Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Death to Reviews!

Jordan wonders if we need a new "poetry paper of record," one that would do the job the NYT and Poetry aren't capable of doing anymore. "The issue is that there is no robust national discussion of poetry."

True enough. But is the antidote more reviews? Is the culture of reviewing relevant anymore to the culture of poetry?

Reviews and print culture were born together: the emergence of something like a mass market for books required the rise of a class of gatekeepers who could sort through things, pass judgment, tell the bourgeois reader what was worth buying and what not. The reviewing culture we're left with is a vestige of that, evaluating books of general interest for the mythical general reader. But a quick glance at the NYTBR or its ilk, with their focus on "serious" fiction, big biographies, and academic popularizations, shows how powerless reviews are these days to sort through even a fraction of current book production, much less to find everything that is important.

The much-ballyhooed decline of poetry reviewing in the major journals has nothing at all to do with declining readership; if anything, more poetry books are sold today than ever before. Instead, the review itself, as a form, has proven incapable of coping with what American poetry culture looks like now: a culture that's now able to support a vast variety of activity, but which increasingly has no obvious center of gravity, no three or four writers you can point to as The Only Ones Who Matter.

This is why every poetry review in a "major" journal sounds like an ax-grinding: it has to do enormous work just to position itself within the highly contested field of contemporary poetry, if it's going to have any credibility with poetry readers. Yet such gestures make poetry reviews increasingly useless, both to non-poetry readers and to poetry readers who don't share the reviewer's aesthetic.

It seems like Poetry is trying to make over its image by provoking precisely the kind of robust discussion Jordan's calling for. The results are embarrassing because Poetry doesn't know what the hell it's about, so it can only pose its questions in the broadest, most banal terms. In this atmosphere of the general, all judgments will look petulant and arbitrary to most readers, because there is no shared context, and debate is reduced to name-calling. (Poetry does, of course, have an aesthetic, but it's the aesthetic that dare not speak its own name.)

For better or worse, U.S. poetry has become largely a community of participant-observers. Poetry's current readers don't need gatekeepers who will pick out a few gems from an undifferentiated mass of work; what they want out of a review is less a thumbs-up-or-down evaluation than a response that keeps a certain aesthetic conversation going, and that expands their own sense of what poetry can do.

Don't get me wrong. I'm totally sympathetic to Jordan's aims. But I think the pitfalls of Poetry would happen to any poetry review that aimed too squarely at the general. Boston Review and Rain Taxi, when they work, work because they know their audience and speak intelligently to it; and the work there, I would guess, is more useful even to someone who doesn't share its aesthetic, because it doesn't need to spend time dynamiting the ground ahead of it.

I'm guessing that the desire for a new poetry review is also a desire for the kind of "impact" and influence that a mag like Poetry has, or was once thought to have. But, to borrow a phrase, does Poetry matter? It's a magazine that has never had more than a few thousand subscribers; Ron Silliman gets that many reads on a bad day. It's been coasting on Ezra Pound for almost a century. Now that it's unthinkably wealthy, it shows no signs of doing anything different, of being any more ambitious. It is central only in the mind of its editors and contributors, and only as long as we (among the few readers who could possibly care about it) continue to make it central.

The day when we could have a poetry paper of record--or when that would have been a desirable goal--is likely over. But that longed-for robust discussion, that conversation, is, I think, going on all around us, although maybe not in the traditional form of the review.
So what is this discussion like, who is doing the discussing? I'd imagine it would be a mixture of the known and unknown, practicing poets next to concerned citizens next to faculty (some overlap in each case, I'd guess). It would be ideal for the roster to be fifty-fifty women and men.
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