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

Jordan Davis

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

One goal: to advocate for the art.

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’ll refer you to Karen Horney’s “tyranny of the shoulds.” The word sounds like a rocket launcher firing. No shoulds.

I try to look at the work in front of me and quote the extraordinary and representative parts, and to explain what in the work is attractive and what repellent. That’s enough, I think.

Other people have pointed out that most poetry criticism is self-assigned. (Most of mine is.) There might be more negative reviews if editors assigned titles. And more still if there were more independent auditors – critics not in the habit of publishing poems themselves.

I prefer to review books I find it difficult to talk about for one reason or another. If I’m not going to be paid much for my labor, at least I can have accomplishing something.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?


No but seriously. Mote/beam; judge not. I do try, in my reviews in the aggregate, to talk about the society, and the world, as a whole – half men half women, mainly from other places than here, hard-wired to want a wide variety of things in life only some of which I know about. Very few people in the world I know personally, and even them (especially them) I feel funny about judging.

I can’t say what other critics are overlooking. I do know the sentence I shout into the empty room most often when I read reviews is something like, “Where is your sense of proportion!”

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

My favorite critics when I was a kid were the movie critics – Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby, Janet Maslin, Roger Ebert. I read Lester Bangs when the Vintage collection came out, got angry at Robert Christgau’s report card every week, smirked at Peter Schjeldahl’s 7 Days and Voice reviews. I’m not crazy about the performative tendency that gets reviewers like Anthony Lane noticed, but I read those reviews too.

As for poetry. The New York School poets’ art reviews are pretty wonderful. I came to Randall Jarrell relatively late – I do see what the fuss is about.

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 had a job working for a professor that entailed reading huge volumes of poetry very quickly and deciding what was worth pursuing revising and what would be better left to the archivists. I look at all the review copies I receive and read maybe a third of them all the way through. The books I don’t receive that turn up in bookstores on my route, I stand and browse through and sometimes buy. The books I don’t receive and don’t come across in stores and don’t see reviewed or listed as received elsewhere? *shrug*

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

My history of giving practical advice is dismal. Better to do the opposite of what I say, which is: Read everything. Read the book you’re reviewing ten times and every other book by its author at least once. Write a draft of the review as soon as you’ve read the book once. Revise and expand the review after the tenth reading. Don’t read other reviews of the book until you’ve turned in your piece. Don’t be discouraged by how little response you get to any one review. Keep going.