Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On the Question of Critical Passivity

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding Jessica Smith's post regarding the potential vitriolic nature of comment streams, not very many people have mentioned what is for me was a truly dangerous political statement. Most people have addressed her claim that after receiving a positive review on Silliman's blog she felt she endured psychological damage due to some of the comments to that blog post. After she received that mention, and sold 200 copies as a result of that singular post, some people said hurtful, vengeful things in the comment stream, making it near impossible for her to write poetry or partake in the poetry blogging community. She suggested that poetry bloggers consider rethinking having comment streams.

But I don't want to focus on all that. What I want to focus on is a particular statements made in passing during this controversy: in her discussion of how a particular small press possibly lost its momentum to publish as a result of comment stream defaming their reputation, Smith writes:

"I cannot stress enough how important chapbook and zine publishers are to the growth of experimental writing and how much time, money, and effort go into publishing a single issue or single chapbook. If you are not such a publisher, you have no right to complain about anything related to publishing. If you think something ought to be done differently, do it yourself– with your own time, money and sweat."

What I find most disconcerting here is the anti-intellectualism contained within this statement. I have nothing against Jessica Smith; she seems like a very nice person. But to advocate for a critical passivity simply because you don't know the complicated ins and out of publishing makes me nervous, and the fact that so many people seem to be complicit in advocating for this sort of repression makes me sad and anxious.

On this blog, I do go out of my way to focus on unknown authors and small-press books. One of my goals is to find unknown or lesser-known poets and small press books and give them attention (So often the books that receive gay awards are at least from university presses or there is a direct line of inheritance from the writer to a huge figure in the field).

Another motivation for me is to offer critiques of major poets who I feel need to be reassessed for failures in regards to politics. This is why I haven't talked much about D.A. Powell or Henri Cole on this blog: they are supported by significant presses and almost always deserve the attention they get.

My attitude in life is that it's pointless to love someone/something who everyone else wants. I focus my love on people who haven't been fully appreciated (or at least not yet). That's how I prove to myself how amazing of a critic I am: I can see what most other people fail to notice. Everything is ultimately about me, thank God!

I suppose I have violated Smith's comment when I gave a somewhat unfavorable review to a book that was released by the amazing Lethe Press. I have liked (a lot) a number of their other titles. But I did feel this particular book was lacking and said so. For me not to do so as a reviewer, even though there was some considerable anxiety in being unable to advocate for the book, would be an unethical decision. As a teacher, I see the review as a pedagogical tool--first, for my students who inspired me to create this blog. How can I expect my students (or anyone else) to think critically about a book if I tell them to silence themselves because they haven't produced a book themselves? Also, if, when your writing is out there, you don't want to be open to criticism-- even if it can be, yes, sometimes unkind and thoughtless-- I'm not sure why you're in this profession.

Presses are responsible for what they introduce to the world. Smith may not realize she's condescending to the very presses whom she supports and publishes. To ask us to safeguard small presses simply because they're small presses is a dangerous form of pity.

What her comment fails to realize is that breaches of etiquette are usually a symptom of larger institutional and individual inequalities. It is unfortunate that so many wonderful (and even not so wonderful poets) can't get published. If your book is read --let alone sells 200 copies as a result of a singular blog post, as what happened to Smith --you've been loved, with all the puzzling, questionable, horrible things that come with it.


  1. What I got from Jessica's post -- which covered a lot of ground -- was that Silliman's comment stream was often a minefield of loons, narcism and personal attacks masquerading as "literary criticism." Steven Fama came to my blog and said that personal attack is a hallmark of literary criticism, which I find abhorrent.

    I disagree with your comment that Jessica's comment is anti-intellectualism, mainly because you've taken the quote out of context. Jessica was talking about the "criticism" of Cannibal Books' publication of Amish Trivedi's Musuem of Vandals as a folio. Some of the comments were just whacko...they weren't offering critique of the work but slamming the press for the design. It was ridiculous.

    Sometimes it's not "anti-intellectualism," it's just dissent from doing something the expected way by a certain segment of the poetry community.

  2. Hi Steve,

    I'm the guy that opened my mouth about the publication that gave rise to the particular comment of J. Smith that concerns you. It was upsetting and confusing and upsetting again to me that Smith wrote that customers aren't entitled to say what they think about a publication they bought (and yes, I had bought it!).

    While I know your intention here was not to help with my emotional confusion, your unpacking of your thoughts about what you didn't like about this part of what J. Smith wrote does help me understand what I'm feeling. So thanks.

    I don't understand why the other comment here (above me) says things about me that seem to have nothing to do with anything you wrote, but I can't control that and I'm not getting into that as my point here, again, is thanks for airing out your ideas.

    And best wish!

  3. I didn't get anti-intellectualism out of Smith's comment, I got "put up or shut up." I didn't get that she was trying to shut down criticism or critique; i did get that she was responding to lots of ad hominem attacks by saying that maybe ad hominem attacks are pointless and irrelevant. Which of course they are.

    I think this all needs to be kept in context. Having just been pilloried in public through no fault of her own, one might forgive a little over-sensitivity.

  4. Having been recently pilloried by scores of blogs and "comment streams" I can partly sympathize with Jessica Smith's reaction. Much of the negative response to "The New Math of Poetry" ignores my article's content; mischaracterizes my position; and indulges in childish cursing by fragile egos afraid to contemplate the fact that few read (and nobody loves) their poetry.

    That being said, poetry's new math cries out for more, not less harsh criticism. We need to learn which books are worth our attention, and intellectually rigorous criticism can be a helpful guide. What we mostly have available today is disappointing: on the one hand, self-published, contentless rants via blogs and comment streams; on the other, cowardly reviews that at best damn with faint praise and at worst traffic in glorified blurbery.

    In 1911, towards the end of the Georgian poetry era, Rebecca West argued that "our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism"; for there is, she observed, "merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation… a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger." West could be describing the state of poetry criticism in America today.

    Readers do not have time to waste on yet another competently written book of poetry in one of the half dozen or so worn out modes of our time. Great poetry emerges from dissatisfaction. It's because Dryden and Pope did nothing for Blake that he wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience. It's because Frost knew that Tennyson, Rossetti, and Swinburne had taken melodic, assonantal verse as far as it could go that he broke the "speaking voice" against "loose iambic." It's because Eliot, it's because Williams, it's because Ginsburg (it's because of disgruntlement, impatience, revulsion, not happy-face) that poets have periodically made the art new for their generation or generations to come.

    We have not had a real poetry revolution in America in almost fifty years. Unjuried, self-published "comment streams" merely lead us into a land of narcissistic jabberwocky. Sycophantic reviews no longer convince any but fools to fork out eighteen bucks for yet another tepid book of poetry.

    Down with "mild kindliness" and "piping appreciation." Bring on that "new and abusive school of criticism"! It will outrage and depress many, but if the criticism is valid it just might breed the dissatisfaction we so need to jump-start the genuine aesthetic revolution many of us long for.

  5. David, there's a lot to agree with in your comment. But the one thing that always seems to get overlooked in poetry criticism, as Rebecca West almost overlooked it, is that a valid criticism must also be passionately enthusiastic about what IS good in poetry, as well as passionately vitriolic about what is bad. West was right about the mild kindliness that never heats to enthusiasm—yet that's exactly what I do try to do in reviews whenever I can: be enthusiastic when appropriate.

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