Reviewing the Review: July 17 2005

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.

3 Responses

  1. Poetry ChronicleI think part
    Poetry Chronicle

    I think part of the problem with the Poetry Chronicle feature is that it seems like the reviewers are trying to highlight their own poetic ability in the review. We see at the end of the article that reviewers Joel Brouwer and Joshua Clover each have published their own books of poetry, so they don’t need to prove their qualifications to us by trying to make each line of their reviews potential material for their next collections.

    Reviewing nine new collections at once is, in theory, a nice idea and it’s good to see poetry getting this much attention in the NYT (instead of the latest tell-all book or Margaret Atwood tome) — but at the same time it’s a bit overwhelming.

    There were two collections that I’d like to check out — The Eclipses by David Woo and Ledger by Susan Wheeler. I think you also have to admit that, despite your best intentions, picking up a collection of poetry (review or not) isn’t as likely to happen for you as a historical non-fiction volume or literary fiction new release. Just from the review, I’d suggest you check out the collection by David Woo and see what you think.

  2. I thinkthat you are
    I think

    that you are scratching the surface of a more deep rooted problem that the general populace has of, how would you say… a general lack of passion about anything that deserves a little passion.

    Our society has essentially become a hands-off society. There are no loud voices of protest because no one cares enough to listen anymore. Can you imagine if the price of gas was $2.50 a gallon 20 years ago? There would’ve been a revolution. (Actually, come to think of it, there was one, wasn’t there?)

    I think the the people who put together these reviews are just reflecting the current dominant spirit of the world, an ‘aw shucks who cares’ attitude.

    At the same time, I agree with you, where’s the fire, the passion, the next revolution to stand up to the machine and say, ‘we’re not gonna take’?
    We obviously can’t look to these people to provide that.

  3. Perhaps everyone’s
    Perhaps everyone’s unwillingness to be passionate or opinionated IS a message in itself. This blah attitude which has taken over book reviews and poetry in general could probably be the response to a world which isn’t listening as intently to any one message. Diversity and inclusion often pave the way to ‘been there done that’ word-play as newer people are introducing their words which are new to them but not to anyone else.

    There should be a literary call-to-arms beckoning the reviewer to seek action, passion and a purpose! Forget the causes. I’m tired of fundraisers and wristbands and ribbons in every color of the rainbow. Whatever happened to the days of old where wordy reviews still managed to capture public interest? The reader’s intrigue was suspended in the air until the novel or anthology dropped. Now, you can get teasers and spoilers that succeed in spoiling the fun behind discovery.

    I’m still a believer in the notion that reviewers still have noteworthy things to say. All we need is for someone to validate my theory. Any takers?

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