Reviewing the Review: May 29, 2005

There are two full-page articles about poetry in today’s New York Times Book Review. The article on page 13 is a good example of what I like about the New York Times Book Review, and the one on page 12 demonstrates exactly what I hate about it.

Stephen Metcalf reviews a new Richard Wilbur collection on page 13, and this article serves one of the key purposes of a good and useful book review: it tells me what is unique about this book, and makes me want to read it. I’ve heard Richard Wilbur’s name mentioned a few times, but I can’t recall ever noticing a poem of his. Having read this review, I am now going to search this book out and find out more about this poet, who is apparently an American traditionalist rhymer in the spirit of Robert Frost. (I’m not saying I’m going to buy the book, but I will look at it.)

Page 12 presents a critical review by David Lehman of a book by critical essayist Adam Kirsch, “The Wounded Surgeon”, which is apparently about the value of confessional poetic methods in the works of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrett, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. The problem is, critic David Lehman apparently disagrees with critic Adam Kirsch on virtually every point, which leaves me without much to go on, since I can neither extract whatever is good from Adam Kirsch’s book from David Lehman’s pointed sentences nor tell exactly what if anything is good about David Lehman from it, since he is too busy trashing Adam Kirsch to explain to us what exactly he stands for in this world.

What on earth is the point of assigning a critic to review the work of a critic he disagrees with? It’s a waste of a good page. It reminds me of a recent trip to Rockaway Beach in which I found myself between two Hispanic families each blasting different radio stations playing very similar music. If one of them had just tuned to the other’s station, it would have sounded good. Reading a critic’s review of a critic is like watching a movie projected on top of another movie. The Book Review would have done better if they’d just asked an entry level staffer to summarize what Adam Kirsch had to say, and then given David Lehman a few minutes for a rebuttal at the end.

As for the rest of the Book Review: the fiction section is short, consisting of capsule reviews of five new books, of which I’ll probably check out one, “Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue” by Mark Kurlansky. One in five; not too bad.

The cover story is a biography of powerful early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, by Lyndall Gordon. Toni Bentley’s review is good enough, and it ends appropriately with a reminder of Wollstonecraft’s distinctive legacy, her daughter Mary Shelley.

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