Thursday, December 07, 2006

C. Dale asks a very good question, or anyway one I used to ask myself all the time: What is the point of poetry reviews. (He also prompts me to clarify my remarks about popularity in poetryland, which pace Yeats at Swinburne's death, I'm perceiving to be more a wilderness of coyotes than a city of cats.)

I used to write music theater book and movie reviews in high school and college because I thought I had something to say about aesthetics. In truth at least as big a part of it was to create some other me, or to (hope against hope) transmute my insecurity into excitement. It went okay, thanks.

But when I got to poetryland, the reviewing... what was it? What were these globs of hundreds of words with no points of reference, no quotations, no contextualization. Who were they for? Certainly not me. They sounded (and most still do) like incomplete semi-sincere declarations of support. Positive sounding, but without the substantiation that might actually transmit enthusiasm or even interest.

Oh there were entertaining blips of meanness here and there, but even in those rare events the thinking, the argument that might explain to me why exactly X or Y might risk looking like a dick... non-existent.

I don't blame the critics, or anyway, I don't think poetry critics are as a category of necessity inferior to music critics, say, or movie critics. What I do think is that the base, the collective knowledge of the field, is way too diffuse, that there are way too few people talking about the same books. I haven't even seen the '06 Louise Gluck book, for example, and I'm doing my best to look at everything that comes down the pike.

So, why is the base diffuse? Because there is no money to be made from selling books of poetry, the story goes. I guess. I used to hear a lot that publishers kept poetry on their lists for the prestige. The review and publicity copies of any given title even from the bigger houses are usually counted in the dozens, though. And everybody knows about how often poetry gets reviewed in the big papers.

So, without a base to work from, the poetry reviewer has what to fall back on exactly? Conversations with friends, the imprinted biases of education, a handful of subscriptions to journals... journals clotted with vague, semi-sincere declarations of support.

You write something, you want a response. A review is a response in public, public correspondence from a reader to a writer.

I'm not going to differentiate between reviews and literary criticism. No offense to the legions of professor critics. There are plenty of goons who (still) believe theory or modernism invalidated criticism for good. It's a prejudice I don't share.

I write poetry reviews to identify for myself what in a given poet's work makes me want to keep rereading them. I'll read anybody once. I find reviews excruciatingly hard to write, by the way. I love having written them. Or maybe I just love having an excuse to read everything. Anyway, I'm almost finished with another one. It's killing me.

Jordan - #




I'm Jordan Davis.
I write a lot.
I mention it here.

Say hi: jordan [at] jordandavis [dot] com.

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