This is the kind of criticism we need more of (or maybe not)
Adam Plunkett, in Book Forum this week has a review of two books, titled “Why Critics Praise Bad Poetry.” It begins this way:
Pay attention to the poetry world, and you’ll notice a kind of false advertising: most of published criticism is positive even though so much of published poetry is bad. (This is probably why a lot of people don’t pay attention to the poetry world.) One reason for the dearth of critical comeuppances is that even bad poems are often hard to understand and harder to understand conclusively, so negative critics risk missing something and looking like fools. They misinterpret what they malign, they butcher what they slander. A way to acknowledge the problem without giving in to it is to qualify criticisms with an implicit “unless I’m missing something.” As in, unless I’m missing something, the line “At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness” sounds like a parody of a pop song. It describes an emotion without conveying it, exaggerates images without making them interesting. “His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars.” Unless I’m missing something, that’s vaguely whimsical but impossible to visualize at all. Blood, toil, sweat, and tears are also ethereal, I get it, but the words are tossed together like a collage I can’t actually imagine—is there oil and bloody garbage floating near the Milky Way, in which case how can the poet see it? How does it look to him like a superhero’s outfit? How is the line not sappy, trite, and nonsensical?
It’s a good question, and agree with Plunkett or not (I think it’s a pretty big stretch to assert that it’s because of the over-praise of poetry in reviews that people don’t pay attention to it, but certainly the over-praise of poetry in reviews isn’t helping the situation any), he’s being clear on what he talks about [Sunday addendum: it looks like Plunkett's nto being so clear after all. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see an alternate take on his clarity.]. Here are his two examples. The first is Michael Dickman, and the second is Katherine Larson. Here’s his take on Dickman:
The poems in Flies follow the main form of his first book, whose poems at many formal levels open problems but often don’t close them. Their page-long sections are unnumbered, non-linear, associative, with pieces of stories and recurring themes. In the new collection, sentences and phrases are split, even words (“Flying around / the room / like a mosq- / uito”). The effect is to develop patterns of thought and of feeling and to clarify and dramatize Dickman’s conflicts about those thoughts and those feelings, as well as the conflicts the thoughts and feelings lead to. “The swing sets / aren’t really / there,” he writes in “Imaginary Playground,” as if he’d thought to say that they weren’t really real but settled on “there,” as if they could be elsewhere. The style at its best points out its own incompleteness and suggests clear meaningful ways to complete it. The reader can weigh the different ways to think, the different stories
the color of the desperation of wolves.
of your existence?
There is nothing
for inconclusive resolutions and show unclear problems. Take the first section of “All Saints”:
I made the mask
also the wings
all by myself
in the shape of a sick child
or newly cut
It was hard to stand up at first because the wings were so heavy but
I’m getting more and more used to them
More and more ready
waves of silver paint
they shine like
But the beak is real
A real beak
instead of a mouth
How does a bird outfit resemble a sick kid? Why are blind people glowing? Blinding things glow, such as angels, but why would anyone confuse them with the blind? His childhood self (whose point of view he moves in and out of) thinks that he’s gotten “More and more ready,” ostensibly to fly and to do whatever flying is a metaphor for, and he covers his mouth with a beak so that he won’t have to speak, so he can escape through flight or through silence. We know this, but the poem doesn’t embellish these conventional metaphors—flying, silence—or tell us anything dramatically interesting about the source of the child’s shame or about the intricacies of his reaction, or mimic any childlike feelings about flight and shame, or render any distinctive childlike phrases or habits of mind, or, as it should, set us up to imagine metaphors or stories or feelings or childlike idiom. The section gives us no good reason to wade through its nonsensical images to read what amounts just to Dickman’s saying that he dressed up as a bird as a kid to imagine escape from his shame. Why would anyone want to jump through rhetorical hoops to read a poem no more thoughtful than its cliché of a paraphrase?
Usually when a reviewer talks this way about a book or a poet, it’s because that reviewer has an aesthetic ax to grind. It’s a veiled polemic against “that kind of poetry” whatever that kind of poetry is. But Plunkett doesn’t fall into that trap. Here’s a bit of his take on Larson:
A welcome contrast is Katherine Larson’s lucid incoherence, which invites reflection as it escapes paraphrase:
The Milky Way sways its back
across all of wind-eaten America
like a dusty saddle tossed
over your sable, lunatic horse.
There’s no simple literal sense to the simile (The Milky Way is to America as a saddle is to a mad-horse), but the visceral descriptions draw the objects together (“back,” “saddle,” “dusty,” “wind-eaten,” “lunatic”) with an associative certainty the final rhyme secures (“tossed” / “horse” is a Yeats rhyme, imperfect but accruing). Her image of the Milky Way is a perfect point of comparison with Dickman’s, which is literally incoherent but frustratingly rather than breathtakingly so. Hers is so charged with a depth of sensuous associations that it feels raw and unconscious, dreamlike and primeval, exciting precisely because you can pleasantly think it over endlessly without ever making sense of it or having it lose its mystery. Dickman’s image aims for this, fails to please the reader, and just looks silly, a failure absent from Larson’s stunning first book.
Again, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with his evaluations of the two books as I’ve not read either, but I am persuaded that he’s talking about these books with a clarity and honesty that I welcome in reviews. He’s not trying to make these books into something they’re not. He’s reading them how they seem to want to be read, and he’s evaluating them from where they are, what they're doing. I would like very much to see more of this sort of thing.
I’ll leave you with his last bit on Larson:
Larson gives a clear image of her poems’ mystery, of how she explores like a sailor and builds like a craftsman and analyzes like a scientist, and of how she, as an artist, renders and deepens the problems that caused her to wonder. She complicates the ideas she offers most clearly, to enrich the basic mysteries. Her meanings, the vessels of her poems, “expand even as [they] fall apart,” like a quantum universe that fixes itself when it’s observed, and as the puzzle of knowing her world gives way to the mystery of how to observe it and of how to live in it:
The astronomer gazes out
one eye at a time
to a sky that expands
even as it falls apart
like a paper boat dissolving in bilge.
You can read the whole review here: