Showing posts with label Criticism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Criticism. Show all posts

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Yesterday’s link list included both a defense of literary criticism in newspapers and a link to a New York Times review by James Longenbach of four new volumes of verse. That juxtaposition is worth thinking about a little more closely.

The defense is an extended version of a talk given by Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press who sits on the board of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), where he is responsible for the press’ humanities texts. As one might anticipate from somebody in his position, his argument is reasoned, well-crafted, a pleasure to read. Waters makes a defense for criticism as such without sinking to the reactionary “gate keeper” mythology that a Hilton Kramer might use – that argument is simply that the masses won’t know what to think without being told how do so by the enlightened few, so that critics are all that protect us from such barbarians as Jack Kerouac or Ron Silliman. Waters, in sharp contrast, argues for the very best in criticism, that it is simply an intelligent person confronting new work for the first time & reporting honestly about same. Waters’ climax virtually requires orchestral crescendos to accompany his prose:

Criticism is Lester Bangs. It’s Frank Kermode, Elizabeth Bowen, Mary McCarthy, Thomas Merton, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Michael Dirda. It is Lorenzo Valla, and it oozes from crack in the pavement in the other HUP book I brought to show you today (beyond our brand-new Donation of Constantine Howard Hampton’s Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (HUP, 2007). It’s lists, of course, it’s lists. It’s judgment upon judgment. It’s gut responses, and it’s argument. When we engage in the process of arguing about art, we devise new reasons, new ideas, new forms of thought. This is a central human activity, one that leads to the creation of new brain cells. Killing the book reviews is a phrase I’ve used elsewhere Chernobyl for the Life of the Mind.

I don’t think you have to love everybody on that list – I’m not fond of either Kermode or Dirda – to understand that Waters really wants you to connect to critical thinking at its best as his justification for its preservation.

And I think he’s right, at least partly, when he claims that newspapers killing off their review sections constitutes a “fad” among tabloid executives trying very hard to save their publications in an emerging post-print universe. The great irony, as I see it, is that publishers – it’s seldom the editors – who slash their review sections are being penny wise & pound foolish at a moment in history when that constitutes suicidal behavior. Their rationale is that the review sections no longer are profitable per se because fewer ads are bringing in revenue. That in turn has a lot to do with consolidation among the major trade publishers and the decline of independent booksellers. But immediate ad revenue is only one facet of the contribution a review section makes to a daily paper – driving sustainable readership is even more important.

Regardless of how good or bad a particular review section might be – and some of them, like that of the San Francisco Chronicle, are almost shockingly bad – reviews are a phenomenon directed at a particular fraction of the newspaper audience: serious readers. Driving off that portion of your audience that is most committed to writing in print format would seem to be openly self-destructive behavior. If newspapers actually think that they can generate loyalty and circulation amongst, say, the fans of Lindsay Lohan by focusing more attention on celebrity DUIs than they can get by actually reaching out to readers who already have a commitment to print formats, well, do I even have to finish this sentence? It’s like trying to lose weight by cutting open an artery – it sorta works, but the collateral damage is severe. What this trend really shows is that publishers don’t understand their product or their audience.

But poets getting all exercised about the demise of review sections is a little like poets getting all hot & bothered about the collapse of independent bookstores that carry almost no poetry & keep it hidden in the far back corner somewhere. This is where the Times review seems all too typical. Longenbach reviews four books, two by Houghton Mifflin, one by Norton and one by Margie/Intuit House. Three of the authors are issuing their first books, with only Josephine Dickinson, a widow who still works a farm in the north of England & has been deaf since birth, as the exception. Nathaniel Bellows is a 35-year-old School of Quietude (SoQ) poet & novelist (On This Day, HarperCollins 2003) whose verse has appeared in Grand Street, The Massachusetts Review, The New England Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, Open City, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Western Humanities Review, Witness, and The Yale Review. A look at the sample poems on his web site brings to mind words like “lifeless” – considering how rarely a poem gets into The New York Times, the one published there is worth looking at. Longenbach doesn’t mention this Times connection, nor does he mention that Matt Donovan, another poet with a first book at a major trade publisher, was a New York Times Fellow in NYU’s MFA program. With the exception of Poetry and Threepenny Review, tho, Donovan’s list of School of Quietude publications isn’t as glossy as Bellows.

The more interesting ringer here is Troy Jollimore, the one poet reviewed with a book from a small press, but having won the National Book Critics Circle award. Jollimore has been pretty straightforward in interviews in characterizing Tom Thompson in Purgatory as imitation John Berryman, so the real question isn’t why a young poet might take on such a project, but rather what might possess Mr. Waters’ organization to give their annual prize to something that is so obviously “smart student work” when dozens of major books were published last year. The very best I can come up with is that the form is recognizable, at least to a body whose typical member appears to be 50 years out of date on contemporary poetry. Or seventy.

Josephson’s book, which is a compilation of two of her British volumes, seems to me a reasonable project for a publisher like Houghton Mifflin. But Bellows & Donovan demonstrate very clearly that trade presses do not represent a higher quality of writing, but rather are just another small press scene, one with better distribution and advertising budgets. Does it make any sense that their books should get more attention, say, than a Troy Jollimore? No, but if the NBCC hadn’t awarded him its prize that is exactly what would be happening. And there were hundreds of better books published by small presses last year, by Quietists & post-avants alike.

It’s in this sense that the New York Times is hardly better than the independent bookstore whose poetry section, all two shelves of it, stretches all the way from Yeats to Rilke, maybe with a little Rumi & Billy Collins tossed in. And the Times is almost certainly the best daily in America when it comes to book reviews. But if the Times is willing to review very minor books from trade publishers while ignoring major collections – think of the Kyger collected or the new John Wiener’s volume – from outside of that circle, and if it fails to acknowledge its connection to some of the poets whom it does choose to cover, would the loss of the NYTBR actually be a real loss to poetry? Might it not in fact be just the opposite? The Times Book Review is a major source of legitimation for a lot of bad writing. The baldness of some of the annual prizes that similarly go to nondescript Quietist poets year after year might be even more glaring if it occurred without this fig leaf of critical sanction.

Andrew Keen is getting a lot of play these days for his book, The Cult of the Amateur, which argues that the web has opened the floodgates to “non-professional” critics who will run their various fields of inquiry into the ground because they lack the “standards” & discipline of, say, NYTBR or The New Criterion. My own sense is that Keen is 100 percent wrong. Critical sites have grown on the web precisely because the institutional critical apparatus in this country is so sclerotic & inept. This is true of not just of newspapers, but of many academic journals as well. Nothing breeds mediocrity faster than the “consensus building” process of any refereed journal. I may not agree with the likes and dislikes of SoQ bloggers like C. Dale Young or Joseph Duemer, but there is no question that their blogs have far more integrity as critical sites than, say, The New York Times or the NBCC in general. And I trust readers to be able to discern the difference. Which I think is just what Mr. Keen fears most.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

This is my 1491st comment on this blog since I started back in August 2002. Over very much the same period of time, Kevin Killian has posted something close to the same number of reviews on Amazon.Com. Given everything else Killian has been doing with regards to his own creative writing, his Spicer scholarship, his ongoing non-academic day job, his role, alongside Dodie Bellamy, in the most significant power-duo in the San Francisco poetics scene since the heyday of Robert Duncan & Jack Spicer, the idea that Killian has found the time & wherewithal to post thousands of reviews simply boggles this blog. Perhaps even more amazing is that Amazon, which counts everything, notes that there are 127 reviewers who have done even more. But unless Adorno & Benjamin have started sending in pieces, I can’t imagine anyone doing them better than Kevin Killian.

I’ve been hearing about Kevin’s Amazon reviews now for years, but until Brent Cunningham edited Selected Amazon Reviews, out now from Hooke Press, I’d seen very few. Cunningham’s selection makes clear why. The first review is of a biography of Rock Hudson by David Bret, the second is of – I swear – Gerber Tender Harvest 1st Foods Sweet Potatoes, Baby Food, of which, in part, Killian writes

I first was introduced to Gerber as a wee laddie, when Mom never dreamed I’d ever graduate to anything but baby food, for I would sit in my high chair and refuse to eat anything but mashed-up Gerber’s vegetables. If Mom, Dad, or our extended family attempted sneak something else onto my tray, wham! It would hit the opposite kitchen wall.

Nowhere is there any mention of poet Dan Gerber, one-time editor of Sumac, scion of the family that created this taste sensation, nor of Gerber’s 1994 “merger” with the conglomerate Novartis, of which it is now just one of many brands (including Gerber Life Insurance). Just an intimate, personable discussion of the product itself, right down to the labeling.

This is followed with a review of a book listed as “currently unavailable” (as is the case, online at least, with the Rock Hudson bio): Alcatraz: The True End of the Line by Darwin Coon. Followed in turn by Poets Talk, a super anthology of interviews with Canadian poets edited by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy. Followed in turn by The Stripper’s Guide to Looking Great Naked by Jennifer Axen and Leigh Phillips:

For example, say you’re one of those unfortunates who have they call “butt-thigh syndrome” – that’s what happens when onlookers can find “no real distinction between your ass and your thighs” – then what you do is apply bronzer underneath each cheek to give the illusion of some 3-D depth.

Only one of the first five items here – Poets Talk – is a product that I’m likely ever to seek out on the Amazon web or anywhere else (I have no idea what my butt looks like). This string of what I might characterize as unusual choices – StarPet: How to Make Your Pet a Star¹ has a great reference to a baton – continues until we find a review of Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception. At this point, this little chapbook is nearly half done.

The new historicism as a critical movement took the tools of traditional literary criticism and applied them to nonliterary documents of the past, so as to create a reading of the past itself in deeper & presumably more meaningful terms. Killian’s strategy is not that different from this, save for the fact that he’s “reading” the present with a whimsical, but not inaccurate eye, and that his critical mode has as much of the gossip column as a literary model as it does the latest issue of Representations. Imagine, if you will, Wellek & Warren as read through Tonya Harding or a dialog that blends perfectly Roland Barthes and Melissa Rivers. Or, more accurately perhaps, what if John Waters understood that he was an urban ethnographer and took that role seriously. That’s exactly what Killian appears to be doing. It’s a bravura performance and a not insignificant reading of the world itself.

I should note that I’m not a fan of Amazon myself, although I sometimes use it. Mostly I use the site for data on the book involved and then go straight to the publisher or to SPD to actually order the volume – this not only puts more money in the press’ hands, it usually gets the volume to me quicker. But what Killian has done, as I read it, is not necessarily endorse Amazon as a sales engine, so much as recognize its role as a unique repository of information. Even the most recalcitrant of independent bookstores now seem to utilize the site before they turn to Books In Print. And that’s the spirit that comes through best in this collection of just 35 pieces. You can and should buy this book. But you should also look up all of Kevin Killian’s reviews online, which can be found indexed here.


¹ The online version is missing the first four words of the third paragraph – “The author has done…” – which are happily supplied in the book. Maybe that beef jerky allusion caused a brain spasm in HTML itself.

Saturday, January 04, 2003

Christian Bök’s String Variables is one of those initially deceptive projects in that you begin to read the two minuscule chapbooks On and Off that are gathered together (with a band of paper, not string, alas) in this micropress project, a press run of 60 copies issued jointly as openpalmseries 2.5 & 2.6 and umlaut machine nos. 6 & 7, & it is only when, starting the second volume – I read On before I did Off, although I would wager that this effect will work just as well if the little volumes are read in the opposite order – you begin to recognize the uncanny similarities. Here is the first page of On:


          no tone

semantic or epic
to graphic
I clemecy sty
nympho nemesis
pro systematic

            on icing

            i fester

            i corridor

            so famous

And here is roughly the same amount of text from the first page of Off:

          err at
          at at
          too not
<![if !supportLineBreakNewLine]>
rose manticore
man cyst yes per
antonym phoneme
rib leprosy stem

            at iconic
            in glottal
            is manifest

erratic or rid
of a mouse

Letter by letter, these two texts are all but identical, so much so that I will wager (this seems to be a betting blog) that “clemecy” in On is in fact a typo and should read “clemancy,” even though the latter is itself a misspelling. Reading the two works together – I put a couple of hours between each volume – is an almost eerie experience. There’s certainly no way that I can tell whether On was the “master” text & Off the “slave,” the one forced to fit the primary draft of the other, or the other way ‘round. Nor can I see any simple way for the imagination to derive systematic out of leprosy stem / at iconic even though, looking closely, I can see that it’s there.

Like Eunoia, Bök’s book of aggressive vowel constraints, String Variables is both a written work that is fun to read aloud & the result of an almost unimaginably rigorous formal process – he is clearly the master of post-Oulipo poetics. Technically speaking, String Variables is a misnomer for the process by which this work must have been composed. In programming, the little I understand of it, you have both variables & constants – no great theoretical problem there – either of which might be composed of numeric data or of “strings,” in which numeric data can be joined with alphabetic and other symbols. So we have strings here alright, but it is only the spaces & linebreaks that vary. (Thus the paradigm On/Off refers to the states of electrical current that are then translated into a binary system to generate all such information.)

Works like Eunoia and String Variables envision a model of language that no traditionally-educated linguist would recognize – they wouldn’t recognize Finnegans Wake either – a model in which letters, not phonemes, organize language. String Variables almost looks as if one could simply take a great block of type and divide it into clusters and – Voila! words & phrases would just “naturally” appear. The reality of course is infinitely more complex & part of Bök’s genius lies precisely in making it look so deceptively easy. While Bök’s work fits into the larger context of Toronto’s grammatologically-inflected post-avant poetry scene, the broader framework of Oulipo and its international heritage, & relates at some level to the work of Americans such as Jackson Mac Low, Bök brings a unique flavor to it all – exactly that combination of inconceivable rigor & utter simplicity. I’ve never read a substantial work of his that I didn’t wish I’d written myself.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Carl Boon’s sixth question feels more complex to me and, as it also addresses the question of blogging per se, I’m going to just focus on this inquiry for today.

6.  Your recent project is a web log, or "blog," that chronicles daily and in great, tedious detail the goings-on of the avant-garde writing community in and around Philadelphia. Your daily entries, often a thousand words or more, are filled with analysis, links, schedules for readings in the community, and miscellaneous poetry talk. Can you talk about this project? How do you see its role, its importance? Does it fill some need in the poetry community? How long will you maintain it?

I’ve been thinking critically – even obsessively – about poetry since I was a kid. After The New Sentence, I continued writing criticism pretty regularly until our twins were born in 1992. That first year or two with twins is pretty intense & there was hardly a moment in which one might have a complete thought, let alone have the time to write it down. My goal was to not stop writing poetry and I felt successful just to have accomplished that.

But, as my kids have grown older, I’ve gotten back to thinking about writing & publishing critically. First, it’s excellent discipline. The process forces you to read more intelligently. Second, all critical writing is a form of organizing, even when the writer doesn’t realize that. My problem was/is that I saw few contexts that struck me as useful in sharing this writing.

There has been a real falling off in critical thinking since the 1970s when various talk series in particular got a lot of people up and speaking intelligently about writing, their own & that of others. Part of it no doubt is the fault of writers in my own age cohort, me included. The poetry wars of the late 1970s were hardly an attractive proposition for younger poets, but in part that is precisely why the various provocateurs started them.

And part of the problem of course is the continuing near-monopoly on critical writing by institutions in & around the academy. To be of any value at all, critical thinking about poetry needs to be directed to poets. In the academy, poets are at best eavesdroppers.

But there has also been a depoliticization of younger people generally & that has impacted poets. Some of it has to do with the lack of tangible alternatives to unfettered capital following the collapse of the old Stalinist bloc – although for decades it has been difficult to find any western Marxist who would defend the so-called “actually existing socialist countries,” in large part because state control over capital is not socialism. In the West, there has been no primary shared point of agreement as to the goals of the left since the U.S. exited Vietnam in 1974. That’s a long time for groups to go without much sense of cohesion. The antiglobalism movement is not one thing, but many, & many of them contradictory.  Identarian tendencies were a logical extension of the civil rights movements of the 1950s & early ‘60s, but they have inescapably fed into this demobilization by isolating the very people they seek to empower. You see the long-term result in a lot of writing these days that is simultaneously politically correct and depoliticized, a politics really of cynicism and disgust. So this also becomes an incentive not to organize, not to write critically.

On top of all this, I had a personal reason for thinking about starting my blog. Since this past spring, my wife has been struggling with a chronic disease called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a neurological syndrome that is both painful & nasty. The condition has been hard on her and put an enormous strain on everyone in the family. It was in that context that I felt my sitting around thinking about poetry, but not actively doing anything about it beyond the simple production of my own poem, was really lazy & inexcusable.*

So I decided to try a process in which I would just write something critically pretty much daily and find some means of putting it out there where poets might see it. It’s really as simple as that.

Because my nephew Daniel has had a blog for some time, as now do both his mother & sister, I had some familiarity with the form and its potential. So while my family was having something of a disastrous vacation this summer on an island off Nova Scotia – not a good place to be if your meds aren’t working – I mulled over the idea of how I might start a blog that simply focused on one thing: poetry as I experience it. I began it three days after our return to Pennsylvania.

I’ve been pleased with the response it has gotten so far – I’m getting an average of over 60 hits per day, over 100 three or four times each week – and the response, with a few notable exceptions, has been positive. Right now, it is sort of the flavor of the month with a certain strain of younger writer, but that will certainly pass.

Marjorie Perloff pointed out to me, right at the beginning of the blog, that a major limitation of the form is its scale. These are really short notes, mostly sketched out early in the morning, then fiddled with over the remainder of the day before being launched. In this sense, the blog is closer to, say, L=A=N=U=A=G=E as a project than, say, either Poetics Journal or Chain. Though I guess it’s worth noting that it has added up to more than 150 pages in less than three months.

As to how the blog will develop or how long I may maintain the site is really something I can’t tell. I’m learning as I go along & it’s still fun, not a sense of obligation at all. I don’t see it continuing on indefinitely any more than I would a poem.

But what would in fact be even better would be to see a number of other blogs on the same general subject that would take off & do their own thing and carry the conversation ever so much further out into the universe. Right now the ones I read most constantly & closely are those of Jonathan Mayhew, Brian Kim Stefans & Laurable. May a thousand blogs bloom!

* My wife has noted that I began writing as a ten year old because of the difficulties of growing up in a dysfunctional household. That the stress of her illness should lead to my blogging strikes her as profoundly parallel behavior.