Read This Poet Because S/He’s Better Than You: The Review as Argument Platform
Such was the case the other day when I came across Stephen Burt’s review of Allan Peterson’s As Much As in Boston Review:
Burt starts off setting the scene within which Peterson largely operates:
“What if all that mattered in a life, all that stuck in the mind or pulled at the heart, were the well-defined events and decisions: where to live, what to do for a living, when to get married, whether to go to war? What would we miss? Almost everything that makes a life worth living. We want not just actions and consequences, victories and defeats, but dragonflies and paperclips, daydreams and counterfactual syllogisms. And perhaps poetry—that verbal art form without obvious consequence, whose shapes are not the shapes of events and plots—best suits those apparently negligible phenomena: if it cannot preserve them, it can at least show how we care.”
And Burt makes a good case for a reader to investigate Peterson’s work. Awhile after reading the review, I went google browsing for some representative Peterson poems, and though I can’t say I liked them quite as much as Burt does, I was pleased to find them, and to find this poet who’s been around awhile but off of my personal radar. (So much for my personal radar.)
So, for that, you might be interested in the review.
Now comes the quibble. (Did you see it coming?) Here goes. Burt writes:
“That is not the only goal for poets, nor is poetry the only art that adopts it (Virginia Woolf to the white courtesy telephone, please). But it is a goal that many poets take on, by precept or example, and there may be no better example right now than Allan Peterson. No other poet—to judge by this third book, As Much As—focuses so fully on the inward effects of apparently inconsequential observations; no other poet makes them speak so well.”
And then, a little later, he adds:
“Peterson’s visual gifts—so attentive to freshness, so careless about decorum—can make most other poets seem like they aren’t really looking.”
I’m happy that Burt is so moved by Peterson’s poems to make these large assertions for their value. I like strong opinions. But, on the other hand, does he really have to slam a generality of all these “other poets” to make a case for this one?
I don’t think Burt really means to make an argument here about how other poets don’t regard moments as well as Peterson. If he did intend that, he would trot up some examples. He’s a very good writer, who could find examples of that if he wanted to. And the art of poetry needs people to write about it, as Burt does. I think, though, this sort of half-argument, rhetorical device is a crutch. It allows the reviewer to build a sense of importance for their subject, to build a reason for a reader to be reading. “Read this because it’s about a poet who does something better than most everyone else!” gets more attention than “Read this because this poet does this thing well.” One-stop shopping vs general interest. If you read Peterson, you don't need to read these other poets because they're not as good. This is all you need (in this style).
In a time where 90% (I’m just guessing at the figure) of books of poetry are read by people who also write poetry, calling a book or a poet better than most other books or poets, runs a great risk of building, not interest in the book under consideration, but hostility toward it. It makes everyone defensive. Sometimes that’s a good thing. That’s what Greenberg was trying to do in the essay I linked to yesterday. He wants an argument. He is saying “this works better than this in this way.” Agree or disagree, he’s put the examples before us. Reviews and blurbs are different, fuzzier, animals.
Am I overstating it? Well, yes, probably. But my thinking about this issue, when I came across it, took me out of the essay and I didn’t end up finishing it and looking up Peterson until much later.
I did have an interesting time contrasting the way Peterson looks at things (simile is his favorite 2X4) and the way Cole Swensen looks at things (a sort of parataxis of inner reflection and outer observation make her scaffold, “the length of which dozens of field mice are strolling calmly in twos and threes”)