the destroyer > the vent > Joe Hall


In the glitterlanche of new books, it's very hard to see those points around which there is the dense, vibrating activity of conversation. Friends tell me what they read in the last year, and I have not read any of it. I tell friends what I've read in the last year, and they haven't read any of it. Maybe there are presses in common or aesthetics, but we whiff a lot. We don't connect in person and, online, if anyone says what they think and what they think is dirty and not pleasant, they can expect some ALL CAPS feedback. Four years ago, I wrote a negative review of a contemporary book on Goodreads and forgot about it. A full year later I received a string of angry emails from the author that ended with "I can't wait to see you in person. We'll see who is the bigger man."

On the other hand, I don't give a shit what Tony Hoagland thinks about a book. I also don't give a shit what Claudia Rankine things about a book. Silliman, Abramson, ? Don't care. Some second year MFA student? No. And you shouldn't give a half shit about what I think about a book. These people have great things to say about poetry and art and, in the case of , Charles Manson, but there is a problem with short book reviews on poetry by poets: they often stink.

There are some good reasons why short reviews by poets are bad or don't happen.


A few years ago a close friend of mine was really close to pulling the trigger on a project that she described as an ESPN: The Magazine for the high art world. There would be power rankings, statistics (sales per year, adjusted for inflation?), face-offs (Rembrandt v. Picasso, Basquiat v. Hirst), big sexual glossy photographs, and a perpetual faux-idiotic, self-annihilating, quasi sincere discussion of value. What was good and bad. Who was best and worst and why. The magazine wanted to have it both ways––to expose the fallacies underpinning reviewing and judgments of value and to also re-inaugurate that conversation inoculated by the self-critical nature of its context.

It would have been great and it never happened. This friend is a skilled artist. She decided her own work was a better investment of her time and, judging by her successes in that area, she was right.


Poets often review the books of people they know and like. They are not compensated through dollars but it is a good way to build "social-capital"––to align oneself with a group in the hopes that the favor will be paid back. Along these lines, beginning poets, who are afraid of burning any bridges that might lead toward the publication of their manuscript, often dance around the fact that the book their MFA lit journal assigned them to read is surprisingly terrible. They may even convince themselves that a book that is crap is not crap in the name of fair-mindedness. Not that there isn't a cornucopia of brilliant books of poetry but isn't it also realistic to say that just as many are very, very bad? And then there are the cases where actual money does change hands in exchange for glowing reviews or things that look a lot like reviews or 'spontaneous' social media chatter. On crumbling-ghetto Parnassus in the sky, big-shot poets (with the exception of the late and overdue case of Hoagland v. Rankine) rotely praise students and friends. Those who are reviewed negatively are often straw-men. Hoagland (In Real Sofistikation) and Wojahn (in lectures) poop on nameless younger "skittery" poets or those less established than themselves such as Joe Wendroth. This is a kind of low-stakes, brick by brick, self-interested canon making.


Yeah, of course people have ulterior motives for writing reviews. But I'm still waiting for someone to convince me that the poetry review landscape isn't particularly disappointing given just how many review outlets exist. Maybe the review by committee mentality of most publications (and social networks) also contributes to this nadir. Instead of publications having reviewers as fixtures of their staffs, they post lists of available reviews or farm out a review at a time to grad students or friends of friends. We all get roped in like this. We suck it up and crank out a review and swear we'll never write another review. The result of this system where each poet writes a small handful of reviews in the course of their engagement with new poetry is that readers of reviews never read more than one or two reviews by the same reviewer. If you're looking for a consistent, critical voice, it's not there.

Staff reviewers for newspapers and glossy magazines often work on assignment. This means there is some editorially manufactured degree of intentionality and unity behind the selection of work that is offered up for review week in and week out. There is something gratifying about knowing A.O. had to sit through Transformers 3. I hate A.O. Scott for his completely unreflective snobbery, but at least I can count on him to regularly deliver an opinion I can work up the juice to disagree with.

This is not to say that editorial selection of review materials is an intrinsically good thing. Editors' reasons for selecting a book can be just as self-serving as those of reviewers floating reviews of books they "felt" like reviewing to journals, but I find it very difficult to see what books most journals review and when they finally get around to hauling out those reviews as anything but arbitrary. And not even arbitrary in a "Wow! WTF?" way. Arbitrary as in scattered and, in turn, less than uninteresting. The product of good intentions by smart, generous people stymied by a lack of resources and an abundance of larger priorities.


This is not an argument for a return to the middle, for there to be a select group of texts for us to think about and talk about. I guess what I'm saying is that I just want to have a longstanding relationship with 2 or 3 dudes or ladies that have reviewed a shit load of books. Whose job it is to review books of poetry because they consider it their calling to review books of poetry in a way that isn't informed by the careerist calculations of a creative writer or saturated with the anxiety that the reviewer's time might actually be better spent making art. In the meanwhile, can journals who half-ass the review thing just quit ok? Focus on giving us art. Or, maybe someone could start a journal or magazine or zine with a stable of regular reviewers dedicated solely to the review of small, independent, and, f-it, big press poetry. Just poetry. Rain Taxi doesn't count. Jacket is close. Am I arguing for a division of labor between the production and reception of texts––a rigid specialization? No. I'm just saying the pendulum has swung too far. Everyone is an artist and some people are critics...sometimes, faintly. I'm just trying to interest someone in being a reader and writer about new poetry books first and a writer second. And if that person were to eviscerate my book, I'd be super duper stoked about that. I'm tired of reading shitty reviews, and I'm tired of writing shitty reviews.

And the reviews, themselves? What about those that believe that reviews should be free from the language of value? That reviews should simply be ekphrasis, an ecstatic response to a piece of art. Basically, reviews of poems as poems? That has its place but these kinds of reviews often occur in the context of publications with relatively well defined aesthetics. These reviews are also, to my (I guess perverse) imagination, informed by an attitude very similar to that of the New Critics. Where the reviewer professes to be simply neutrally reporting how the poem works but oozes admiration in outlining this physics. That is, response writers often reproduce the physics/strategies of the original object and in doing so imply "If you like how this is written, you'll like the book." That's cool. But it doesn't leave much room for dislike, ambivalence, or a discussion of the book as anything but a spontaneous bolt of lighting whose electricity is still seeping through the reviewer and the review.

And in the end, this is an argument more about the platform for reviews than what goes into the reviews. The reviews can be polyglandular transvestite reviews. They can surge with ekphrastic lightning and then spend ten pages analyzing line breaks and not conclude anything about the book or instead make conclusions about Palestine. That would be fine. As long as everything felt like it was going to explode from the reviewer's attention. And the reviewer doesn't disappear or die but keeps on reviewing.

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