Sunday 3 May 2009

A weakness of contemporary poetry criticism, and one poet-critic's suggested remedy

In the new online journal, Mayday, American poet-critic Kent Johnson considers why so little poetry criticism is critical in sense of finding fault. He comes to the conclusion that this is because so many poets are themselves reviewers and, especially when they are younger, they want to ingratiate themselves with others for the sake of their careers. There's no doubt the same thing happens in the UK. When last year I told another poet that I was going to be on a reading with a poet I'd criticized in a review, the response was essentially, "That's what you get for writing critical reviews." I couldn't respond at first; I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was supposed to write wholly positive reviews, even if that wasn't how I felt? Nonsense. I realize I take a risk that the reviewed poet will in turn write a disparaging review of my forthcoming book or deny me an opportunity, but that kind of tit-for-tat would weaken said review's weight. 

Johnson goes on to offer the following remedy: that journals reserve a portion of review space for anonymous reviews. Editors would need to discern whether it were simply a negative review, revenge, an ad hominem attack, etc., but I think the idea generally practicable. Mayday went on to obtain responses to Johnson's essay from a range of poet-critics, and Stephen Burt makes a point I've made before: If a review is going to be wholly negative, why give it the journal space? Why not use it for a book that deserves recognition?

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