1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?
To produce a compelling piece of prose inspired by and commenting on a piece of poetry. I’m not sure I’ve ever accomplished this; few critics, especially poet-critics, do. It usually requires the risk of getting your criticism wrong to get your prose right. Of course Jarrell did this masterfully. And for all the horrors of what he writes, William Logan writes prose worth reading, even if he’s wrong about literally everything he says. Of course, a critic should also be putting poetry in context, or, even more, participating in an ongoing conversation with living and dead people who have written about poetry. A critic does not need to explain poems’ meanings, or say whether they are good or bad; that’s the job of reviewers, whose readers are anybody who happens by, and who are not necessarily concerned with the quality of their prose. Most of the writing about poetry that I’ve done has fallen into this category.
2.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?
It’s not a question of positive or negative: most poetry reviews written by other young poets who are new to reviewing tend to completely endorse the language of the poems, to sign up for it, to go so far as to imitate it in their prose, which is supposed to describe the poems, not aspire to them. Prose and poetry are two different substances, like water and milk: each has its own virtues and limitations. Too many poetry reviews blur the line between poetry and prose: the reviewers’ prose is written as bad poetry, which doesn’t make the poetry under consideration, whether good or bad, look much better. A reviewer or critic needs distance, needs to live in the sounds and structures of her or his own prose and mind, apart from the poetry. I fear that many poetry reviews are positive simply because the reviewer doesn’t know (yet) how to more fully inhabit her or his prose. Of course, there is no other way to begin as a poetry critic than to review new books of poetry by other young poets in literary journals. The trouble is that this is the lion’s share of the coverage poetry books ever get, and fairly few of these new critics keep at it and become mature critics, if only because there are few opportunities to get paid to write about poetry, and sooner than later one must earn money and put the kids to bed, and that leaves little time for writing reams of critical prose.
I don’t think we need to self-consciously work to spend more time shitting on bad books of poems. Purely positive reviews are often boring, mostly because of the reasons above, because the prose is boring. Criticism should do something to call out bad poetry, but I think the most important thing for critics is that they think of themselves as prose writers first, responsible for writing compelling, well-built, even innovative prose. If they do that, the rest will follow—they will attain the necessary skeptical distance from the books under consideration and not everything they say will be so positive.
3.What are other critics overlooking these days?
Again, their prose. And the fact that they are not ambassadors for particular ideologies or aesthetic camps. They should be reactive to the poetry before them, bullied by it, pushed by it into corners, into writing problems that their prose must solve.
4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?
Jarrell, of course. But Joan Acocella is a perfect example of what I’m talking about above. She writes about dance and books for the New Yorker, and whether or not you care about or understand dance or like the books she’s writing about, you’ll find her prose wildly interesting, full of all of these phrases that you’ve never seen the likes of, that are symptoms of a mind in rapid motion, reacting. She says extraordinary things like “It’s a species of sentimentality to assume that the end of something tells the truth about it.” That’s an aphorism, but she’s talking about the life and work of Primo Levi. Daniel Mendelsohn is the same way: he’s a classics scholar, but really a cultural critic but also a memoirist and all of that comes together, especially in his first book The Illusive Embrace, about the gay scene in Chelsea in the 80s and 90s, which is really a way of explaining nothing less than desire itself. Again, the prose is heavenly.
But I’ve also learned a very great deal from Stephen Burt, who is a friend and who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on the National Book Critics Circle and in other contexts, and watching how his mind burrows through poems and makes all kinds of unlikely connections has been deeply instructive. And he continually describes what’s going on right now in poetry better than anyone else.
5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?
We live in a golden age for poetry publishing. Yes, there is more crap than ever, but there is also far more incredible poetry than ever, due to a number of factors: relatively inexpensive print and e-book publishing; the Internet and social media, which enable poetry publishers to actually reach their small, disparate, but hungry audiences; the proliferation of MFA programs, which create both the supply and demand for many and varied books of poetry. Anyone who says contemporary poetry is dead or bad or up its own ass is a moron or simply trying to protect their little patch of the literary meadow. There’s more great stuff now than anyone has time to read. And the bad stuff is easy to spot and ignore.
I’m lucky because I’ve worked for a long time at Publishers Weekly magazine, which covers the publishing industry and reviews about 180 books a week; most of my job is in a business-y role: I’m in charge of our online and digital activities; but, a small percentage of my time is spent as our Poetry Reviews Editor, a capacity in which I assign and edit a dozen poetry reviews every month. My (anonymous) reviewers are grad students, young poets, and a couple of very experienced critics with whom I get to share an ongoing dialogue about what’s important in poetry now. So, I am able to keep up with all the books because most of them are mailed to me at work, and it’s part of my job to read them. I feel very lucky about that.
6.What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?
Focus on your prose, which should be at least as good and important to you as your poems. Cultivate skepticism, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone, otherwise you will always be on the poets’ side, which makes the prose boring. Write prose about poetry because you like writing prose (and maybe because you want to get more involved with lit mags you love, which is a perfectly valid reason). Start with little lit mags, get some clips, and then work your way up to better places. There are few opportunities to do this for money, but there are a few and if you stick it out you may earn them. But even at the very top, except in a couple of cases, it’s small money. I probably shouldn’t end with the word “money.” Good prose is good for poetry.