Saturday, September 24, 2011

This is the kind of criticism we need more of (or maybe not)

You! Yes, You!

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

Grey-edged clouds
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
from scratch
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
the blind
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:

Well, I'd not go this far, but there weren't a lot of good images on criticism out there this morning.

I received an email this morning that seriously troubled me.  I was interested in this review by Plunkett because of what I saw it doing rhetorically.  I haven’t read either book, so I was taking the review at face value.  Actually, I wasn’t thinking much about the books themselves, but rather his trying the navigate the ways each was working with mystery (if mystery’s a good word for it.)

So anyway, someone with knowledge of the Dickman book sent me an email that seriously calls into question Plunkett’s review.  Here’s the relevant bit:


Plunkett quotes the following in his review of Dickman’s book:

      Grey-edged clouds 
      the color of the desperation of wolves.
      of your existence?
      There is nothing

However, this is a misquote from the first poem in FW’s [AnzFray IghtWray -- Apologies, but I have to write his name this way or he’ll show up and write terrible comments in the comment stream—JG] Walking to Martha's Vineyard, a poem called “Year One”.  Wright’s poem goes like this:


     I was still standing
     on a northern corner
     Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves
     of your existence? There is nothing

Aside from that he misquotes at least one line-break/word-break of Dickman’s. In the poem “Dead Brother Super Hero” the word “mosquito” is left intact, and not broken as he says it is.


So anyway, I’ll leave the post up, but if this is true (and I’m guessing it is), then Plunkett’s assessment of Dickman’s book is seriously called into question.  You know how the thing goes.  No matter what your thesis, if your supporting evidence if fallacious, then your argument fails.

So it seems we don’t really need reviews like this after all.

Sheesh.  Someone please send me a review that is a good model for a negative review please. 


At 9/24/2011 11:54 AM, Blogger adams24 said...

I agree: I like the analysis of the Dickman passages. Is it--and this is inevitably reductive--an, in part, "American" quality to be too nice and not analytic enough in reviews? I tend to enjoy Joyelle Mcsweeney's reviews, and have noticed that her negative ones tend to be much more interesting than the positive ones. For me, positive reviews often read like blurbs; and I almost always find blurbs to be intellectually lacking. LOL that said, Tyrone Williams wrote a terrific one for me.

At 9/24/2011 1:29 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

For my part, I only care to write positive reviews. I really don't know if it's out of politeness or fear of being laughed out of the room, but I much prefer keeping my negative comments to myself.

I see it as energy I could be using for so many other things other than being negative. Let Bill Logan and his clones remind us why we shouldn't like this book or that book. I will keep talking about the books I like and telling people why I like them.

Besides, the chances of anyone really taking me serious, even if I was to write negative reviews, is slim at best.

At 9/24/2011 1:40 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I’m sympathetic to your position. And there’s another flavor of it as well that says the goal of reviews is not to judge negative or positive, but to just describe. Both are fine, but what I see Puckett reacting to is different. And I think things are changing, if slowly.

I’d love it if poetry book reviews had as vigorous a reviewing community as movies do. Or at least as vigorous as the visual and performing arts.

At 9/24/2011 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've assumed it's an issue that most poetry critics are also poets. A sense that if I play nice with your book you'll play nice with mine. The love fests risk seeming disingenuous, and the violators of it (especially the mean-spirited ones, like Ivanis-shay) can leave a bad taste all around. Seems tricky to navigate for the non-fulltime critic.


At 9/24/2011 2:25 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

“His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars.”

This is collage-like and whimsical--apparently, quoted out context--but it's not impossible to visualize. I can imagine it easily. Where's the difficulty?

It's not sappy because there's no reveling in sentimentality; it's not trite because I've never read a line quite like it before; it's not nonsensical because it makes sense. It's a grammatical English sentence; it means exactly what it says.

Or am I missing something?

At 9/24/2011 2:33 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Yeah, it actually makes me think of Captain America, updated, of course, to reflect the modern condition of the country. Not that hard to get that association out of those lines at all.

At 9/24/2011 2:45 PM, Blogger Johannes said...

I'm glad he wrote the review, but I disagree with most of his views and the framework he uses to criticize Dickman: this rhetoric of mastery and accessibility, the importance of "evaluation" (some objective practice). It's the same rhetoric Hoagland has used to praise Dickman ! And the discussion of "there" seems wrong to me; doesn't "there" suggest that it really does seem present? And in a much more physical way than "real". Etc. Isn't there a point to not making lucid sense? That seems incredibly stodgy to me. I would much rather read this poem than the paraphrase because of the drama, and the way it turns out it's a plague mask, as if to ward off his memories. Now I don't love the poem but it certainly seems worthwhile to read. /Johannes

At 9/24/2011 3:18 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed. I'd much rather read this sort of reaction that you’re all having to a review than the usual passing over in silence bit. Here's some energy. That's why these sorts of negative (but his review isn't wholly negative, as he says in it that he saw these things working well in Dickman's first book) reviews can be helpful in ways that the inverse, positive reviews don't seem to be.

At 9/24/2011 3:26 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Not that I’m saying there should be only negative reviews, of course. A good reviewer lays out an argument for the work that comes from the work. And then we can look at the work and the argument and see if we see what the reviewer sees.

In this review, Plunkett’s posing himself a difficult argument between enigmatic, mysterious things that work and fail. I’m glad he’s trying to make it. I agree, that his examples aren’t the best. On top of what you point out about the Dickman, the Larson he’s quoting doesn’t to me seem as enigmatically mysterious as he’s making it out to be, as it’s mostly rather torqued-up simile. Not that torqued-up similes are necessarily bad. I’m just saying.

At 9/24/2011 4:03 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

I like breathing room, extremes can be hard to take or to maintain, but I also dislike couching, i.e. 'I'm just saying', 'In case I missed something'. I feel like I can respect and engage with almost any critical approach, from the 'Take the work on its own terms' to the polemical, extreme aesthetic ax-grinding--there's a certain belligerent conviction to the latter I simply admire the backbone of. I guess this makes criticism like the art it looks at, which is to say saying why I like / dislike something is almost impossible.

At 9/24/2011 4:14 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

Which is to say, I guess, I respect taking a stand once in a while--taking the risk of 'missing something', of deciding if you missed it, then for your experience it just wasn't there. It's their work, but your experience. This is the unnerving aspect of subjectivty (a good thing)...there's no objective measure, sure, but handing out trophies to everyone for showing up will never feel right to me. My only resting place is in personal experience; I think you 'can' say 'your experience was not mine', but yout 'cannot' say 'you missed something.'

I had a woman go off on me at length during my first year of graduate workshop because I thought her poems were bad. I couldn't apparently articulate my thoughts well enough for her--that I wasn't nor did I believe I could say her poems were objectively bad, but that to me personally they were. I wasn't making claims about anyone's experience of those poems but my own, nor did I care about anyone else's. Call me selfish, when it comes to interacting with art (my own, others) my experience is the only 'real' one to me. I can respect this kind of empathy but it's just not part of my makeup. I tried to explain that she was as welcome to ignore my opinion as I was hers, but this was never apparently a satisfactory response.

The answer to 'Who are you to say?' should always be 'Who wants to know?'

At 9/24/2011 4:20 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

Sorry for spamming, just to return to the specific post here, blanketing it, I agree, and what great reviews these are. As someone who wants to review a lot of poetry (and has been trying to do so, badly) I've been trying to figure out what I think I should be doing when I review a book. I feel very confused by the entire enterprise. I don't even know what I expect / look for / feel when I read reviews by people who are paid to do it. The entire subject is completely mysterious to me. I like the feelings here; it avoids certain expect pitfalls, as JG points out.

I do think we need more mixture, more 'negative' reviews. The philosophy of just not doing bad reviews, especially when it comes to first books, isn't doing anyone any favors.

So do I review everything I get? Do I only review books I loved? Hated? Loved/hated but not the ones I felt lukewarm to? Almost nothing I've read about the practice of the poetry review has felt 'right' to me. My simian, hapless effects continue.

At 9/24/2011 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I couldn't apparently articulate my thoughts well enough for her--that I wasn't nor did I believe I could say her poems were objectively bad, but that to me personally they were. I wasn't making claims about anyone's experience of those poems but my own, nor did I care about anyone else's."

For me this raises the question of why you'd express this kind of opinion at at all. Unless your relationship with the artist is a personal one, and she cares about pleasing you for personal reasons, why should she listen to such a judgement? What can she learn from it that can be used to improve the work in question or any other work?

Or I should say, "unless I missed something ..."
Did you try to explain the reasons behind your judgement, or did you decide this isn't your job?
The explaining is always the hard part.

Just aying "yay" or "boo." doesn't seem like criticism, and I don't see what place it has in a workshop or in a review.


At 9/24/2011 5:17 PM, Blogger Paul Otremba said...

I find this Plunkett review and the approach he is generally advocating for to be useful. I like reviews that don’t condescend to either the poems or the reader. I don’t need to be told whether or not a book is good; what I want is to be engaged, to feel as if I’ve learned something beyond a blurb by reading the review. That might just be getting to experience the reviewer’s particular habits of description, analysis, and evaluation. I think it’s a good practice in reviewing, as they used to tell me in math classes, to show your work. Or as you say, John, “A good reviewer lays out an argument for the work that comes from the work.” The conclusions of the review could be ultimately off, but I haven’t wasted my time by reading it. A review that obscures the poems by offering nothing but platitudes and unsubstantiated praise is just as boring and pointless to me as one that is only a display of the reviewer’s personality or theoretical compulsions. Plunkett didn’t waste my time. I’d like to read more reviews like this. He is, however, giving poetry criticism too much credit for what it contributes to the popularity of poetry.

At 9/24/2011 5:19 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Agreed on all points.

At 9/24/2011 5:51 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

I thought it was relatively obvious I was simplifying the point. There was a lot more to the discussion, though little of it seemed to matter to her. I elaborated, repeatedly and in-depth.

Why should she listen to such a judgment? Didn't I raise that question myself? I don't know what compelled her. The mechanism of the workshop? Pride? Curiosity? Anger? I don't know her motivations, only my own. I expressed my judgment because I was asked to.

At 9/24/2011 6:01 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That really takes me back. I can remember being asked my opinion many times in school, and then when I gave it (one student called me the "Hatchet Man" once), they acted all "Why did you just poop on the floor?"

I go to practice many versions of saying what I felt I needed to say without pissing people off. I was largely unsuccessful with that.

At 9/24/2011 6:08 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

I thought this was a funny conclusion: "This is probably why a lot of people don’t pay attention to the poetry world." I doubt it! Most movies are crap and most "film criticism" is positive, but that doesn't stop people from paying attention to movies.

At 9/24/2011 6:12 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Plunkett was most likely trying to build exigency, but it seems an obvious case of false causality. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, if I remember correctly.

At 9/24/2011 6:14 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

I wish poets could just admit that most people don't read poetry because it's boring! (You know, for the most part and by the average person's standards.)

At 9/24/2011 6:33 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Frank O'Hara: Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too. And all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American are better than the movies.

At 9/24/2011 6:38 PM, Blogger Elisa said...

Oh yes, bully for them! That's exactly it.

At 9/25/2011 6:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm less perplexed by people's lack of interest in poetry than by their active animosity toward it. I'm surprised by what I hear, often from people who read just about everything else.


At 9/25/2011 6:20 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed. It rivals mimes and ballet for the top spot of cultural animosity.

At 9/25/2011 9:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I just got an email from someone with more knowledge of Dickman's book that seriously calls into question the Plunkett review.

I'm going to add the email to the post, and change things accordingly.

At 9/25/2011 10:31 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

There have been a few articles in the past year and half, or so, on the need for less insider/obsequious reviewing in poetry. For those who may not know of it, here is the first intervention, a roundtable in the premier issue of Mayday of more than thirty poets responding to something I wrote, which I think might have played some role in sparking the topical topic:

At 9/25/2011 10:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I'm driving around today, so I womn't be able to go to your essay. But, about the "insider" question. It seems all poets are insiders to me. The only ones not insiders to an aesthetic position are poets with differing aesthetic positions, and they tend toward polemic reviews that are less about the book at hand than the aesthetics behind it.

Or so it seems to me. Publisher's Weekly runs anon reviews. There's one!

At 9/25/2011 10:46 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Hi John, the suggestion that more anonymous reviews might be a healthy development for various reasons enters my piece, but I didn't mention that at all in my comment just now. So your reference to anonymous reviews suggests that you are, indeed, familiar with the Mayday forum, even though you begin by suggesting that you aren't? That's weird!

At 9/25/2011 10:52 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Incidentally, when was the last time anyone read a negative review of a "post-avant" poet by another "post-avant" poet?

Can anyone name one?

See you at AWP! :~)

At 9/25/2011 10:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

No, I'm not familiar with it. The issue's been around a long time is all.

At 9/25/2011 11:13 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Huh, OK, well do check it out, as there is much there directly relevant to your post here. Some of the responses are great. Here are the 32 poeple who respond to my proposals:

V. Joshua Adams, Joe Amato, Robert Archambeau, Tim Atkins, Robert Baird, John Beer, John Bradley, Stephen Burt, Scott Esposito, Annie Finch, Bill Freind, Daisy Fried, Johannes Göransson, Mark Halliday, John Latta, David Lau, Eric Lorberer, Maureen McLane, Ange Mlinko, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Tom Orange, David Orr, Richard Owens, Rebecca Porte,
Kristin Prevallet, Michael Robbins, Michael Theune, Barry Schwabsky, Don Share, Dale Smith,
Rodrigo Toscano, Mark Wallace

At 9/25/2011 11:34 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

At 9/25/2011 12:17 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Hang in, Fuzz.

At 9/25/2011 12:54 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I like Camera Obscura.

I suspect that making reviews anonymous would Loganize them a lot. Consider the vitriol of anonymous comments here.

Re: the O'Hara quotation, saying bully for people who don't need poetry is like saying bully for people who prefer McDonalds to fresh fruits and vegetables. And they actually do need poetry, just as they need fresh fruits and vegetables.

At 9/25/2011 2:01 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

I just assume O'Hara is Swishing with that point.

Maybe the pants are too tight.

At 9/25/2011 2:06 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

Except veggies are objectively more nutritious than a cheeseburger; see the problem?

I think this kind of 'People need poetry they just don't know it as we poets do' is the easiest kind of solipsism and our discourse at large would mature faster without it.

At 9/25/2011 2:22 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9/25/2011 2:27 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Well, that's the second time I've been accused of solipsism at this blog. Careful, I just might blow my brains out, thereby killing you all.

Word verification: dipiness

At 9/25/2011 2:32 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

One more time and you've got enough data points to establish a trend! Don't stop now.

At 9/25/2011 5:26 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Thank you so much for posting your addendum to Plunkett’s review of Dickman . I own a copy of Franz Wright’s book ‘Walking to Martha's Vineyard’ and recognized these lines immediately:

‘Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves

of your existence? There is nothing

I was about to fire off an indignant e-mail accusing Dickman of plagiarism.


P.S. You should give up the “AnzFray IghtWray” thing. First, if the man should actually show up here again you, and we, should be honored and, second, assuming you read his interview with Anis Shivani, you should be grateful that he even bothered.

At 9/25/2011 5:42 PM, Anonymous Mike Theune said...

The call for critics to make an argument jibes with Matthew Zapruder's call for critics to "Show Your Work!"

It also jibes with many of the critics who respond as a part of Kent's roundtable in Mayday Magazine...

There's a movement afoot...

At 9/26/2011 5:02 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I don’t feel honored or grateful when someone shows up just to insult people, no matter how famous that person is.


Well, if there's a movement afoot, it's a welcome conversation. This has been an issue in poetry reviewing since Whitman.

At 9/26/2011 6:12 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I just recently read the exchange that happened between FW and you all here. Wow. I don't have anything witty or constructive to say about it. Just wow.

That Camera Obscura song is my response to Kent's question about why you don't see negative reviews.

That MZ interview was good, and I agree. I think our whole review culture is little more than an advertising campaign at this point, both for the reviewer and the reviewee.

At 9/26/2011 8:30 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

From the Editors of Claudius App, a call today for Negative Reviews for their second issue. See below:

[p.s. below is a call for submissions for claudius ii. forwarding appreciated]

"In my (by no means comprehensive) engagement with it, [The Claudius App] seems a kind of metapoetical organ (a scholarly venture into O'Brien's land of aestho-autogamy? A bid for an interview on Stephen Colbert?)" --Jerome McGann

The Claudius App, an online journal of negative reviews and poems, is now accepting submissions for its second issue, deadline November 15th. The first issue, cached into eternity at, included work by or attributed to: Charles Bernstein, Joshua Clover, Robert Fernandez, Simon Jarvis, Kent Johnson, Francesca Lisette, Joe Luna, Marianne Morris, Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Vanessa Place, Rod Smith, and Keston Sutherland. In addition to poems and negative reviews of contemporary books of poetry, we're also potentially interested in negative reviews of groups of books, groups of poems, magazines (including our own), aesthetic movements (including our own), proleptic reviews of books yet to appear, redundantly ad hominem obituaries, etc. etc. Query for more information.

Please do be advertised that this is neither the Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You nor The Balcony Where The Sun Says Good Morning. The moon in our bureau mirror will be delivered of neither pathos nor pity, is against both labor and love and any preposition that might come between them. Spray paint made pointillism obsolete. We're working on makeup but will never quit smoking: any cancer's worth giving our loved ones the opportunity for grand gestures.

Plutarch Lives! As for your monthly Ode to the National Grid, we know that pentameter rolls through all things, so take a number. "The second showerhead of your heavenly shower has been turned off in an effort to conserve our most precious natural resource," but we'll sooner die with our money in our pockets than step into that river twice. May you meet us there on the rocky banks, at the warier end of November, when our contrails will return into snow.

At 9/26/2011 9:54 AM, Blogger Whimsy said...

Kent: Regarding "The first issue, cached into eternity at" . . . I went looking and can only find the aggregated litmag boilerplate.

At 9/26/2011 10:09 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I found it here:

But this idea of an issue with a call for negative reviews, yikes. Negative reviews as theme. Well, sure, I guess.

At 9/26/2011 10:39 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


The two editors, Eric Linsker and Jeff Nagy, are recent grads from the Iowa program. Looks like things are changing... Grads from that former Mainstream factory now occupying the poetry barricades!

Encouraging, I'd say. We should stay tuned.

At 9/26/2011 12:29 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

John Gallaher said:

"I don’t feel honored or grateful when someone shows up just to insult people, no matter how famous that person is."

John, "famous" has nothing to do with it, nor does insult. First of all, the insults, from what I've seen, are usually well deserved. Franz seems to be the designated 'whipping boy' of the internet poetry community because he's the only one with the heart (and guts) to come here and deal with hoi polloi. Where's Ashbery? Where's Armantrout? et al., et al.?

It has to do with mind, intelligence, insight, skill and how we can learn and interact with our peers (especially if that person may not even be around next year. You do know he has lung cancer, right?).

Mr. Johnson: I have followed you on various internet sites for a number of years now. Would I be out of line if I suggested that you seem to have a preoccupation with names, names, names, names, names, names, names, names? :-)

At 9/26/2011 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"he's the only one with the heart (and guts) to come here and deal with hoi polloi."

I just read the thread he participated in, and saw no heart, guts, or ideas. Just the mean-spirited and pathologically defensive rantings of someone suffering serious mental illness.

I will try not to blame him for being so desperately out of control. But don't ask me to be grateful for his company.

"Where's Ashbery? Where's Armantrout? et al., et al.?"

Possibly they're writing poems. I doubt they're calling groups of their peers "cocksuckers" in a public forum.


At 9/26/2011 1:16 PM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

They probably should be. It could make for a refreshing wind, now and then.

I love how often people bait Franz into such frays and then bemoan him for showing up. It's often as petty as he's accused of being.

At 9/26/2011 1:20 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Mr. Fitzgerald,

The poetry world, for a very long time now, since, let's say, for fun, John Skelton, has had an obsessive, if enchantingly tortured, preoccupation with names, names, names, names.

But don't tell anyone!

At 9/26/2011 2:47 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Well, before Skelton. Poets have always been into kenning--like whaleroad for sea. ("This is the end of the whaleroad," Robert Lowell wrote in an early poem.)

Marianne Moore came up with some great names for the Edsel.

At 9/26/2011 3:19 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

utopian turtletop
pluma piluma
the taper acer
the pastelogram
the dearborn diamanté
the thunder crester
fée rapide
the aeroterre
the regna racer
the anticipator
the mongoose civique
the arc-en-ciel
the resiliant bullet

Ford went with Edsel.

At 9/26/2011 5:10 PM, Anonymous Mike Theune said...

When we talk about the professional dangers of publishing negative reviews, we typically think about the dangers to ourselves, but what about the effect such reviewing has on those one subsequently tries to help. Not hard to imagine that publishing negative reviews could limit the MFA programs where one's letters of recommendation would be efficacious, say.

At 9/26/2011 6:25 PM, Blogger Steve Fellner said...

Mike, I think your point is important, and I can't tell the tone of it. (whatever tone means). are you implying that the primary service of a review is pedagogical? I would never have challenged you if I didn't have a secure job--poets obey middle-class etiquette, and who can blame them? It was my dream, and it came true.

At 9/26/2011 7:16 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9/26/2011 7:27 PM, Blogger Whimsy said...

I understand the idea of Negative Reviews might be disturbing to many, particularly my writer friends more engaged/entwined/entrapped in PoBiz, but I have to admit that I find -- for example, the poster person of the worst excesses -- Logan to be mostly hilarious. And spot on, in the way that a caricturist over-emphasizes distinguishing features. Logan often says what we're all thinking, to wit: "Mary Oliver is the poet laureate of the self-help biz." But, Logan also often doubles back, praising a Cole Swensen (for example) and then throwing in "There are too many pages here where the profound is jostled off the page by the pseudo-profound, where the jittery indentations seem all too familiar, as if they’d come from How to Write Like a Beatnik in Ten Easy Lessons." I mean, do you really get more information from the average blurb or Logan's "Claudia Emerson’s well-behaved, slightly prissy poems deserve more attention than they’re likely to receive" We're all adults, we can calibrate for Logan, we can smile and like or love a lot of what we read by Graham or Olds or Brock-Broido or whomever Logan is pillorying and still shuffle off and secretly admit that he's often right about what goes wrong in their work.

At 9/26/2011 7:44 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Whimsy, one of my secrets: I often prefer the negative criticism of poets I like to the positive. The former is often more illuminating. For example, one of the best essays about James Tate I've read is a mostly disparaging one by Mark Halliday. It didn't dim my admiration for Tate one watt; it just helped me understand him a little better.

At 9/26/2011 9:31 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


The Pedant

So many verses read, references compiled,
so many titles quoted and remembered;
a wealth of prosodic structure understood.
You have studied every poet from Petrarch
to Poe to Plath and none of it
has done you any good.

You have never quite experienced exactly
what the poet’s count and meter said you should,
done that of which all these poems speak.
Vicariously you lived, your chips untendered,
your connection weak and for all intents and purposes
now almost dead and past your peak.

You have traded all your living, the edge and energy,
the colors of the life that set you on this path
for the lives of all the others that you’ve studied,
dissected and dismembered, and never found
that truth of which you seek, the epiphany
you always thought you would, that now,
you finally realize, you never really could.

Copyright 2010 – Ponds and Lawns-New and Corrected Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald


At 9/26/2011 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and never found
that truth of which you seek, the epiphany
you always thought you would, that now,
you finally realize, you never really could."

Thank god. If I ever read about another epiphany I think I'll slit my wrists.


At 9/26/2011 10:22 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

No reason to be mean, dude.

Actually...this is an anti-epiphany poem. Read it again.

At 9/26/2011 10:26 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Or..."am I missing something?"

At 9/26/2011 10:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wan't being mean. I get the anti-epiphany. I hope you're right about the pedant never finding an epiphany, because I don't want to read what he writes if he does.


At 9/26/2011 10:47 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Well, Paul, you beat me to the punch. I just came back in to the house (from sitting in my truck in the driveway listening to my favorite UFO show in order to not piss off my wife, who's trying to sleep) to delete my two previous comments because I realized that you were way, way ahead of me. Or, at least, more sober than I am.

I appreciate the comment. You da man!


At 9/26/2011 11:41 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

The world seems to be going insane.

I thank God that there are still people out there who are smart enough and gentle enough and open-minded enough to still love poetry.

Unfortunately, we're all still going to die. I suspect it will be the Republicans that eventually do us in.

At 9/27/2011 4:50 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

They too are going to die. Who will we blame then?

At 9/27/2011 5:05 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Alien abductees?

At 9/27/2011 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, I'll read the aliens' epiphanies, but please not the abductees'.


At 9/27/2011 7:17 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Let's have some endophanies for a change. Or hypophanies.

At 9/27/2011 8:18 AM, Blogger Whimsy said...

"Aside from that he misquotes at least one line-break/word-break of Dickman’s. In the poem “Dead Brother Super Hero” the word “mosquito” is left intact, and not broken as he says it is."

The word "mosquito" IS, in fact, hyphenated in the version of the poem on the Academy of American Poets' site ( It is not hyphenated in the book, however. It may be that Plunkett had the online version open, the better to cut-and-paste from.

The second "problem" is that

Plunkett quotes the following in his review of Dickman’s book:

Grey-edged clouds
the color of the desperation of wolves.

However -- at least in the article I have open in my browser right now -- he quotes no such thing, he quotes the correct version:

Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.

At 9/27/2011 8:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

AARGH. I was taking the email on face value as it was from someone I know. It seems everyone needs a little refresher on how to quote.

But the bit attributed to Franz Wright is still not in the Dickman book, right? I mean, if it is, then, well, you know.

At 9/27/2011 8:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And I need to double check as well.

At 9/27/2011 8:34 AM, Blogger Whimsy said...

Right, John, it's not in the Flies. But, I think the emailer just misunderstood Plunkett in this passage. I *think* Plunkett means that the lines are from Wright, but if you read this part quickly, perhaps you might think he's attributing them to Dickman:

The reader can weigh the different ways to think, the different stories to tell, which makes for great mental music in some poems of Franz Wright, Dickman’s former teacher, whose "Year One" needs no explanation:

Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.

of your existence?
There is nothing

At 9/27/2011 8:39 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

So Plunkett's just being a little unclear. That's good.

So that brings this comment stream right back to where it started! I like it.

And then no apologies are in order. Just if one finds Plunkett persuasive or not. (Which was not really my point. I don't have either books, so I was just reacting to what seemed an even-handed, negative review with a supporting argument.)

At 9/27/2011 8:40 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

David Grove mentions Mark Halliday-- indeed, Halliday can write smart and searing negative reviews: one that I remember in particular is on Joshua Clover's The Totality for Kids, very sharp, even if I'd argue with some things here and there withing the scorched-earth of it all. Halliday's an interesting critic. I think he and Theune have a collaborative book coming out, if I'm remembering rightly. Is that so, Mike?

At 9/27/2011 9:37 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I was in a workshop with Halliday once. At the time I found him a bit dour and cool--probably because he didn't care for the Plathesque tercets I'd submitted. In retrospect I think he was just serious about poetry and not looking to win any suavity awards. He's a good writer.

At 9/28/2011 10:52 AM, Anonymous Mike Theune said...

Mark Halliday is a terrific critic. His critiques of Merwin's Shadow of Sirius (which I attempt to fend off in our collaborative essay, which will be published in a book, edited by Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer, on Merwin's recent poetry) are serious and substantive, though Mark's approach is playful, even parodic.

(Negative reviews, it seems, can be fun--perhaps the humor takes the edge off, even while further driving home the point... Halliday is witty. Logan can be great fun. And check out Epigrammititis by our own Kent Johnson for some important, comedic critiques.)

Steve Fellner: you bet: all reviews--or, all good reviews--are pedagogical, though I don't know if that's their primary function, and though who exactly the students are is less obvious than in, say, the classroom, where, on good days, civil, clarifying discourse can arise when good questions are asked.

At 9/29/2011 7:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember this:

I think the problem with negative reviews is that they are often themselves really badly written. Hoagland. Logan. Those Contemporary Poetry Review people. There always full of ad hominem nonsense and not enough Dr. Johnson.

Why are there so many more positive reviews than negative ones? Because writing reviews is a pain in the ass. And if you're going to do it, you probably want to do it for something you like.

At 9/29/2011 7:48 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

If there were more money in it, of course, people would want to be reviewers. It could be a thing itself. We really don’t have poetry reviewers in the way that there are art critics and film reviewers.

So the only people who review poetry are poets (there are so few exemptions I feel I can run with the universal), and poets bring a whole series of issues to bear. Yes, yours is a big one. To write a review you have to read the book, and if one comes across a book that one would want to give a negative review of, there’s the time/effort thing to get over.

So mostly the negative reviews I see are from people who want to make larger points about aesthetics, and then I feel I can’t trust them. Hoagland, yes. But Halliday, as much as people have been praising him here, is also in that category. Of course, he’s going to go after Clover. Of course, he’s going to say Hoagland is wonderful.

I like it when I’m surprised, like how Logan has to concede that he likes some things about Armantrout and Swensen. We get way too little of that.

At 9/29/2011 7:55 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I don't like to make enemies. It makes me feel really bad. Besides, if some poetry is no good, it'll pass into oblivion without any help from me.

At 9/29/2011 8:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed, that's another big one. That because there are so many books of poetry published every year that will sell under a hundred copies (ouch, but I know this all too well), we don't have time to say no to something when it means ignoring something we want to spend our time saying YES to. And why make an enemy of the poet you want to write a negative review of, anyway, when you don't have to. Right.

And who has time to write anonymous reviews, which is an answer to this? They would either have to be paid well for their time . . . not to mention most people who write reviews have jobs of some sort that rely on having them get credit for what they write. Anonymous reviewing doesn't help with tenure . . .

At 9/29/2011 2:33 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Well, since I seem to have developed a reputation for pissing off (quasi)poets anyway, I'll say this:

Those who can, do.

Those who can't, teach.

Those who can't teach become critics.

Has anyone here ever actually read any poetry by William Logan or Joan Houlihan? God save us all!

Oops...sorry. Must be drunk again.

But, honestly. Peer review of a scientific paper is of great significance and can make all the difference in one's career. Peer review of a poetry book is...umm, well? What? La de da.

John Keats was devastated by the bad reviews of his poetry. Does anyone even remember the critics who attacked him? But we all remember Mr. Keats, don't we?

At 9/29/2011 3:54 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

"Here are Johnny Keats' piss-a-bed poetry, and three novels by God knows whom... No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don't I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the Mankin." --Lord Byron

At 9/29/2011 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Those who can, do.

Those who can't, teach.

Those who can't teach become critics."

You're forgetting, "those who can't do or teach or become critics repeat old, tired, useless clichés online."

Truth is, most of my favorite poets are both teachers and critics.


At 9/30/2011 4:45 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Those who can neither write poetry nor teach it nor criticize it nor indulge in online cliché the Nobel Prize.

At 9/30/2011 6:12 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


To Byron

Byron! how sweetly sad thy melody!
Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
As if soft Pity, with unusual stress,
Had touch'd her plaintive lute, and thou, being by,
Hadst caught the tones, nor suffer'd them to die.
O'ershadowing sorrow doth not make thee less
Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
With a bright halo, shining beamily,
As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Its sides are ting'd with a resplendent glow,
Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
And like fair veins in sable marble flow;
Still warble, dying swan! still tell the tale,
The enchanting tale, the tale of pleasing woe.

- John Keats

At 10/01/2011 6:39 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Hmm. Line seven is only tetrameter. Well, he was only in his late teens when he wrote this one, right?

At 10/01/2011 11:15 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

The point is that a criticism by Byron is invalid in that he and Keats (and Shelley) were acquaintances. There were a lot of personal dynamics, and jealousies, going on.

I truly feel bad for you young'uns and your dismal educations. It's really not all your fault.


Post a Comment

<< Home