Brief Thoughts on the Art and Craft of the Poetry Review
Mar 28, 2018
By Colorado Review Book Review Editor Dan Beachy-Quick
The purpose of a poetry review seems as if it should be obvious enough: to offer a critical assessment of the book and author under consideration. But then I’m reminded of holding a small volume of Samuel Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare that John Keats once owned, and though I forget now what play it was, Keats had crossed out Johnson’s comments not once, but twice—first with bold diagonal lines, and then again with a tornado-like spiral. Underneath he asked: “Is criticism a real thing?” I take the question to mean that the critical effort falls somehow short of the artistic work it judges—not prey to the same sufferings and pangs of doubt that art often requires and, likewise, not subject to those sudden dizzied heights of joy. For Keats, reality was the result of ardent pursuit, and if criticism is meant to dismiss the passions in order to offer sober forms of assessment, not only does it fall short of being a “real thing,” it may well damage the reality of the world the artwork has formed within it. Then it could be that criticism is a harm to what’s real, if for no other reason than its refusal to participate in what it praises or what it condemns.
As a writer (all too occasionally now) of reviews of poetry, as a much more consistent writer of essays considering literature and art, as an editor of poetry reviews for Colorado Review, and as a poet myself, I find this question of what real criticism would look like to be ever more important. The first consideration is the position of the reviewer to the book being reviewed. Somehow implicit in the act of critique is that the critic possesses an intelligence greater than that of the book he or she is reviewing. The worst-case scenario is that the review of the book goes further toward extolling the critic’s own mind than the poetry’s own intrinsic concerns; the more common error is that the book is there merely to confirm some dim but previously held sense of things. And so it seems to me that the first art of real criticism is that of humility. Ideally, the critic is one who—as every true reader must—knows they do not know, and turns to the book to relieve that condition, not to prove their own intelligence, but to investigate the nature of their ignorance. That is, the critic is one who reads to learn, and the requirement of learning is the admission that one needs to learn. The threshold of the page requires a humility that admits the poem possesses an intelligence greater than my own, and to enter in is to confess that I’m not here to judge, but to learn.
The second art of reviewing is that of entanglement. Sometimes I feel that reading a book is akin to wandering through the woods—one gets lost, finds some self-made means of orientation, and walks back out on some other path than the one taken in, bearing on socks and sleeves the burrs of that bewildered encounter. That is to say, the encounter with a book is a lived experience—open to and exemplary of the myriad complexities of any living relationship. Real criticism, as I understand it, is nothing more, nothing less than the honest record of that complexity—a description of the getting lost, a record of those moments in the poems themselves that ring true to the reader’s mind, to their condition within the pages of the books they’re reading, and the subtle account of what remains of the experience once the experience is over. “See? Here is what I found” might be the sentence of the good critic. “See? Here is what found me” might be the sentence of the great one.
The poet Robert Duncan said that reading William Blake “broke the husk of my modernist pride”; as such, we might see the work of reviewing as a dismantling of the edifice of our learning rather than a proof of it. Then the review is more aptly considered a “view” or a “taking view”; that is, a gaining of vision rather than a rehearsal of it. The critic reveals themselves then as a participant in the book they consider, no distant, impartial judge. It is as Henry David Thoreau has it, when he speaks of the experience of reading a true work of art. He knows it’s happened when he gets to the last line, or the last sentence, finding he has a question where before he had an answer. I love a review that records the experience of the reviewer coming to the questions he or she didn’t know before to ask. Such criticism is co-creative, immersive and participatory, and might suffice to convince even John Keats that criticism can be a real thing.