Re: Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?

I think part of the problem with modern “criticism” is that much of it isn’t really criticism, not in the traditional sense. There are few critics today like T.S. Eliot (not going back too far), who wrote about poetry from the standpoint of a core philosophy he had engineered. I don’t particularly care for Eliot or his unpleasantly biased point of view. But he did have intellectual rigor when it came to criticism. We do have a few individuals, all parochial in the end of course, like Eliot, and academic, like Eliot–these are the drawbacks of such criticism. Helen Vendler comes to mind for one.

Unfortunately, even here one finds a kind of “kingmaker” apparatus, where the critic anoints those poets deemed worthy of “serious” consideration in our time. Less attention is paid to poetry in general, and the qualities that make it poetry, or (less often) great poetry.

Most of what passes for critique,however, is the “book report” capsule review one finds in literary journals and newspapers. Here, I fear, it is difficult to disentangle true criticism from the commercial process. Newspapers and magazines as published instruments have a natural incentive to favor books they can praise since these are books people might buy. Poetry is desperately undervalued in our culture and it’s the poets who are desperate. Desperate to be heard and desperate to be read. The poetry world is very small, insular and incestuous. Most of those who read verse also write it. Is it a great surprise that few are willing to be fully candid in their reviews? It’s far more expedient to be circumspect and political. It’s also easier, since the evaluative criteria are of course subjective, and few critics write from a core philosophy they can articulate, never mind defend. Knowing who your friends are becomes the one constant. Worse, those who resist this tendency often write with such scathing arrogance that their example hardly begs others to write negative reviews and join them on the “dark side.”

Clearly there is bad poetry being written. Every book contains some, or nearly every book. Some books, even by good poets, are nearly all bad. We all know about the complacency that afflicts the “major” poet in mid to late career, and the Emperor’s New Clothes effect, with regard to his/her work. The same applies to the latest fad offering from the latest “iconoclastic” hotshot. Unfortunately we have become so accustomed to our little world of vanity and desperation that we can’t tolerate the truth, only occasional ad hominem rants. Here’s to more integrity, intelligence, and rigor in criticism, but I’m not holding my breath.

(In response to Travis Nichols, The Poetry Foundation, Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?)

  1. pamela said:

    Very interesting article David and I can see what you are saying. I feel it is better to be critiqued honestly. I do see a lot of petting going on with some people. Just because of who they “think” they are.
    I being new to this form of sharing my poetry I want honesty. Even if it does hurt. My husband is a writer and he is honest with me and I wouldn’t expect anything different.


    • Pamela,

      Thank you for your insight. People are pretty close to the art they create, and for that matter, to anything creative or in which they’ve invested their time, passion and/or intellect. Still, gentle, balanced honesty is I believe the best policy, when it comes to criticism.

  2. Well stated David. As does your well attentive and considerate commentary via Read Write Poem. In truth your comments about my poems have at times revealed to me aspects I had sense for doing, yet no literal or studied language in that way. My poetic study is rather sparse, although I admire words and phrasing and their ability to express the invisible breath of our lives.

    Of criticism, especially in the negative, I think there’s just no excuse. Constructive and meaningful response, that is altogether different. And of course the environments of formal publishing and amateur communities like RWP have rather different standards too. My home, by deliberate choice, is with the later. The interactive quality I much admire and appreciate. I much agree with David Favier’s comments about poetry in this modern world. Formal publishing has less sway, maybe less import, while the infant on-line communities and publishing gain in how they relate to both writers and readers. Sound criticism in this new scene remains yet as well in infancy.

    All the more that your fine example is a light for all to appreciate and learn.

    • Thank you Neil. I agree with you 100% about on-line communities. They will I think save poetry from itself. My comments about criticism were more about “commercial” critiques which I feel can veer into disingenuousness, which fortunately I think we manage to avoid at RWP, and sites like it. But I also agree that all response, be it in the intimate forum of a place like RWP, or the less intimate environs of a newspaper, should be constructive and meaningful. Poetry should be positive (in a humanistic sense, not in terms of avoiding tragedy) and caringly truthful; so should critique.

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