Sunday, July 31, 2011

Read This Poet Because S/He’s Better Than You: The Review as Argument Platform

I like coming across poets that I’ve not heard of, and I’m always surprised when I find that often these poets have published several books, won awards; in short, have been around awhile.

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?

Seriously, my body is a boat, man. A BOAT!

It’s another version of “The voice of the generation” sort of thing that some of the people who write blurbs for the backs of books have done, off and on. Yes, it’s great that this poet is wonderful, or is looking attentively at the machinations of the world, but when I’m reading a review of one book that makes a generic claim against all the other books (or, more difficult to pin down, “most other poets”), my attention leaves the poet under consideration, and goes to my bookshelf to look for examples of poets who aren’t as good. It gets me into an unnecessary compare/contrast feedback loop that makes everything a competition.

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”)

Sorry: one size doesn't fit all.


At 7/31/2011 8:21 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

A bigger 'Better than You' phenomenon in American poetry is cliques. Affinity cliques.

WE'RE better than you.

I know such is part of the necessary sub-cultural machinery, in ways.

But it still grates. Especially when the cliques who exude the attitude pretend they have no such presumption.

I could list groups, but that would take part of the fun away.

At 7/31/2011 8:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

But that is an argument, one with manifestos (even if masked), and/or a branding of style. (For mostly not better, by the way.)

In reviews and blurbs there's no reason for it, unless that reason is to make the book itself or the review into an argument, manifesto, etc, and here, as in most reviews and blurbs that I come across that have this rhetorical move, there's no overt point being made by Burt.

Peterson isn't the emblem-poet for a group Burt is positing, in the way that Greenberg was overtly attempting in that essay I pointed to yesterday (interesting that no one wanted to comment on that one, by the way).

At 7/31/2011 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, Gallaher, a complaint against Burt - even a little one - is still a complaint against Burt. I hear the guy has a memory like a sand trap.

- snarkattack!

At 7/31/2011 10:44 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

The issue is that a good review, one that cites examples from the text, speaks to its strength and weaknesses, without some grading criteria, is hard to market. Throw in a few ungrounded statements, wave your thumbs or count the stars in your eyes and suddenly it has potential.

I think this is symptomatic of operating in a capitalist society, though I'm sure it happens in places that aren't as well. Every new product for sale is competing against everything else. Just being "good" doesn't cut it; it needs to be "better."

Unfortunately, this is a situation that will not change.

At 7/31/2011 11:30 AM, Blogger Supervillainess said...

Also, who else is bored with men who write about boring observational nothings and make it into "art?" Ho hum. (Ashbery, Young...but does everyone else have to imitate them?) Why not encourage poets to try to write about, I don't know, important stuff?
More diversity in style as well as substance would be nice.

At 7/31/2011 12:36 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, although this time around, Burt's talking about a male, I dont' think the simile-driven, observational thing is a male-only aesthetic position. Mary Ruefle is a good example, as an analogue to your Dean Young example.

I wouldn't put Peterson in this group, however, as I think Ashbery, especially, has a lot of content that is large-scope stuff. Perhaps one could argue that Young and Ruefle are smaller-scale, but they all write in different registers, depending.

One place I do feel your critique however is on the Internet, blogs especially. Sometimes I feel like it's a weird version of the boys bathroom here. I really wish more females would post.

At 7/31/2011 3:24 PM, Blogger Supervillainess said...

Ruefle definitely plays to that audience, I agree.
Did I mention I love the duck poster? I wish I could fly and that my body was a boat...
My experience with my female friends is that they don't feel they get listened to much, or don't feel inclined to be interested in the subject matter. But I agree that women have to get involved as reviewers and as people who think about the way poetry is discussed.
By the way, in my previous post, I was referring to the quote:
"No other poet—to judge by this third book, As Much As—focuses so fully on the inward effects of apparently inconsequential observations" - and I was just thinking about rolling my eyes reading another book of the inward effects of apparently inconsequential observations - it's my least favorite kind of poetry. And no way am I letting Ashbery get away with it, either. He's not really getting into big subjects (in my own humble opinion) as much as he is testing his own subconscious' ability to link things together.

At 7/31/2011 8:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also chiming in to love the duck poster. I would put it on my office door, if I had an office.

Poetry is beside the point if you can fly AND your body is a boat.


At 7/31/2011 8:54 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I will also vote for the duck poster. I seriously want one.

And I also vote for John Ashbery, who, I believe is better than a duck. He can fly, his body is a boat, and he's John Ashbery.

Just saying.

At 7/31/2011 10:01 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...


So what's the 'important stuff'? Important to...? Judged as such by...? You see how silly this gets (and how quickly). This kind of comment is ironic really, I couldn't agree more with Kent Johnson's initial comment above--the worst part is the denial of presumption. We're better than you--why? Because -we- write about the -important- things, you're just a poor man's Ashbery.

I also don't really understand complaints about there not being enough variety (in any context) when it comes to poetry. You can go grab five of the biggest-name poetry journals and see a surprisingly wide landscape if you're at least slightly determined to do so.

At 8/01/2011 8:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Variety! You're right, of course, but I understand the frustration. I often feel it myself, when it comes to the sorts of things people talk about vs everything published.

It's the same in the music press, for instance, where it seems like everyone wants to write about Adele, these days, when there are so many other equally interesting things going on. But the stage can only hold so many.

At 8/01/2011 8:32 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


“Approaching poetry as something essential to our survival”: an interview with Sous Les Pavés editor Micah Robbins.

Because it's a kind of boat, and it can fly.

At 8/01/2011 12:07 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

I think there's some projection going on.

Peterson's first book is still his best, though As Much As is pretty great.

The Silliman Axiom: It's imperative to ignore superlatives, and it's ok to discount power words and comparisons, in any prose about poetry.

At 8/01/2011 12:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Projection from Burt? Or from me? Or do I want to know?

Peterson seems OK to me, from what I found around the googleverse.

At 8/01/2011 1:22 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

All of us, John.

At 8/01/2011 1:44 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

For anyone interested in Conceptual Poetry controversies, and such, here's some more projection about Sous Les Paves at the end of this interview with me, just up this afternoon. SLP all over the place today...

At 8/01/2011 2:16 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Controversies belong over with the superlatives, thanks.

At 8/01/2011 2:18 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Jordan, you write:

"All of us, John."

I reply:

Still, it's good to have the company.

At 8/01/2011 2:20 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Let us know what you think, Jordan.

And watch that stern teacherly mode, young po-stud. It doesn't suit you.

At 8/01/2011 2:31 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Always a pleasure, Kent.

At 8/01/2011 2:38 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8/01/2011 3:08 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Oh, and thanks again for worrying about my image for me.

At 8/01/2011 3:44 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Really, I took that comment down because I'd meant it just metaphorically, the jacket thing with no particular reference, and then I realized you might take it as pointing to that old photo that John Latta once put up, which I know upset you, but with which there is nothing wrong, really, it's a rather sweet picture. Seriously. I don't know why you'd apparently be bothered by it. Heaven forbid if people started seeing pics of *me* when I was 18. Or pictures now. That would be worse.

What I really meant in the tenor, Jordan, if comments on blogs have tenor, is that you very often seem to want to play the role of finger-wagging Poetry Wise Man, when you really are much better at the cryptic, snarky remarks, you know (you are VERY good at these!). That's not intended as an insult. It's just to say, because I don't know how else to frame it, that when you come off all smug and teachy-like towards people who actually likely have more reading and experience of poetry than you do, it doesn't look good. Not even when you're Poetry Editor of The Nation, it doesn't.

I'm not trying to start a fight. But you really should check your ultra-anxious, arrogant attitude, which gets the best of you way too often.

At 8/01/2011 4:57 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Am I going to have to turn the hose on you two?

At 8/01/2011 6:02 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

If we need a larger variety of anxious arrogant poetry dudes around here I can stop lurking so much and post more often.


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