written by the Judge
Criticism in most art-forms or media other than poetry is informed by at least two opposing registers. On one hand, it is concerned with the interpretation and elucidation of a text. On the other, it functions as a consumer guide. Just like the review of a car, a cruise company or a mobile phone, criticism of film, music, novels, comics and games is often concerned with letting the reader know what product they are about to invest their resources on. Is this movie worth my money? Is this music album the right type of gift for my girlfriend? Is this game something I can let my ten- and twelve-year old children play? Criticism will usually balance the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘consumer guide’ (CG from here) registers depending on how these two are balanced in the medium itself. Film reviews usually lean towards the CG, reflecting the fact that the most popular movies in terms of sales are commercial blockbusters; but they have a very powerful, firmly established institutionfor intellectual criticism as well, catering for the interests of the numerous viewers who are passionate about film-making as an art. Games, which are the youngest medium, never developed such a thing as an intellectual criticism until only very recently – and the release of triple-A titles continues to correspond to (mostly) homogeneous responses from the critics.
Poetry criticism is idiosyncratic because, even while sharing the first role of interpretation and elucidation, it lacks the CG register entirely. The question of whether a poetry collection is ‘worth your money’ is never seriously posed, and there are no concerns in terms such as parental control. Furthermore, most readers have already made up their mind on whether to buy a book or not before they read the review (often they will come to the review as a way of following up on reading the book itself). Word of mouth goes a much longer way towards popularising a collection than the established magazines and webzines for poetry criticism. Even when a reader is in doubt, the typical strategy is simply to look for poetry samples, rather than reviews. These can normally be found online, and they give a much better idea of the text than something like a trailer or an album’s single could ever hope to do.
Though these are, I think, realities of the poetic scene that most people are familiar with, newcomers to criticism (and sometimes not them alone) are still more likely to be troubled by the absence of the CG register than by anything else. We say this bearing in mind that, in a world as shifting and unstable as that of poetry, ‘newcomers to criticism’ are anything but a small or unimportant group.
Greener critics still approach the writing of a review as though its main purpose were to answer the question ‘Is it good?’ This is understandable, because it’s the question which seems to be at the heart of most other criticism out there. Unfortunately, it only really makes sense when there is a CG register behind it. ‘Is it good?’ can be translated in several manners according to the product – it can be a different way of saying ‘is it worth my money?’, or ‘does it work?’, or for more intellectual groups, ‘does it promote a set of values we approve (feminism, pacifism, liberalism, etc.)?’
On the other hand, what does it even mean to say that poetry is ‘good’? There is no consensus on the subject, no standards to appeal to. There is no Rottentomatoes.com to tell us what the critical community thinks as a whole. There’s barely any way of measuring popularity by sales, which at least provides one type of response. If anything can be said with confidence at all, it is that the criteria for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – in terms of how they can be relevant to a piece of criticism – are completely different in poetry than they are in other arts. I would go further than that and say that they are irrelevant, and that critics should not be posing that question at all when approaching a collection. Praise along the lines of ‘this poet shows real confidence in his / her diction’, or criticism like ‘some of his / her formal poems are weaker than the others’ is generally giving sterile information. So this guy’s syntax is clever – so what? Where do we go from there? What is the point of reading this? What is there to discuss, other than personal taste? This is information that the reader was probably not looking for and that, by and large, s/he does not care about. Remember: the reader has, in all likelihood, either already read the book or already made up his / her mind as to whether to buy it.
The real question that should inform a poetry review is ‘What is it saying?’ Or, alternatively, ‘What is it about? What is it really about?’ In a form of art that is almost entirely built on subtlety, allusion, metaphor, reference and double meanings, this is the one question that is always imperative, and that can never be taken for granted.
Note that I specifically said ‘What is it saying’ and not ‘What is s/he saying’. Though the most academically versed of my readers may roll their eyes and take this for a given, it’s always important to state that a poem speaks for itself, independently of the poet’s intention. Interpreting a poem is not an act of archaeology directed towards a hypothetical urtext held inside the poet’s head. Instead, it’s about letting the poem open up and speak for itself, in ways that even the artist may have been unaware of (this is easier to understand when the interpretation is negative – if you are describing a poem’s failings, you are pointing out questionable statements and internal contradictions that the author likely did not intend; the act of interpreting a poem positively should be seen as essentially no different).
The poetry critic is responsible for providing an engaged and researched interpretation for a reader who may only have skimmed through the poems casually, or may not be familiar with the context or cultural objects treated in the text (for instance, the reader may come from another country, or even be new to poetry altogether). People who dislike a collection may simply not understand it (sometimes, even those who like a collection may do so without knowing why). The poetry review should be the first place where they can turn to find someone to help them out. In this sense, a review functions a little like an introduction that is published outside of the book.
At the same time, however, the poetry critic meets in the question ‘What is it saying?’ a responsibility that is more profound than that of the mere introduction. To the extent that poetry is its own scene, environment and (sub)culture, it also carries with it its own prejudices, biases and misconceptions. There are myths – within, not only outside of the culture – that mischaracterise the poet, the reader, the media, the history, or even individual figures and movements. Sometimes poets come with ideological agendas, determined by their class, their culture and their background. It is the critic’s job, then, to identify and question specifically those discursive tropes in a poetry collection which are particular to the world of poetry.
Though we ideally assume that reading poetry always frees and expands our minds, there are ways in which it can do the opposite (and this, I would argue, is the only case in which we can legitimately talk about bad poetry – a matter which has nothing to do with technique, emotional impact or beauty / lack thereof). Lofty embellishments aside, poetry is still fundamentally one person expressing him / herself through language. And like any other mode of expression, it can and will be weighed down by the speaker’s own conceptual and cultural limits. I make an extreme example: a racist individual writing a poem will likely reveal his / her bias in the choice of words and imagery, and this will often be the case even if the chosen topic has nothing to do with ethnicity (if this does not hold true of an individual poem, it will for a full collection). The case-study is implausible – anti-racism is pretty much taken for granted in poetry circles. But what are the values that are not taken for granted? Racism is something that is easily recognised (and rejected) by the poetic groups because it comes from outside the subculture – but what of those beliefs and ideas that are particular, if not exclusive, to the subculture itself? For example, what do we consider the role of art to be in society? Are we all on the same page? Is anyone right and anyone wrong? More to the point – could our views on art be discriminating certain groups or types of artists? Could they be promoting a perspective that is in any way hegemonic, for instance by pressing the view that a poet should be doing or saying particular things, belonging to any given class or group, or that s/he should behave in certain ways in (relation to) society? Does a poetry collection in/directly promote a political agenda, and does it thereby imply that poets in general should conform to this agenda? Is this a form of discrimination that we are genuinely trained to recognise and not tolerate?
I am making examples that are generally ‘ideological’ in nature, but they don’t have to be. Any interpretation of the text that is aware of how the text derives its power and slant from its medium, its sub/culture, or its institutions will be answering the question ‘What is it really saying?’ Here are some more examples: how does the fact that an opinion is written in a poem affect our reception of that opinion? What are the themes or statements that typically appear in poetry as opposed to other forms of expression – and why are they so typical of poetry? What is it that makes them ‘poetic’? How, and how aptly, does poetry give a voice to minorities? What are the forms of minority discourse in poetry, and how is our response to this discourse different in poetry than it is when we encounter it in other media? And how do ‘minority’ poets in turn reflect these poetic expectations in their verse? Where does poetry come from, i.e. which social groups produce poetry and operate its forums – is there a pattern? – and how does their background reflect itself in the verse (we have asked this question, for example, of academics)? How is poetry represented by the greater media and popular culture, and how does this representation in turn affect poetry’s own understanding of itself?
These are exactly the kind of issues that a poetry critic has a responsibility to address, and which define his / her job as something quite different from that of the film critic, the game critic or the music critic. Poetry is not an Olympus of intelligence and sensitivity; it has its own discursive, formal, ideological limits which clamp it and its interpreters down. Recognising and pointing out these limits, so that we may all move beyond them, is the job of the critic. And if this sounds difficult or complex, you are probably reading too much into it. It is enough, when approaching a collection for a review, to ditch all the questions of whether it is good or bad or average or whatever, forget the useless mystery of what the author may have intended, and simply keep asking yourself while reading: ‘What is it saying? What is it really saying?’
(Part three coming next week, fellas. We're not done yet).