Still trying to get my ahead around an implied ethics of reviewing I've been dealing with since I ran Tim Davis's negative review of an Ed Sanders book over ten years ago. Ed didn't like that very much, and neither did several of his friends who wrote, called, etc. So when an editor enlisting me for a high profile gratis engagement speaks of the need for a more passionate criticism, or when I see Poetry devoting a chunk of its Chicago real estate to takedowns, my cussed wariness kicks in.
Surely the problem in poetryland isn't a lack of negative energy -- as ever, though, there's a general lack of interest in affect, specificity (or if you'd rather, immediacy), and telling enough of the story. Lots of interest in assembling story-bits, feeling-bits, and image-bits, and often enough, mosaics will do. But as Lessing will tell you, pastiche will never kick through-composition's ass.
The issue is that there is no robust national discussion of poetry. This is not a job to be left to the big papers, as good as it was to learn about Anne Winters' work from the Times. It can't be left to blandly centrist journals looking to regain credibility twenty to forty years after cred left the building. It could be something like Rain Taxi, or the Po Proj 'Sletter, or Poetry Flash on the one hand, a frequently-published broadsheet with at least twenty notices and three longer considerations each time. This hypothetical poetry paper of record probably needs to be as substantial as the reviews -- Verse, Chicago Review, Boston Review -- but with a more ambitious publication schedule, and without the emphasis on printing new work. (Of course, as per Gary's ideal book store, this could be online, or a print/online hybrid.)
So what is this discussion like, who is doing the discussing? I'd imagine it would be a mixture of the known and unknown, practicing poets next to concerned citizens next to faculty (some overlap in each case, I'd guess). It would be ideal for the roster to be fifty-fifty women and men. Demographics aside, though, it's not clear what these reviews will need to be like. Probably we won't have recourse to art magazine style, or notes about popular recordings, even though music criticism generally comes down to a series of excited quotations from lyrics.
A better way to put it: what kind of reviews are amusing to write, and to read? Or, what kind of reviewers get the readers. A critic whose MO is to respond to a book as to a laundry list of issues will take a lot longer to build up the necessary interest and trust with the general reader than a critic who prepares and argues a new thesis each time out. And this hypothetical new-thesis-arguer will be left way behind by the ax-grinders. Yes, I do see it as an evolutionary process. I'd want to see the ax-grinders take on regular assignments. Someone like Ron, who shows a great facility for turning an ax into a thesis on a daily basis, might enjoy a guarantee of one 2400 word spot a year, to synthesize his impressions into a definitive statement summing up all the definitive statements. (Not picking on Ron!)
This post has gone on much longer than I expected. Wish I had the scratch to back a project like this. I could do it tomorrow if I didn't feel strongly that reviewers deserve payment commensurate with their service to poetryland. Ahem.
Jordan - #