Critical Mass

In Support of Contemporary Poetry Reviewers

By Craig Morgan Teicher

A couple of weeks ago,, the web-exclusive publication of the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, ran an article by poet and editor Matthew Zapruder entitled Show Your Work about the state of contemporary poetry criticism. Zapruder, a wonderful poet and one of the editors of the indie press Wave Books, makes a number of critical generalizations about the poetry reviews currently published in literary magazines, on blogs, and anywhere else poetry is considered, such as: “Today, in American poetry, very few critics take it upon themselves to examine the choices poets make in poems, and what effect those choices might have upon a reader.” I’m a couple of weeks late in weighing in—there are already 200 comments beneath the article, many of them extremely lengthy and well-articulated—but Zapruder’s piece frustrates me and I want to say something while I have the chance.

In addition to the above remark, Zapruder urges the reader to “look for yourself at the vast majority of reviews in journals, in print and online, and ask yourself whether for the most part the writers are doing a good job of actually describing what the poems are trying to do, how they are doing it, and why anyone would be driven to write (not to mention read) these poems. Are these reviews in any way truly helpful for understanding poetry?” He implies that our answer to this question must be “no.” Zapruder compares the insufficient discourse around poetry—where, he claims, unsubtle or less-than-useful descriptors such as “lyric vs. narrative” are meant to explain how contemporary poems work—to what he sees as a more thorough discussion going on around visual art, in which, “museums and curators and critics (Clement Greenberg and Alfred Barr come immediately to mind) and of course artists have discussed and fought about and brought forward ideas about abstraction and representation that have trickled into the public consciousness over the last 60 years.” On the other hand, Zapruder says that, in poetry reviews, “Fundamentally, this is a problem of a failure on the part of critics to discuss, or even understand, the actual material of which poems are made.” He then gets into some specifics culminating with his reading and comparison of two poems by poets Brenda Hillman and Rae Armantrout, two poets much admired today, though also often criticized for being confusing. I won’t quote more of the piece here—you can click the link above and read it.

What I do want to do, however, is say a few brief things on behalf of contemporary poetry reviewers. Zapruder’s basic claim seems to be that few reviewers take time and space in their reviews to simply explain how the poems under consideration make meaning, to simply say what they do and how they do it. Either, he seems to think, they don’t know how to accurately characterize poetry, or they are too busy making value judgments about the books to bother to describe them.

I think he’s simply wrong—either he’s reading a weird sampling of contemporary reviews, or he’s not thinking about why the reviews he doesn’t like are written as they are, and whom they’re written by.

In my view, a critic has three main jobs: foremost, to describe the work under consideration, meaning to figure out and clearly articulate what it’s intending to do and how.  Then, the critic has to make a value judgment, basically answering the question of whether or not the work succeeds in doing what it sets out to do, and whether or not there are other successes and failures to speak of.  This is important: criticism has to police the art form.  If readers—and critics are really just representative readers—don’t say whether they think poetry sucks or not, poems go slack.  Finally, the whole thing needs to be an interesting piece of writing, a work of literature in itself, albeit perhaps a minor one.

There’s plenty of great reviewing being done by younger critics. The top tier is folks like Stephen Burt, Meghan O’Rourke, David Orr, and, though I never agree with a thing he says, Adam Kirsch. Look at any review by any of them and you’ll see a book accurately described and then judged on its merits or failings. Of course, it’s important to note that these four are all extremely practiced critics, having spent at least a decade each turning out tons of reviews, sharpening their critical intelligence, learning how to write lively prose about books that is both convincing and a pleasure to read.

The idea of practice is important to this discussion.  There’s no MFA in reviewing.  Most book critics, at one point or another, realize they’d like to try reviewing—either as an extension of the rigorous pleasure they found in writing academic papers, because they want to think hard about the poets they encounter, or because they want free books—and find a publication that will give them their first shot.  Often these early reviews—often by graduate students, and appearing in the pages of literary magazines—are not masterful examples of the art of criticism.  My first reviews certainly weren’t.  Instead, they are often full of enthusiasm, fellow-feeling, and, sure, occasional devaluation or over-valuation of a book due to thinly disguised jealousy or other personal feelings.  These reviewers will either keep at it and get better or stop writing reviews.

But, if you look in the pages—paper or web—of many literary journals, you’ll also find an abundance of thoughtfully articulated descriptions of how poems work, why they work, why we should or shouldn’t read them.  You’ll find a lot of critics who think of little else than “the actual material of which poems are made”: words and their ever-shifting meanings. In fact, you’ll find an extremely lively discussion—many discussions, in fact—in which the terms of contemporary poetry are being created, defined and refined.  In fact, the master critics like Burt and Orr are only the upper-crust of this discussion, its popular front if you will.  The real conversation is not happening in the two or three monthly pages the New York Times Book Review devotes to poetry.

Which raises another important point: discussion around poetry occupies a tiny inch of the loud public discourse on “culture” in America.  The real life of poetry takes place below the radar, in places you have to dig a bit to find, where writers of criticism are coming to the page from all kinds of different perspectives, backgrounds, specializations.  It’s a hairy spot on the body of American literary criticism.

But I actually think we’re living through a kind of golden age, in terms of the amount and quality of poetry being published as well as the depth and breadth of the discussion around it.  The rise of MFAs and better, cheaper printing technology have created an unprecedentedly vital community around American poetry, and I think the reviewers therein know what they’re doing.