Monday 11 December 2017

About Sarah V. Schweig's "The Anxiety of Poetry" article

In The Anxiety of Poetry Sarah V. Schweig touches on several delicate matters in the course of analysing the reaction to Willian Logan's criticism of Jill Bialosky's "Poetry Will Save Your Life". As usual, Logan pulls no punches - "the real problem is that this book intended for adults has been written in a style that would embarrass a child of twelve. The editor of W. W. Norton’s distinguished poetry list writes as clumsily as a new-born calf.

What complicates the matter is that plagiarism is involved, that the book is a well meaning attempt to widen poetry readership (it deals with tragic deaths), and that a man is attacking a woman.

By criticising at all, Logan has asked for a backlash. As Schweig points out, "the unwritten rule in the poetry community that if you really don’t like someone’s work, you simply do not comment on it." She thinks that this is "because of a pervasive insecurity about the status of poetry in our culture", suggesting that "this incident exposes certain serious dysfunctions within the poetry industry and the way poetry insiders try to convince outsiders about the worth of their art, when they then undermine the worth of poetry as art in certain key ways".

She points out that "Poetry has the force to speak for whole generations", mentioning "Leaves of Grass", "Prufrock" and "Howl". but now, "in a frantic rush to sell itself, to be read by anyone at all, much poetry has become nothing beyond a handmaiden to identity politics". Moreover "Because those of us in the poetry world are so acutely aware that no one other than other poets or aspiring poets are reading the poetry being published today ... there is rarely ever a rigorous critique of someone’s work. And to win outsiders over, poetry is painted as therapeutic rather than rigorous, existentially challenging artwork. ... Accordingly, discourse and critique about poetry as art form takes a backseat to the right to express oneself. Any critique becomes perceived as a personal attack."

She concludes by saying "We need to have a conversation about how identity politics has shifted poetry away from the universalizing force it can be when expressing what is essentially shared and human. Otherwise, we will continue to alienate outsiders and each other in overt and sometimes inauthentic ego stroking on the one hand and silent contempt of our peers on the other."

This argument parallels the response to Arlene Croce's article back in 1994. She refused to review a show by Bill T Jones because "by working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism".

The only poetry reviews I read are in poetry magazines and blogs, written for the poetry community. I see few lacerating reviews. "disappointing" is as nasty as it gets. I see reviewers play safe, avoiding situations where their limitations, blind-spots or oversights will be exposed and backlashes provoked, though let's not forget that praise too can provoke backlashes - judges have been criticized for their choice of prizewinners.

Nowadays, I see more poetry OutReach going on, sometimes grant-aided. The under-represented (in terms of Race, Class, LGBT, Gender, Age, Disability, etc) are being given more of a voice. Traditionally, form was supposed to be integrated with content. But form can be viewed as elitist heritage, something that's taught. Now content is likely to take precedence - content that isn't just private gushing about unrequited love or expressions of private angst, but describing experiences that exemplify public concerns. Borders are being transgressed.

I work at Cambridge University, a place often accused of various prejudices. I work at an Engineering Department where male students outnumber females by 4 to 1 (and male professors outnumber females by much more). I'm aware of various initiatives regarding these issues - campaigns, positive discrimination, promotion of role-models, collection of statistics. I'm aware of how powerless an institution (or poetry magazine) can be in the face of society, media, and reduced funding. I'm also aware of the risks individuals take if they speak out against the desired trends. I know of colleagues who are wary of criticising people from minorities, who would be wary of having to satisfy admission quotas of females or people from state schools, etc. They worry that "maintaining standards" is no longer a convincing argument.

I feel nervous commenting on some poetry books. My target audience for such comments is poets, but my approach to reading can be rather like a prose reader's, ready to play call-my-bluff. "Birthday Letters" was a best-seller (controversially in some quarters given the Plath connection). I didn't see much in it. Recently I read Frieda Hughes' "The Book of Mirrors" (116 pages!) and didn't see much in that either. I thought Claudia Rankine's "Citizen" used old avant-garde methods to puff up a shortage of material, little of it new (micro-aggressions at work/school have been studied by conversation analysts for years). "Undying" by Michel Faber (about becoming a widower) was embarrassingly bad in places. These aren't difficult books to adversely review - such writers are big enough to look after themselves. Trickier to deal with are the books of friends, or books by one's (prospective) publishers. In such situations I've delayed and reconsidered reviews, but I don't think I've ever withheld a review.

Amongst the borders being transgressed are genre ones. Poetry books light on rhyme and wordplay but heavy on autobiography and politics may be criticised as indifferent poetry, but it may be fairer to praise them as adventurous genre-bending. Critics need to adapt. And so might competitions - "Citizen" is only partly a poetry book, so should it have been able to win poetry book prizes?

Poetry or criticism aimed at one audience may cause trouble if it falls in the wrong hands - Bialosky's book may be for non-poets, and Logan's review may have been aimed at poets. But does the targeted text satisfy even the intended audience? Will anything tempt a novel reader to buy 30 pages of poetry for £10.99? Is the policy of being silent rather than adversely reviewing going to be beneficial for the poetry world in the long term? Are critics being cautious for their own sakes rather than for the benefit of the community? And anyway, why should saying that a book is bad require any more justification than saying it's good? But what if reviewers knows that the poet has suicidal tendencies? Should reviewers self-censor? Or should the poet not have put themselves at risk? I don't know.

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