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On the Necessity of Bad Reviews

 

 

by

 

 

Adam Fieled

   

 

The attitudes prevalent in the poetry world today have created an atmosphere in which bad reviews of poetry books are (for the most part) unacceptable. The phenomenon of the poetry review-as-puff-piece takes place in a wide variety of contexts—online journals and blogs, print journals, press releases, and anthologies. The poetry protocol of gathering positive quotes to use on book jackets fits squarely under this rubric. I would like to opine that this trend, which encourages clannishness, reinforces coterie affiliations, and establishes poetry as a lightweight art-form, is largely negative and needs to be changed. Even popular music contexts encourage more healthy debate, where aesthetics are concerned, than poetry does. Aesthetic debates in poetry tend to be “my group against your group,” a struggle for uncontested hegemony, rather than the productive arguments that initiated movements like British Romanticism and Modernism, and resulted in stunning new work. “Soft poetry culture” necessitates that interviewers ask easy questions, older poets are surrounded by fawning sycophants, while younger poets jockey for position based on their connections and alliances. For poetry to become a culturally heavyweight art-form again, poets (especially the ones being nurtured in MA and MFA programs) need to be taught to question their teachers, challenge poetry systems, and (perhaps most importantly) to write both good reviews and negative ones. The poetry world suffers from a dearth of angry young men and women, of rebels and revolutionaries. The first question that arises from these assertions is a crucial one—if “soft poetry culture” is predominant, how and why did it become this way? The answers are complex and myriad—nevertheless, a tentative investigation may be fruitful if it is agreed that these issues are, in fact, issues, and important ones.

 

Most poets in this day and age have some affiliation with academia. If you are reading a modern poet’s book, there is a very good chance that the poet has not only a university degree but an advanced degree (usually an MFA or MA) as well. The relationship between poetry and academia has become so entwined that it may no longer be worthwhile to investigate whether or not this basic association itself is healthy or unhealthy. What, exactly, are poets being taught in these programs? Programs vary widely, and it would be absurd to generalize; nonetheless, I have both an MFA and an MA, one from a conservative institution, one from a liberal institution. This puts me in a unique position to comment on this situation. I do so, enjoining the caveat that I welcome both commentary and dissent, and that there may or may not be representativeness to my experiences. I have found conservative and liberal poets to be roughly 70% similar; they tend to credit themselves with much more differential than is actually there. Both sides cling very closely to coteries and coterie affiliations; both tend to encourage their students to accept their pronouncements uncritically. In my experience, poetry teachers at this level tend to only use “hardness” (hard pedagogical techniques) to keep others soft. Soft poetry culture dictates a strict master/servant relationship in these contexts—masters can be as hard as they want, servants (students) must remain soft. In more exacting disciplines (the natural sciences, for example), this division is more necessary— answers can be proven, things need to be learnt. But in art, which has as its ontological foundation what might be called “total subjectivities” (no one can prove what works, what does not, and even master narratives often come down to people’s opinions), master/slave dynamics are not only unproductive but actively unhealthy. Liberal poets, I have found, are 30% more genuinely liberal than conservative poets, and 70% as pigheaded, domineering, and coercive. Investigation of these issues becomes like playing with Russian dolls; opening up one issue leads directly to the discovery of another one. What leads poetry teachers in these programs to disseminate soft poetry culture through hard tactics? If it has the effect of softening sensibilities, why do sensibilities need to be softened?

 

I wrote, in a preface to Ocho #11, that poetry is a tough gig, and it is. Material rewards are scarce, competition is fierce, and tremendous dedication is required to even get a foot in the door. Those who have the good fortune to become successful in poetry tend to be warped by the atmosphere of deprivation that surrounds poetry endeavors. The line between those who are successful and those who are not can be thin indeed. Poets are fiercely protective of their little domains (and they usually are very little indeed), and this fiercely protective instinct gets enacted by a process and an impulse not unlike what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “demarcative imperative.” Those who are above are forced by ambiguous circumstances to say they are above, and to enact this superiority. Students must be softened into receptivity—a student reacting to hardness with hardness would be an impermissible threat, in a radically unstable, ambiguous context. This is how soft poetry culture is perpetuated—through the hardness of teachers. And it is through teachers that students often obtain their first publication opportunities. Thus, young poets become “foot soldiers” for their teachers—they are soft meat, determined to carry the torches that have been passed down to them. Because so many poetry contexts are predicated on regionally or aesthetically dominant coteries, to break out of these rigid structures is a task indeed, and one younger poets are not encouraged to undertake. “Toe the line,” goes the master narrative that dictates so much of younger poets’ behavior, “and you will be rewarded; expressions of individualism will lead to irreversible exile status. It is softest (and most rewarding) to conform.”

 

Textual expressions of conformity often take the form of puff-piece reviews. In an unspoken fashion, this becomes a mode of “playing the game,” which necessitates perpetual softness. It also must be noted that “screaming at the other side” (who may or may not be listening) of the liberal/conservative, experimental/mainstream divide does not necessarily qualify as hardness. It reinforces a poet’s own coterie associations, and is often used as a tactic to draw attention to one’s self. Honest looks at those within one’s own domain are hard to come by, and this fact prohibits poetry from becoming as rigorous (formally and thematically) as it could be. Students beaten into softness are so terrified of losing their little places that criticism of what immediately surrounds them would be unthinkable. Combat (perverse as this sounds) needs to start at home; conflict and warrior skills should not merely be aimed at distant enemies. Conflict within coteries should be encouraged; individualism needs both to be espoused and practiced by teachers. Taking this a step further, the question remains as to what a more ideal (or “heavyweight”) poetry world would look like. Why would, not a dominant strain of bad reviews, but a balance of good and bad reviews, inject new life into an art-form that many people have given up for dead?

 

Young artists need to have teeth, bite, and guts. To the extent that young artists are being taught that teeth, bite, and guts (and I will resist the temptation to get academic with these words, as commonsense definitions apply) are negative, undesirable attributes, the poetry world looks (at least from a distance) like a realm of stilted pabulum. Non-poets tend to think of poetry as boring; it often is. Artists that work in other mediums actively employ the works of canonical poets, while eschewing works of contemporary poets, for a simple reason: because contemporary poets are not good enough (this applies to everything from R.B. Kitaj’s usage of Eliot to Lady Gaga’s fascination with Rilke). Older poets have had their shot; the decades to come may show to what extent they have or have not succeeded in their endeavors. But the real fate of modern poetry is in the hands of younger poets, who (whether they realize it or not) do have options. One healthy option to explore is the possibility that an approach grounded, not in softness or hardness alone, but in a balance of softness and hardness (as manifested both in poems and in reviews), would be conducive to the growth of healthy, diverse poetry contexts, which could transcend the usual coterie prejudices. As a final confession, I will say this: I have written my share of puff-pieces. But the time has ended in which I can do this in good conscience; and to the extent that I feel writing negative reviews could, in some sense, be productive, I will be willing to get the hatchet out.

   

 

 

copyright © Adam Fieled

 

 

 

 

Adam Fieled is a poet, critic, and musician currently based in Philadelphia. He has released three print books: Opera Bufa (Otoliths, 2007), When You Bit... (Otoliths, 2008), and Chimes (Blazevox, 2009), as well as numerous e-books, chaps, and e-chaps. His work has appeared in journals like Tears in the Fence, Great Works, Upstairs at Duroc, Cake Train, and in the &Now Anthology from Lake Forest College Press. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he also holds an MFA from New England College and an MA from Temple University, where he is finishing his PhD.