Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 35, November 2013—Reviews Issue)

Charles Bernstein
Off-Key Poetics

If you say my singing is off key, my love

You will hurt my feelings, don’t you see, my love?

I wish I had an ear like yours, a voice that would behave

All I have is feeling and the voice God gave

You insist my music goes against the rules

Yes, but rules were never made for love sick fools

— Newton Mendonça / Antonio Carlos Jobim, tr.
Gene Lees, “Desafinado” (1958)

What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

In my parallel universe, the goals of the critic of poetry are to find and put forward poetry that has the most resonance, that transforms the art of poetry for the ever-transitory contemporary moment, that connects the work at hand to other works, historical and contemporary (no poem is a paradise or purgatory entire unto itself), and that articulates the work’s values and histories (real and imaginary) as particular and contestable rather than universal and assumed. To challenge the complacent and merely competent and encourage the untried, radical, unexpected, impossible, odd, and pataque(e)rical.

Never underestimate the value of disruptive invention or of assimilationist refinement.

What’s your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books? Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews?

I am troubled by the lack of context in the routine reiteration of this question, which takes on a disciplinary odor. I’d welcome more negative commentary on what deserves it and vice versa.

But it don’t usually work out that way, do it?

My motto remains, should never say should should you?

I’ve gotten many positive reviews and prefer those to the negative ones. Some of the negative reviews have been substantial, engaging with problems that my work creates or its far-too-many-to-enumerate failings.  But more common, the negative reviews start from the premise that the work is not poetry but noise, and fundamentally unworthy, if not fraudulent, or hypocritical.

Sometimes it seems like the official verse culture enforcers (OVCEs) have as their modus operandi going after any bodies (of work) found alive and kicking:

Undeadom abhors a resistance.

Still, the OVCEs to fear are not the one out to get us but the ones in ourselves.

ControversialVerse provokes controversy more than ConformingVerse (keeping in mind that the controversial at first quickly becomes the conforming at second).

Most of the debates over the lack of negative reviewing are a symptom of conformist culture’s desire to enforce conformity.

The contrarian provokes controversy, nonetheless the tabloidization of poetry “news” has the same problem as any other type of tabloidization (we may enjoy it at the time but are left hungry (and without respect) in the morning.) 

The problem with many poetry reviews is not that they are positive or negative but they are not aware of (or naturalize) their assumptions, that they are written as if the style and form of the review was less significant than the style or form of a poem, and that they desire to say very little.

How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?

There can never be too much poetry; is there too much prose?, too much music-making? But there is a glut of articles saying there is (or claiming or refuting claims that poetry ain’t as it good as it used to be). At the same time, there is always a shortage of poetry that goes beyond the given, poetry that changes the terms of what poetry is or what it could be while opening up new vistas of consciousness for readers and nonreaders.

(I’ll tell you what there is too much of: poverty, incarceration, Republicans.)  

What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?

Do not retell in mediocre prose what has already been done in good poetry.