If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say It in Print: Scattered Thoughts on Criticism
Several weeks ago, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: Why not write a critique of criticism. I thought I would argue that the thumbs-up-thumbs-down approach is too blunt an instrument for poetry and that there seems to be a tendency for poetry critics to review the poet rather than the book, so that every review becomes an appraisal of a career.
I think because a poetry collection takes longer to produce and is perceived to contain more of the poet’s soul than works of fiction the author's, that reviewers are more apt to use the opportunity to assess the poet’s standing within the Tradition: Does the collection in question represent a step forward or more of the same? Has the poet come into his/her mature powers, or is he/she mired in perpetual juvenilia? One hit wonder or voice with resonance? Staying power or has he/she begun the short slide into that special fog of oblivion where has-been poets and child actors inevitably find themselves?
Well, I’ve been wrestling with the thing ever since: Every Friday, I open up the document, read it, delete most of what I wrote the Friday before, begin to write, think I’m making head way, realize I am mistaken, close the document, and scramble for something else to write about.
So for the sake of my wilting self-esteem, I am abandoning the effort.
Unfortunately, because it took me so long to make that decision, today’s effort will be even more slapdash and incoherent than usual. (In case you didn’t notice, I should point out that the last part was an awkward attempt at ingratiating modesty. You see, I’m trying to get you on my side by appearing humble, yet unbowed at the hands of an intractable foe, so that you will excuse me for the squalid writing to follow. It’s a ploy that people with the neurotic need to please everybody learn when very young).
I live by the motto: “When in doubt, lower readers’ expectations.”
Sure, it’s a soul-destroying strategy, but it beats the unemployment line.
Below, you will find a handful of books of criticism from the shelves of Harris County Public Library. I'll try to do better next week I promise, and as always, if you have any suggestions for future posts, or comments, please drop me a line.
Adam Kirsch is a poet himself and I think one of the better non-academic critics writing today.
The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry / Adam Kirsch.
The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath / Adam Kirsch.
Invasions: Poems / Adam Kirsch.
Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 / Richard Howard
Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays / Edited by Donald B. Gibson
Contemporary Poetry in America: Essays & Interviews / edited by Robert Boyers.
Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets / Henry Taylor.
Finally, what list of critics would be complete without the ubiquitous Harold Bloom--the man, the myth, the marketing juggernaut. . .
Contemporary Black American Poets and Dramatists / edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom.
Contemporary Poets / edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom.
Thanks to intrepid reader Richard D. for suggesting that Helen Vendler belongs on this list. As always, he is correct.
Photo Credit: Geoff Wilson