Saturday, September 18, 2010

Proof that people confuse negative with intelligently, or amusingly, critical

Not that I need open the whole debate again (nuff said on that I think), but here's a little piece by Michael Robbins that appeared in Poetry Magazine. Back when I was posting about reviews, Robbins and I were having a back and forth about what people were thinking of when they used the word "negative" in relation to criticism. He sent me a snippet from this review of Hass which made me laugh. Partly because it's funny, but it's funny because it's true. We shared a laugh. Not, I might point out, at Hass' expense. Or at least it didn't feel that way to me. If it's a visceral response one might use to gauge a critical position, good criticism makes more. Negative criticism makes one feel like losing one's lunch. Negative often seems to come in a one-two punch with grudge.

I don't get that feeling here:

Like Mary OliverBilly Collins, and Sharon Olds—in their different ways—Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery. Unlike those poets, Hass has real talent. The Apple Trees at Olema is a frustrating blend of banality and brilliance. The second volume, Praise, now reads as a primer in late-seventies period style, the kind of laid-back beach koans that led people to believe Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear” was a good poem. There are more berries, more naming of flowers, more embarrassingly tin-eared warbling in the demotic:
It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman
he fucks in the ass underneath the stars
because it is summer and they are full of longing
and sick of birth. They burn coolly
like phosphorous, and the thing need be done
only once.
     —From “Against Botticelli”
Does ass fucking really require such a high-minded justification? Upon being told someone is fucking someone else in the ass, has anyone ever responded, “What! Why?” I regret to inform the reader that Hass goes on to compare this sex act to the sacking of Troy.
Again, funny and insightful.

Here's a review of the review, oddly enough. And in the comments you'll note Steve Fama taking Robbins to task for the following:
Look, the cheap stunt nature of Michael Robbins' rip on Hass' "list of stuff in [the] kitchen" is plainly shown by the fact that he doesn't bother to discuss, or even mention, the context in which the lines appear.
I didn't feel the piece was either gratuitously stuntish, or mean-spirited. It isn't how I would approach the task, but then I don't think everyone should approach the task the same way. What Robbins points out, that I think needs to be pointed out, is the sentiment and the sincerity, that in so much contemporary poetry seems to me more laughable than Flarf.

And we really need more lucid, engaging, and less long-winded criticism. Seriously. It's called editing.


Steven Fama said...

Good points, LemonHound, succinctly put. As I said in my comment at PoetryFoundation, Robbins' review is vivid. I did red-flag one part of it, and I think properly. The body-slam Robbins puts on a set of Hass' descriptive lines ("a list of stuff in [is] kitchen") raises the question of what all Robbins dismisses, in all of poetry.

It'd be interesting to ask Robbins, if he concludes the same about all the other -- thousands -- similar lines -- in thousands of poems.

You know what I mean? For example, after reading W.C.Williams' "Between Walls," would Robbins say, "That ain't poetry, that's just something he saw coming out of work!"

Or of any number of Reznikoff poems, "That ain't poetry, that's just something he saw riding the subway!"

Unless Robbins goes all in as described above, that part of his review was a stunt, done for effect and a laugh. Especially since he didn't bother to suggest that the lines had a context.

Lemon Hound said...

Well, to me it says, if you're going insert a list of items in your poem, make it new, make it relevant, make it something...or more purposefully nothing...

You're right, this is a gesture found in a good deal of poetry. It's usually the point where I put the poem down and walk away.

Lemon Hound said...

Essay I would like to read next? The problem with unintentional boredom, or why Canadian Quiet makes me want to rip my head off...

Michael said...

I like what Matt Zapruder wrote over at THE RUMPUS, re: Steve Almond's "bad" poetry.

"It is not richness of imagination that makes some poetry better than others. Nor is it facility with language, or (despite what Aristotle thought) inventiveness of metaphor, or accurate visual imagery, or lovely sounds, or anything at all having to do with style or aesthetics. It is a matter of the purpose, the necessity, the emotional truth, of the poem."

You can tell when someone, younger poet or accomplished "master," is phoning it in, & I think that it's very easy, especially for a poet who achieves position & comfort, to do just that. Something may textually read as "true," & may have actually happened, but lack all feeling of Truth; whereas something that is totally invented & presented in odd syntax may be more true than the straightforward.

Lemon Hound said...

The truth of the poem is a phrase that puts me on guard...but there is something about the clarity of the gesture, yes. Even when its vertical, etc.

Senior artists need not get a free pass to be sure. To be frank, much of what I encounter in the poetry world seems like really great potential for poetry to happen...

MR said...

I answered SF's question in the comments 'neath the review on PF website.

Thanks for this, Sina. One love!