I’m feeling deeply conflicted over the fact that today’s New York Times Book Review is devoting two full pages to new poetry publications by David Budbill, Alan Shapiro, Gabrielle Calvocorressi, Brad Leithauser, Corinne Lee, Susan Wheeler, Richard Siken, Juliana Spahr and David Woo. This is a generous allotment of attention, and critics Joel Brouwer and Joshua Clover do their best to point out what is unique and interesting about each of the books. As a critic who appreciates poetry, I feel I should applaud this gesture.
Why is it, then, that after reading each capsule review I cannot possibly lie to myself and say I want to read any of these poets further? There is something about the format, or perhaps something about the aura of the Book Review itself, that makes the dullness of poetry rise to the surface whenever they touch it.
The politeness has to go. It feels dismissive, like when you go to an ultra-chic party and the hosts rush forward to visibly greet you (thus freeing them from having to talk to you for the rest of the night). We read a line like “Calvocoressi brings keen and sympathetic attention to the local disasters the larger world has often overlooked”, and our natural reaction is “Good, so that’s been taken care of.” As long as Calvocroressi keeps paying that keen and sympathetic attention, we can rest assured that somebody is on the case. With each respectful capsule review, I sense the corresponding book being placed quietly onto a shelf, from which it will never again be taken down.
If and when a good new book of poetry is published, I want to hear the reviewer scream about it. I want convulsions of joy. T. S. Eliot always reminded us that poetry is a divisive, powerful force that will save some souls and drown some others, like God’s vengeful Red Sea. I’d like to see a little more of that kind of conviction when the New York Times Book Review covers new publications. Enough with the nice.
Niceness is not poetry’s only foe; hipness is just as bad. I’ve committed myself to reviewing two literary venues each week here on LitKicks, and despite the vast differences between the New York Times’ Sunday book supplement and HBO’s spoken-word showcase Def Poetry, I am amused to find that both of them leave me similarly frustrated. Isn’t there a way to make poetry feel like more than a chore?
I want both venues to turn up the heat, to bring the passion. There are wars going on in the world; there are hearts breaking, miracles occurring, and secrets exploding every second of every minute of every hour of every day. There is no excuse for pat, self-satisfied poetry critiques, or repititive, cliche-ridden poetry shows. I don’t know what the answer to this problem is; I only know I’ve done a lot of reading and listening this weekend, and I’m still waiting for the Red Sea to part.
Okay, as for the rest of today’s Book Review: there’s yet another complete pan of John Irving’s new Until I Find You, and at this point I’ve read enough bad reviews of this book that I am absolutely sure I will never ever read it. So that’s that. Emily Nussbaum’s coverage of Envy, Kathryn Harrison’s new novel about a troubled and repressed family (Harrison’s specialty), left me intrigued enough that I may someday read this one, and Lesley Downer’s description of Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl definitely makes me want to read the book, which appears to be something like Thomas Tyron’s chilling doppelganger tale The Other, set in modern-day Nigeria and England.
There’s also a well-written but tame essay by David Leavitt about the history of gay bookshops. Again, though, please, more heat.