Monday, April 07, 2003

Confessions of my bourgeois reading habits (1): Every time I read a review by Alex Ross, the New Yorker's classical music critic, I feel like I need to catch the next plane to New York to catch whatever performance he's talking about, or run to the local record store to buy the complete works of, say, John Adams (which I actually did). In the New Yorker's March 31 issue he has a piece on Berlioz, whose work I know basically not at all (I think I have a cheap recording of the Symphonie Fantastique around somewhere), in which he notes that at times Berlioz's music "sounds brand-new, as if it had been written last month by a young genius of postmodernism." It's precisely that kind of gesture that I admire in Ross's reviews--and it's a particularly striking trait in, of all things, a critic of classical music, one of the few high art forms that seems almost as marginalized as poetry. Ross makes classical music seem like something 21st-century culture ought to care about, and yet he does it without even a hint of the snobbery or condescension that's associated with classical music in the popular mind. His tone is knowledgeable and even nerdy without seeming pedantic; he doesn't imply that we ought already to know why Berlioz is important, or that we have to have digested the oeuvres of Mozart and Beethoven already to understand him. When he tells us that "Berlioz's music shoudld somehow be played and heard in an alternative universe in which Wagner never existed," he tells us what this oddly sci-fi comparison means (Berlioz gives us a totally different nineteenth century than Wagner does). He's masterful at evoking the particularity of a performance--the "stray flutes and sinster tubas" of a Colin Davis performance--and at a judicious use of biographical detail that intrigues without romanticizing.

Ross is, if memory serves, an alum of WHRB, the Harvard radio station, where I worked in the classical music department as an undergraduate. I'd done some radio in high school, so I naturally gravitated there when I arrived at college. I assumed I'd do rock programming. But it turned out that to join the rock department you had to pass a strangely rigorous test of music knowledge involving a long list of obscure indie bands; oddly, they, and not the classical folks (who would take anyone willing to put in the time) turned out to be the snobs of the station. (Once a station engineer proposed that WHRB do an "orgy" of the music of They Might Be Giants. After the rock department refused [too mainstream], the engineer did the program himself; during the program, he received calls from people who shouted "Corporate crap! Corporate crap!" and then hung up.) So I joined the classical department, which turned out to have a lot of the virtues I find in Ross's criticism: breadth and depth of knowledge without pedantry or snobbery (well, sometimes); a willingness to juxtapose the well-known and the obscure; and an interest in classical music not as some kind of remote cultural monument but as something present, to be enjoyed every day.

So here's my question: why don't we see poetry criticism that has these qualities? To be fair, this is part of the larger question: why don't we see poetry criticism at all in places like the New Yorker? Why are ballet, modern dance, architecture, movies, TV, classical music, and drama all considered worthy of reviewing in those pages, but not poetry? But I'm not going to give any of those "poetry is dead" answers that we've heard all too often over the past two decades. Instead, think about the kind of poetry reviews that do, or did, enjoy some prominence. They're all too often exactly what Ross's pieces aren't: snobby, condescending, pedantic, remote.

In the early '90s, the New Yorker would still publish the occasional poetry review. The review was almost always by Helen Vendler and almost always focused on one of the few mega-poets that Vendler favors (Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, etc.). Here's an entirely random example--the opening of a Vendler review from The New York Review of Books a few years back:

"Two admirable postwar poets, Wislawa Szymborska (born in 1923 in Poland) and Tomas Tranströmer (born in 1931 in Sweden), troubled by what they saw as the moral insufficiencies of both formal religion and Marxist optimism, have sought spiritual understanding outside organized institutions. Of course, few reflective persons who lived through the same period were exempt from such thoughts. But lyric poets, who may be as aware as any novelist of what is happening in society, must condense social questions into personal ones and must transform written language by giving it rhythmic breath and musical cadence."

Compare this to the opening of Ross's Berlioz review:

"'Berlioz believed neither in God nor in Bach, neither in absolute beauty in art nor in pure virtue in life,' his friend Ferdinand Hiller recalled. The composer of the 'Symphonie Fantastique' retains a fashionably satanic aura, and the reputation is earned. The 'Fantastique,' his masterpiece, anyone's masterpiece, remains a totally shocking work after all these years, and no modern music has every really matched it. The symphony's inexhaustible novtelty comes not from the discovery of new sounds--although there are many--but from the diabolical manipulation of familiar ones."

Ross knows how to write a lead; he immediately gives us a character, a devilish motif, but then leads us to a thesis that insists on the newness and relevance of Berlioz's accomplishment: a biographical bonbon with an analysis in the middle. Vendler, in contrast, gives us a set of ponderous abstractions: I'm certainly not going out of my way to read about the "moral insufficiencies" of Marxism and religion in a poem. What's most characteristic--and most deadening--in Vendler's passage is the academic move toward the impersonal generalization, the nod to what we "reflective persons" all ought to know already. And then there is the closing dictum: "lyric poets...must condense social questions into personal ones." What's off-putting here is not even the sentiment itself, but the tone of moral propriety in which it is delivered, a tone that guarantees that no one but another lyric poet (and maybe not even) will care about its message. What Vendler is seeking is not an understanding of the individual contributions of these poets but Poetry Itself and its Purpose. There's no ease, no pleasure in the pursuit, and no sense that any of the rest of us (inattentive to moral insufficiencies and lyric poets alike) ought to pause to take notice. "Of course": perhaps the rhetorical gesture that most separates insiders from outsiders, and makes the latter turn away in indifference.

Although outlets for poetry reviewing in the mainstream media have dried up, it's not as if poetry reviewing isn't going strong; it's just moved elsewhere. But by and large what this means is that poets are reviewing poets for other poets. Not to credit Language poetry for inventing something again, but a journal like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was particularly distinctive for its "engaged" reviewing, by which I mean the review would itself become a poetic text, often incorporating and riffing on the material it was ostensibly "reviewing." Very productive for the reviewer, I think, and a striking example of dialogue between reader and text. But at the same time insular: almost by definition such a reviewing practice isn't going to bring a text to a larger audience than it might already have. You don't have to subscribe to a simplistic notion that a review "explains" a book of poetry or tells you what it's "about" to recognize that a review can mediate between a book and a potential audience, making an argument for value that might bring a book to the attention of a new reader--and, perhaps most importantly for experimental texts, give that reader a reason to believe that something significant is going on. A book like Charles Bernstein's Content's Dream moves brilliantly between a mode of poetic response and one of critical mediation designed to persuade an audience that experimental poetry is not just interesting but crucial.

Alex Ross is neither an academic nor a musician; he's a journalist, and reviewing itself is his craft. Can we imagine someone playing the same role for poetry today? A lot of academic critics have spent so long bemoaning the "death of poetry" that they've convinced both themselves and the editors of the major intellectual magazines. Poets, often convinced of their own marginality in the culture, remain satisfied with talking to each other (which is indeed a necessary nourishment). But look: symphony orchestras and classical stations are failing all over the country, too. Ross simply writes as if that were immaterial, but he also doesn't assume the weight of educating us in Music. He writes as if music were something we might do right now, and he believes it's important to mount an argument for why we should care. Should it be so hard to do that for poetry?

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