By Tim Atkins (more).
The pleasure & the problem with poetry (review culture) is that we all know each other: most negative criticism seems to be taken as a personal attack as opposed to an aesthetic engagement. It is hard not to feel upset when a friend says something mean about one's book: & therein lies the problem. We DO need to have a culture where the issues of review & reflection are robust & we are engaging with work which leaves us unmoved or angry. We also need to be able to do this with some kind of generosity of intention & knowledge of where this lies in a larger human context. I think we can do this through right intention & seeing all of our writings as a serious form of play.
That there are many pompous, divisive & dreadful poets is obvious. The poetry establishment & media is populated by ignorant & parochial poets & reviewers who aggressively pursue a conservative agenda. It is always fair to tilt at such ridiculous windmills: but there is a difference between (1) stating the bleeding obvious about the fucking awful: these well-meaning (yet still-marginalized-in-the-wider-literary-culture) people need to be critiqued for their agenda & politics as well as their aesthetics—& (2) the entirely different job of engaging with our perceived peers (national & international) in a rigorous & honest manner. A good negative review, I think, should at least provide the author in question with some hard questions & the possibility of some options. Jean-Luc Godard was once in discussion with a critic (Pauline Kael) who had slammed his latest movie, & he ended the discussion by asking her to give him some suggestions for his next project (instead of her simply saying the work sucked).
The solution which works for me is to attempt to write reviews which play with the form. Recent pieces (all at onedit.net) on Jeff Hilson, Yasusada/Bernstein/Johnson, Miles Champion, & Gabriel Gudding all try to say useful things without slavishly or boringly blurbing the work. Clark Coolidge's Crystal Text started life as a review of Michael Palmer's Notes For Echo Lake. The great examples of creative & playful reviewing for me were the issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine where reviews were (generally) undertaken in a spirit of generosity, play, & adventure.
In the spirit of play & positive engagement I do think that there is a point to Dadaist positioning & offensiveness—but a distinction needs to be made between a critique of the poetry & the activity of the poet: it is of course possible to be critical of either or both. (Criticism is more easily done in the wider moneyed creative culture where reviewers rarely sleep or eat with their adversaries.) I don’t think it is a question of whether passionate / critical discourse should take place—of course it should—but how it should take place.
Amy Lowell said that publishing a book of poetry & expecting a response was like dropping a petal into the Grand Canyon & expecting an echo. It is certainly funny & at times useful to reply to the dropping of petals not with an echo but with a barf. There is, however, a difference between barfing over a book or in the face of the author.
For us all it is important to be clear about our aim (book or face) & our ultimate (let’s say good, playful, & serious) intentions.
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