"The negative review is a curiosity, unique to anxious enclaves like the poetry world. It’s not that people who review movies don’t say harsh things – they do. But when a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review ‘negative,’ and speculate about the reviewer’s motives, the agenda behind the takedown. Indeed, behind words like ‘negative’ and ‘agenda’ and ‘takedown’ lurks the sense that the reviewer is the one making the trouble and the book of poetry – whether it deserved a kicking or not – is being bullied. We’re far less paranoid about motives when, say, a movie receives a tough review in the New Yorker or Slate or Rolling Stone, even when we disagree with the verdict – even when we’re so outraged we fire off an e-mail to some editor’s inbox. This is because negative reviews of movies (and LPs, and TV shows, etc.) represent the norm, and aren’t usually labelled ‘negative.’ Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative.
Maybe poetry is so marginal, so fragile a commodity, we worry about kicking it when it’s already pretty clearly down. Whatever the reason for our anxiety, the negative review, when it appears in magazines like this, is often more of an event than it ought to be. But negativity, I’m starting to think, needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture, the default position she assumes before scanning a single line. Because really, approaching every new book with an open mind is as well-meaning but ultimately exhausting as approaching every stranger on the street with open arms; you’ll meet some nice people, sure, but your charming generosity won’t be reciprocated most of the time. What’s worse, a tack-sharp taste, dinged by so much sheer dullness, will in time become blunted (into blurb-writing, no doubt). When braving any new book of poems – particularly by an author you’re not too familiar with – it’s best to brace yourself and expect the worst. This needn’t involve cynicism. Indeed, you probably shouldn’t be opening the book in the first place if you aren’t, on some deep level, already hoping for the best – that is, the discovery of a great poem. But hope should remain on that deep level, well-protected, until the shell that shields it is genuinely jarred.
After all, how many volumes of new poetry, published in the last calendar year, will still be jarring us in five years? In one? Shouldn’t the negative review, if we’re honest and adult about it, be the norm? And if so, shouldn’t we retire the adjective ‘negative’ in favour of something far more accurate, if a little awkward, like ‘necessarily skeptical’, as in, ‘Man, William Logan sure has gone necessarily skeptical on that poet?’
These are not purely rhetorical questions. If you’re frequently having the top of your head taken off – Emily Dickinson’s description of what authentic poetry does – I’m glad for you. But you’re reading better books than I am. And Emily, too. After all, the gist of her metaphor, it seems, is that such head injuries are by definition exceptional. Rare."
-- Jason Guriel, March 2009 issue of Poetry; click here for full article
Note: the preceding does not necessarily represent the views of this blogger; it represents Jason Guriel's views and I have posted it here for the purposes of constructive debate, assuming that's possible. With apologies to the once and future Lemon Hound.
Pictured: Poetry staff checking to see if you're a simultaneous submitter or not.
Not pictured: Christian Bök on criticism.