Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On Reviewing Poetry: “Thanks but No Thanks"

For the past several months, while slowly working my way through the 100,000 or more pieces of correspondence in poet William Stafford's archive for an exhibition that I'm co-curating with Paul Merchant a few year's hence, my thoughts have occasionally turned to what it means to review a collection of poems, both from the point-of-view of the critic and from that of the poet.

I recently happened upon Fred Chappell's A Way of Happening: Observations of Contemporary Poetry (NY: Picador, 1998), a collection of review essays extracted from The Georgia Review and other publications. Chappell, being a well-respected poet, critic and teacher, is in a rich position to offer us much on this subject. Although his reviews here are mostly negative commentary about what he dislikes in contemporary poetry, along with suggestions for technical improvements, his introduction to these reviews, entitled "Thanks but No Thanks," is lovely, generous and instructive, and just a wee bit apologetic for the pessimism he directs toward the collections he judges.

He begins by noting the differences of writing poems and writing criticism:
"1) Criticism is a more difficult art than most readers suppose, than many critics have recognized;
2) Much of it--especially the output of the breed known as 'reviewers'--is produced under the pressure of deadline constraint and subject to the selective claims of editors;
3) The influence of literary politics is so pervasive as to be inescapable, even in the most conscientious and least partisan of writers."
And he adds a fourth, more universal tenet:
"It is difficult to train oneself to listen to what someone else has to say, in print or in person, without interposing the force of one's own personality and permitting the tinctures of one's own prejudices to color responses that ought to be spontaneous though gravely considered, genuine though well-informed, unique but rarely cranky."
In other words: it's truly difficult to be open-minded and objective.

Chappell's introduction is a marvelous essay that is important to read for anyone who reviews any kind of writing. Put your ideas of false objectivity away, dear reviewers, as Chappell has done. He now knows what he likes in a poem and what he should avoid:
"...I prefer a clarity of intention in a poem...if I must examine work so baffling that I cannot grasp enough of its premises to impute an intention, then there is no hope that I will ever comprehend it thoroughly enough to comment. By means of this principle I eliminated from my consideration whole shelves of verse."
But even while recognizing what kind of poetry is not for him, Fred Chappell acknowledges the difficult and important work of the poet and closes his essay with a beautiful statement of grace and modesty, a statement for which we all might consider with great sincerity:
"I am most grateful of all to the poets I read. There were few books that failed to entertain and enlighten me. Even when I disliked the work I respected the poet because I know the demands of the discipline and the toll that is exacted in almost equal measure by success and by failure. So I was constrained to do the best I could by the work--in the full and certain foreknowledge that my best would never be good enough."


Dawn Potter said...

Jim, I'm so glad to have found your blog. And it's so kind of you to have linked to mine.

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