1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?
I’ve come to a very simple sense of what those goals might be. I think a good critic shows only what is there in the poem to be seen. There is such a threat, I think, in how the intelligence of the critic can try to overwhelm the fact of the poem and the poem’s gift, and what should be an exercise in radical sympathy, becomes instead a pantomime of cleverness that uses the object of consideration as the cause for its own ruse. A good critic demonstrates, over and again, what it is to think within the poem’s thinking—an act at once humble and generous. Such a critic merely gives us what is there to be given, not a work of judgment, but a work of vision. “Here is what the poem teaches me to see. Can you see it?” In this sense—and granted, it might be a very basic sense—the critic undoes the reader’s own hubris, implies that a poem is involved always in showing us some form of our own ignorance we are unwilling ever to admit to without the poem’s encouragement to do so. This realm is where one’s intelligence offers no remedy for the crisis one is in. Not the problem to solve, but the problem one is and is in. A critic then works on behalf of the poem’s own work, a gentle furthering of the same hopes, and so to do more would be to do damage, unnecessary damage, that in the end only deflects from us the necessary harm the poem is there to offer. A good critic shows us how to be hurt by what we read.
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 the positivity that gets me down, it’s the quality of how that enthusiasm manifests. I seldom see a writer work on behalf of the poem, and so one ends up reading a review as if it were simply some glimpse into the reviewer’s own taste or, worse, a hidden litany of aesthetic concerns the reviewer wants to promote. Flip the argument to its inverse and the same criticism holds for negative reviews. I suspect both sides reveal the same need—to find critics that are wholly indebted to the poetry itself, and in such a way that all personal concerns are turned aside. What that requires is nothing less than a critic who is willing to be, or appear to be, stupid—to work toward ignorance so as to read into understanding. Such work puts the categories of good and bad away for lesser uses, where such judgments belong.
3.What are other critics overlooking these days?
I don’t know if I know how to answer this question, not really anyway. I don’t think I know the field widely enough to say what’s being overlooked. My own blindness is too big.
4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?
I love those who are thinkers of poetry, often in poetry. I return to poet-critics such as Allen Grossman, Susan Howe, and Lyn Hejinian as touchstones of this work I’d also like most to do—a glowing touchstone, that illuminates even as it proves true. I’m also very taken with someone like Gilbert Highet, whose Poets in a Landscape is a marvel of critical vision in the sense spoken of above. I love a mind that lightens more than it discriminates—that is, gives light, that “lightens the burden.”
5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?
To put it plainly, I don’t try to keep up. I’m very wary of an approach to the field that totalizes, that systematizes, that tries to convince itself the ground of judgment resides in familiarity with all that has been written, rather than in what many of us sense but can’t admit to without feeling abashed—that we work in and for the love of the thing we write and study. I try to read what I love, or what evokes in me the possibility of the same. Lately, that involves reading many more new books than I ever have before—an unsettling feeling at times, but one that also shows what it must: whose actual company one is in. I also trust time to keep in currency all the worth I’ve missed by my lazy habits. If it matters, it will be waiting for my slow self to catch up.
6.What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?
Write about the books you love so that you understand better the nature of that love. Show what you see. Find other critical voices that manage to do what you would most love to accomplish yourself. Lastly, to remember that a review isn’t a demonstration of your own, nor even of the poet’s, but of the poem’s intelligence. A felt thing—that thinking. And a critic must make that thinking felt.