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

Elisa Gabbert

1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

I think critics should demonstrate, by example, good reading, good thinking, and good writing. I don’t look at book criticism as a rating and recommendation system, like Yelp is for restaurants – I trust the masses to tell me where I can find a good burrito, but reading a book well takes a lot more time, effort and intelligence than eating a burrito, so I’m looking for something more nuanced and insightful in a book critic than a random restaurantgoer. (I can’t escape a certain elitism here, sorry.)

Further, “personal taste” (especially when it comes to poetry, I think) is idiosyncratic, so a piece of criticism should be interesting whether or not you share the critic’s taste, or have read or plan to read the book. (And generally, the more time and thought you spend on a book, the less looming the spectre of “taste” becomes. This is how high school students come to appreciate books they’d never read on their own.) Reviews that give more space to how much the writer did or didn’t like the work in question than to describing it usually betray laziness or prejudice against the author or style.

I’ll add that writing a book also takes a lot more time than making a burrito, and I think writers deserve better, more thoughtful criticism. Start by giving the author the benefit of the doubt – he/she probably thought about those choices more than you. I’m a writer; you’re probably a writer – when it’s your book, you’ll want a careful reader.

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?

I don’t see positive or negative reviewing as a problem in itself; I think the problem is that people write sloppy, ill-considered reviews and then other people do them the disservice of publishing them. A lazy, wrong-headed negative review seems more damaging than a lazy positive review – aside from its potential to hurt the book’s sale or reputation, it just validates people’s tendencies toward laziness – but I’d like to see a higher quality of criticism regardless of the judgment levied. Again, criticism should do more than just tell readers what books to pick up.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

You’re asking me to generalize, so I will, though not every critic does this of course: They are overlooking the opportunity to zoom in and talk about what poetry – at the level of the phrase, the line, the page, whatever – can do and does. There’s a reason some people write poetry and read poetry when they could be doing other things. Poetry criticism should show us what poetry, in particular, as opposed to other kinds of writing or art, is capable of (as well as point out ways it fails to do all it can). I’m much more interested in a close reading of a single poem than an overarching proclamation on a book of poems as a whole.

4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?

The poetry criticism I like most doesn’t fit under the rubric of “reviews” per se; I like critical essays that take the whole “is it good or not” question off the table, because the assumption is, if you’re spending this much time on it, it must be worth reading, even if it’s sort of bad. Lately I’m enjoying Mary Ruefle’s essays on poetry. Randall Jarrell, of course, is great. I loved Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent essay on criticism in The New Yorker. As far as plain-flavor poetry reviews go, I appreciate The Constant Critic.

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

I don’t perceive any glut in contemporary poetry. You don’t have to read all of it! No one ever complains that there is too much music. I read what I care to read and ignore the rest. Incidentally, writing criticism is a great way to keep up with new poetry, because people are constantly offering and giving you books. Also, I subscribe to the SPD emails. Also, I don’t finish every book I start, but it’s better to read a few poems from a new book and get a sense of it than never to open it at all. (Obviously, I wouldn’t review a book I didn’t finish.)

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

Mostly just read more – both more poetry and more criticism. Look for great, smart, articulate writers who love poetry and read what they write about it. Beware of any critic who seems more invested in asserting his opinion than describing the poetry. Read with a pencil, underline, make notes, dog-ear pages. One wrong way to write a review is to spend too little time with the book, to come to it with a closed mind or a preconceived idea of what it should be, and then write your review as a kind of rationalization of your kneejerk opinions. Another wrong way is to like it but have nothing interesting to say about it, thus filling your page with empty adjectives like “beautiful” or making weirdly aggressive statements like “I loved this book so much I wanted to tear off my own head and stuff the pages down the hole.” Don’t laugh, I see that a lot. Another way to put this is, only write about books that really make you think. If you’re not having thoughts, move on, or read it again and think more.