isn’t afraid to say exactly what it means is vital for poetry as a progressive art form.

I think I commented on that above, when I talked about face-to-face and online workshops. I think, too, that Prevallet’s earlier observation — that “criticism rarely gets written among people who know each other personally; as a rule of thumb, critics do not socialize with those they critique” — is important. It’s one reason why I keep my personal identity masked on the web: I treasure the lack of the personal that that engenders. But I think that we must fight to advance the formal and the intellectual and the contextual anyway. The personal will take care of itself.

For as much as people like to say that they don’t fall prey to the magical “poem as heart” thinking, I think we all do it. Yes, an evisceration of a poem is more personal than an evisceration of a novel, because most of us believe that poetry is more personal. It’s all about that attitude, and it isn’t going to change.

Well, as long as our language is degenerating let’s admit that some critics are assholes. And some poets can’t take criticism, however constructive or kindly put. It bothers me to think criticism serves no purpose but to insult, and surely it’s not true. But I have lost my arms and legs in some deliberately maiming feedback sessions and temporarily lack the means to comment further.

I don’t agree. If you’re publishing your work you’re inviting criticism. If you care about your feelings more than about poetry, then write it as a hobby and keep it to yourself and your friends. If you publish it – especially in book form – you’re asking strangers to read it and even pay for it, and you’re putting it up for comparison with everything else. It is not the job of the critic to spare the poet’s feelings. Ars versus vita again.

Of course there are critics who have their own despicable agenda or who write merely personal reviews. That’s just bad criticism. But a critic, particularly in the contemporary field, is allowed to discuss matters which may seem personal because they are evaluating the poetry, and hence the world-view, of the poet. If they don’t, then they can only write in a descriptive way: ‘Poet X writes in such-and-such a style about this and that topics.’ Some critics do proceed that way, and sometimes that’s quite enough, and it advances the parameters of poetry, inasmuch as such things exist, by helping the reader to understand how a poet participates in genre, for example, or how word order contributes to a certain effect. But sometimes that sort of criticism can seem a bit limited, because the other job of the critic is to judge – to evaluate a poem or the values it expresses. And that, in the end, is personal. But I don’t know in what other way a critic is supposed to proceed, or indeed what else could be meant by ‘advanc[ing] the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry’, which sounds good but is surely the job of poetry itself.

Ain’t that the truth. Who knows why? I have a theory or two. Maybe some align themselves with factions looking to charge the next hill of publication. And any flak is considered enemy fire. You’re either with us or against us. Or maybe we’re just the sensitive type.

I skimmed that whole article, and it seemed too generalized to me, though I sympathize with the sentiments. In context, I think that statement is putting more of the blame on the poets taking things personally than on the criticism itself failing, and that seems at least somewhat reasonable to me. Poets are sensitive, perhaps oversensitive sometimes, and the po-biz world is small. I do see quite a few reviews, however, that blur the lines between commenting on the work and making ad hominem attacks, so it’s not a one-way street.

Having read Prevallet’s article and seen that she’s talking about formal literary criticism — neither book reviews nor workshop critiques of an individual’s work — I have to admit I’m not sure what she’s so upset about. In fact, there’s a great deal of very fine poetry criticism available by a number of poets and critics; I believe Rob MacKenzie mentioned Robert Hass’s book; I’d add a number of others, including Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry (Second Edition) by Stephen Dobyns, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo, and Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft by Tony Hoagland. Yes, occasionally, individual poets’ work is singled out as deficient in some way, but that’s hardly something that vitiates astute critical observation (except perhaps for the poet so singled out). I think Prevallet’s reaction is out of proportion to the actual situation.

I take the first sentence to mean that when people analyse and critique your poem, you might feel they’re dissecting a part of your life. To me criticism is just another kind of reading. If part of your intention in writing the poem was to have it read then it seems inconsistent to worry too much about how people critique it. After all, it’s only the opinions and reactions of those you respect that matter anyway. But I disagree with the general statement “poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry.” Good criticism helps make good poetry. Everyone can see who is making an honest attempt to advance poetry by giving fair, informed, constructive criticism. Sometimes you come across troll-critics who are gratuitously rude and unhelpful. These people are driven by feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. They too are easily spotted.

Oh, I don’t know. I read this article. It seems confused to me. She’s talking about a conference that had people like Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler at it, and also about workshops, and the internet. The part that did make sense was where she discusses the difference between reviews – which are where the backbiting happens – and true criticism, which assesses a work of art in relation to its context – cultural, social, political, contemporaneous.

Most criticism being written probably does suck: most of everything else does; whatever we do, we do it in the hope of producing one thing in 100,000, as with poetry, which might transcend the mass. This is as true of chairs or sweaters as it is of poems or critical articles. I love reading criticism, I always have. It’s a vehicle for the clarification of thought. It’s a vehicle for making connections and pulling significance out of confusion. I love it. I even read Helen Vendler; though she is rather limited and, as a friend of mine says, “has a tin ear.” And Marjorie Perloff was marvellously fisked a few years back, on a blog called Cuttlefish, for being unable to tell iambic pentameter from dactylic tetrameter.

I’m not an academic, and I guess I have little or no patience with the academicising of criticism, as with that of poetry. Or with the Poetry Wars. So-called “po-mo”, the problem is they’re po-faced. And of course a lot of poetry criticism being written probably does do the thing Kristin Prevallet says, but it seems a bit silly to say it all does.

Anyway I thought the article was sort of confusing, and its terms weren’t really laid out straight; but I think she’s asking for a more sincere and rounded dialogue in our critical thinking. I can certainly agree with that: even most poets are unable to place poetry in the wider context. I’ll counter your question with this one, from her piece:

We know all about the poetry wars, and we are suspicious of them. We’re hip to the Oedipus game and we’re steering clear of manifestos that attempt to set us apart from our “elders.” However, critical banter, whether or not it leads to intellectual wars, serves a scientific function. Schaefer and Stefans arguing back and forth is no different than physicists X and Y arguing over formulas of cosmic strings – a dialogue extremely important to the scientific community and interested stellar gazers wanting to listen in, but ultimately not relevant, nor trying to be relevant, to the general culture. Poetry moves forward in little spurts and starts, and certainly this kind of inbred dialogue has a very specific place in the loosely defined, but vibrantly confrontational, EP scene.

These conversations shouldn’t be swept under the already dusty poetry carpet. They should be enlarged and expanded to actually offer insightful commentary on the state of poetry, and to critique or articulate the larger forces that contribute to its production.

So the question for me is how can poets who think critically about each other’s work write criticism that makes culturally relevant those inherently specialized definitions of poetry?

C.E. Chaffin
Not in my essays. Search “Logopoetry” for instance; more theoretical than personal; my essays on Eliot inform without degrading; only my essay on Bukowski could be considered perjorative. Fundamental poetry criticism is interesting for its own sake. A friend of mine reads it more than poetry itself just for fun.

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