Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Monday, December 23, 2013

Negative Reviewing

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #85
    I was reading articles about negative reviewing of poetry books on Carmine Starnino's blog.  Along the way I was reminded of the one serious argument against unflattering reviews:

    Poetry is dead. 

    That being the case, who benefits?  Who is going to be warned off reading the tome?  It's like telling a claustrophobic person to avoid small spaces.

    If history is a guide, most poets won't produce a single great poem in their lives.  Precious few have authored more than a handful of such masterpieces and those may be stretched across different collections.  In the last few decades no poet or poem has achieved the most basic, practical success:  finding, satisfying, and surviving within a significant audience.

    Parenthetically, in the absence of a market, positive reviews are equally pointless.  Worse, blurbing our buddies' mediocrities undermines our own integrity and that of the entire process.  Nevertheless, many cling to the notion that such cheerleading is good for poetry in general.  More on this in Part II.

    Given that all contemporary poetry fails, it is selective overkill to review it individually.  As chagrined as I am by what is being published today, I avoid singling out examples because I don't have an adequate response to the inevitable question:

   "Why me?"

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel


  1. Something very much along these lines occurred to me when I was reading your "Ten Traps For Reviewers" post before Christmas. I simply don't see how, in the current situation, the reviewing process can possibly be expected to be either a significant help to good poetry or a significant hinderance to bad poetry. Indeed, I doubt that poetry books would continue to be reviewed at all, if not for the fact that the "Poetry Community" (for want of a better term) needs to network somehow, and moreover tends to have a lot of free time on its hands. Reviews are certainly not going to have much impact on sales or public perception when no one ELSE is reading them (or if they do, are not taking any notice of what they say).

    Most reasonably literate English speakers of my acquaintance seem to possess at least one or two books of poetry in their homes, even if it does not form part of their regular reading material.

    However, only poets or tragic hipster intellectual wannabe types (these being most often one and the same person) are likely to possess anything contemporary. If anyone else wishes to read a book of poetry, they typically prefer to obtain classic works by long-dead authors, or anthologies that can be relied upon to contain a large proportion of the same.

    I don't see how what some reviewer says (usually in an utterly obscure publication which nobody who is not part of the contemporary poetry scene is likely to read) can possibly affect this process one way or the other. It's been going on for some time now and none of the time and effort that is currently being expended on promoting poetry seems to be making much difference, or is likely to in future.

    I have been formulating some further thoughts of my own on this topic, but will withhold them and await further developments on this blog for now; I think they need a little more time to mature in any case (like a fine wine, or perhaps a stinky cheese).

    1. Ragashree:

      I agree, although I concede that it would be impossible
      to argue with a tautology: "It doesn't matter [to anyone]
      because it doesn't matter [to anyone]." I'm a little more
      optimistic than you about the future, though. There was a
      time when poetry and reviews of it were very important; my
      wish is that history will complete its cycle in my lifetime.

      Great hearing from you, as always.


      Earl Gray, Esquirrel

  2. Thanks Earl, I'd just to add a few further thoughts, if I may:

    Firstly, it would actually bring a great deal of joy to my cold leathery little heart, were I to see poetry regaining something of the importance it once had in society. Furthermore, I'm not altogether pessimistic about the prospects for it doing so - what, frankly, is the use of desire without hope? (I must confess that I never thought there was anything especially "romantic" or desirable about love of the unrequited variety, either...)

    I also think that, in a society where poetry itself is in a flourishing condition, reviews will very likely be an important resource of first resort to readers, helping them to sift the wheat from the chaff without the necessity of reading through everything themselves. The devil is in the details, though - HOW are we to get poetry to matter again? At present, it is very clear (to anyone who goes about with their eyes open) that most of the population have become either hostile or indifferent to the activity that is now perpetrated in the name of poetry.

    In the end, people caring about poetry reviews would seem likely to be a necessary consequence, but not a necessary cause, of people caring about the poetry itself. The obvious conclusion to be drawn, then, is that knowledgeable critics who are serious about repopularising poetry need to be spending their time and effort not so much on reviewing, but on encouraging the writing of poetry which is of such quality that it is capable of making its OWN case when put before the public, then promoting that poetry by doing everything they can to make sure the public actually see it so that they can acknowledge its worth. As the natural corollary of this, they need to be rejecting or otherwise discouraging poetry which has no potential to stand on its own two feet under the public gaze, and certainly NOT promoting it, lest they subvert their own efforts. Probably simply ignoring such inadequate work is sufficient to make it go away and not hinder the repopularisation project, since the general public already has contemporary poetry on "ignore" by default.

    If contemporary poems of a sufficient standard to pique the interest of a large number of currently uninterested readers and leave them hungry for more of the same, and ONLY those poems, were to be put before the public regularly, I think it is reasonable to suppose they would then start seeking out reviews of contemporary poetry in order to find more material commensurate with their tastes. This is largely how reviewing works in fields of artistic endeavour that have a genuine popular following, such as film, music, novels, etc.

    For example: Roger Ebert didn't become a renowned critic because he convinced a large number of people who hated movies to begin with to start watching movies and liking them (at least not to my knowledge). He became a renowned critic because many people like movies, and of those a significant number came to trust his judgement and aesthetic preferences and therefore put their faith in him as a reliable guide to their own viewing.

    I don't see why poetry should be any different, IF it actually had an audience worth mentioning. Current mainstream reviewing practice, aka blurbing, is simply a reflection of the fact that it doesn't. I doubt that if poetry had a fraction of the popularity it once enjoyed, reviewers would dare to risk losing the trust of their readers by regurgitating whole rivers of misleading nonsense.


Your comments and questions are welcome.