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

Michael Leong

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

“Critic” comes from the Greek word krinein (to distinguish, to separate, to sort, to discern, to discriminate). The critic of poetry, in a basic sense, makes discernments. I like the model of Walter Benjamin’s immanent critique in which discerning judgments are based not on transcendental criteria or dogmatic values but on improvised criteria which directly unfold from the object of study. The critic of contemporary poetry, I think, needs to be extremely flexible and to have a great degree of intellectual mobility since contemporary poetry is so various and is aggressively moving into other disciplines.

More on these issues later…

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 true that a lot of new poetry books garner very positive—sometimes glowing—reviews. But there also has been a bit of negative reviewing in the poetry world in recent memory and one can certainly appreciate or question the value of that as well: Helen Vendler on Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology, Cal Bedient on conceptualism and I’ll Drown My Book. Whether positive or negative, the best reviews generate good discussions about poetry.

I write reviews that are largely positive and would rather not review a book at all if I felt that I couldn’t generate an interesting discussion from it. In a certain way, negative reviewing can be really predictable if we assume—and I largely operate on this assumption—that a lot, if not most, of poetry production is flawed or unsuccessful in certain ways. I think this is true of almost all cultural production; there’s simply a lot of mediocrity. But so what? Do we really need more people like William Logan? The more interesting issue for me is how to write something smart about all this production.

As a reviewer, I try to begin by giving the text in question the most sympathetic reading possible, to approach the poetry with an open and sensitive mind, to patiently figure out what the text is trying to do. I want to discern what is interesting, what can be placed into contexts which matter to our culture. I want, in the end, to have a meaningful dialogue with the author. In response to one of the first book reviews I ever wrote and published, the poet that I had reviewed wrote to me and said that I had identified things that he was utterly unconscious of but they were things that were perfectly true. Discerning those things and bringing them into view seems crucial to the activity that is criticism. And this type of sympathetic discernment animates the way I teach. Someone had once asked me how I teach a creative writing workshop and I responded that I teach like how I review books and only then did I realize how much those two activities were interrelated.

I remember sitting across from Billy Collins at a pre-reading dinner and hearing him say that only 5%—or was it 2%?—of poems ever written are worth reading. This strikes me as an extremely crude form of critique as separation. I countered that all poems were worth reading, and I think that Collins stopped listening to me for the rest of the evening. I think that an acute critical intelligence can brightly animate a text of the most horrendous quality and be the better for it. And I think even the worst and the most ill-informed student poems can engender valuable and edifying discussions. I’d like to think that any inscription, on paper or on screen, is an occasion to think about language and meaning, which, to my mind, is always worthwhile.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

Critics are necessarily fated to overlook almost everything. To anticipate question #5—there’s just too much out there to know for sure that you’re not overlooking something. According to Gregory Sholette, “The oversupply of artistic labor is an inherent and commonplace feature of artistic production.” In Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (2011), Sholette compellingly writes of a “dark mass of redundant cultural production,” a “dark surplus creativity” that sustains the global art world which, of course, privileges and highlights a select few. In borrowing language from astrophysics, Sholette identifies a “creative dark matter” which “makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society” and which “is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture—the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators.” Although it isn’t an exact parallel by any means, Sholette’s observations can be usefully applied to the poetry world as well: we tend to see and acknowledge the bright stars but not the “missing mass” of contemporary poetry. For critics of poetry, how to account for this “missing mass” in a meaningful and intelligent way is a pressing issue; whether one ignores it, denigrates it, or tries to bring it to light, it’s simply not going to go away. To give a brief answer: many critics, especially in the big publications, overlook poetry’s dark matter.

To shift disciplinary boundaries a bit—the issue of a “missing mass” (Margaret Cohen uses the term “the great unread”) seems to be connected to the critique advanced by the Big Data proponents in literary study—that is, our literary histories are skewed since we pay close attention to only a handful of canonized luminaries, such as Austen and Dickens, and not, say, to the other tens of thousands of books published in nineteenth century England. An astronomical and optical metaphorics interestingly crops up in this kind of discussion as well. Interviewed for a Chronicle of Higher Education article called “The Humanities Go Google,” Franco Moretti, one of the major proponents of large-scale digital literary analysis, likened Google’s massive digital library to the invention of the telescope: “All of a sudden, an enormous amount of matter becomes visible.”

I, myself, am a close reader; I like reading by microscope or magnifying glass, as it were, just as I like approaching books through different contexts (reading by periscope?). I’m not about to digitize the Poets House library and compare the amount of times poets used the words “we” or “our” two decades ago versus the amount of times they used them in 2011 or 2012—but that would be, I have to admit, interesting data to look at especially in light of Mark Edmundson’s controversial claim that “few are the consequential poets now who are willing to venture…‘our’ or, more daring still, to pronounce the word ‘we.’” What would it mean if the “missing mass” were venturing these pronouns while the “consequential poets,” whoever they are, were not?

I generally take a long time to review books—since I started reviewing for Hyperallergic in 2012, I’ve covered only 11 books of poetry, fiction, translations, and criticism for them (and published a handful of reviews in other venues)—which means, for better or worse, I’m missing out on a lot.

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

I’ve already mentioned Benjamin—I like, in particular, the ways in which he understood criticism as transformative. He says, “If, to use a simile, one views the growing work as a burning funeral pyre, then the commentator stands before it like a chemist, the critic like an alchemist.” I also like Benjamin’s sense of being “at home in marginal domains,” of “the willingness to push research forward to the point where even the ‘insignificant’—no, precisely the insignificant—becomes significant.”

As a poet-critic, I’ve always returned to the great poet-critic T. S. Eliot, particularly the early essays. I agree with his estimation that the activity of criticism is integral to the activity of poetry writing: “the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour; the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing: this frightful toil is as much critical as creative.”

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

As can be seen in my other answers, this issue has been on my mind a lot these days. I’m currently co-translating, with Ignacio Infante, Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Temblor de cielo and I’m thinking a lot about Huidobro’s poetics. In his more famous long poem Altazor, Huidobro says: “Matemos al poeta que nos tiene saturados.” That is (in Eliot Weinberger’s translation): “Let us kill the poet who gluts us.” That can certainly be a solution!

But in all seriousness—one, of course, can’t read everything though I think one should read as widely as possible (for Moretti, “Reading ‘more’ is always a good thing, but not the solution”). I simply keep up the best that I can. As I’ve mentioned above, any cultural economy depends upon glut, and the system of contemporary poetry would collapse without it. If you took away all but the high profile poetry stars, who would be left to buy the books, sign up for the workshops, go to the readings, or subscribe to the journals? Who would, for that matter, care about the reviews?

For the purposes of book reviewing—perhaps more important to me than keeping up or engaging with the massive onslaught of the newly published is recognizing the limitations of my purview and realizing the shortcomings of my expertise; I try to be careful not to make larger claims that can’t be supported or corroborated by a coherent and persuasive corpus. Mark Edmundson, in his, by now, well-known Harper’s piece “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse” (to which I alluded to above) made the spectacularly egregious error of over-generalizing about contemporary poetry without reading enough of it or thinking hard about the various forms that contemporary poetry currently takes. Just looking over his title again my eyebrow begins to rise: why the quick slippage from “poetry” to “verse”? Besides capitalizing upon the pun, why invoke slam poetry at all in this context?

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

I’m getting ready now to teach a class called “Introduction to Multimedia Composition,” which will focus on how students can effectively use blogs and curate their own work in an online environment. Certainly a good way to get started is to post one’s own critical writing on a WordPress or Tumblr site and to slowly build up a compelling portfolio of sample reviews.

As far as the actual writing—one needs to be extremely concise. Readers of reviews have fickle attention spans. One needs a good hook without being gimmicky or reductive. I find the length limitations of a standard book review to be quite challenging and prefer to indulge in the review-essay, which allows for some ranging around. This seems glaringly obvious— but one should get a firm sense of what kind of reviewer one is and realize that there is much variation within the genre called the “book review.”