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

Raymond McDaniel

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

Sometimes stating the obvious takes on a sublime necessity; sometimes it’s just stating the obvious: different critics want different things. I’m in no hurry to judge those differences, because the more critics there are, the more options for utility I have as a reader. I do think a critic shouldn’t be disingenuous about whatever they happen to want, however. For example, don’t pretend an interest in, say, “rigor” when what you really want is dominion over all the beasts of the field. All kinds of critical desires can be forgiven, but not if the critic assumes the reader is too stupid to discern the very thing that powers the critic’s point of view.

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?

Anyone who clamors for more negative reviews but who does not write any has an ax to grind, but doesn’t want to sharpen or wield the ax themselves. I have written a handful of reviews no one could ever accuse of undue mercy or generosity, and I regret them – not because I think I was wrong so much as I don’t see how I advanced anything of value by way of that negativity. Poetry is weird in that every criticism of it, in the general or the particular, is inevitably correct; there’s no perfectly defensible poetry, no poetry immune to the legitimacy of complaint. But it is also weird in that the poem endures criticism wonderfully well, for no love of any given poem can be compromised by someone’s hatred of it. Poetry! It’s like origami with sheet metal, delicate, indestructible.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

Any one critic overlooks most everything. We can’t help it. I’m a lower-tier critic and even I get sent so many books of poetry a week I could press them into a shed in which I could store the previous week’s worth of poetry. Then there are the books I don’t have time to find out about at all, because I’m trying to read the ones I’ve just received, and when I do find out about them, it comes at the expense of journals and performances and who knows what else. This is why I resent the critic who seeks dominion over all the beasts of the field, because I think that critic wants to turn this variety into monotony. That degree of monotony would certainly ease my reading life, but it wouldn’t enrich it.

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

When I despair of the act of criticism altogether, I return to Manny Farber, who somehow managed to make despair a useful aspect of his criticism. But I don’t really look to emulate anyone, because if that critic existed, I would quit what I’m doing and read her instead.

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

See 1, 2, 3.

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

Before I would give advice I would express gratitude. Thank you for reading poetry and thank you for writing about it. I owe you; we all owe you. As for tactical advice, well, every critic finds their own way to hell, but remember this: if you are going to hell regardless, you might as well go on the strength of your own sins and passions and tastes and thoughts. There’s nothing to be gained other than the chance to share and to be increased by another’s willingness to do the same, so make sure what you chance is yours. The most effusive review doesn’t matter if the subject knows the praise is tactical or impersonal, and the reader is even better equipped to detect chicanery than the poet. Even if the truth you tell is only one of many possibilities, make it one a reader can trust.