A Century of Reviews

Zach Savich
August 16, 2012
Comments 2

It’s Poetry Magazine’s 100th anniversary, and Joel Brouwer has reviewed one hundred years of Poetry’s book reviews. What can contemporary writers learn from older reviews? “Analysis purchases assertions,” Brouwer answers, among his discussion of how reviewers can help foster a new “age of criticism.” Kenyon Review Online-contributor Hannah Brooks-Motl assisted Brouwer in this research, examining over 300 reviews. I corresponded with her about what she found, from odd pairings to arch wit, from aesthetic dismissals to cultural diagnoses, and about what her research suggests about current reviewing.

Hannah Brooks-Motl’s criticism has appeared in The New Republic, Contemporary Poetry Review, and Canadian Notes & Queries. Her essay on lyric aphorism in contemporary poetry is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online.

Zach Savich: How did you select the reviews you came to focus on? Do they represent particular trends in reviewing? Specific narratives or types of review?

Hannah Brooks-Motl: In a big way, of course, this project is pretty specific to the reviewing that happened in PoetryPoetry was pretty early on regarded as something other than simply a magazine—in 1950 T.S. Eliot declared that, “Poetry in fact is not a little magazine but an INSTITUTION.”

So the experience of reading the reviews was partly an experience of seeing an institution change. Some of the threads I found felt not only specific to Poetry but perhaps also to American poetry. For instance, what is now considered a kind of mid-century “avant-garde” in American poetry—the Black Mountain School and the New York School of Poets (generations 1 and 2.0)—was pretty well represented in the magazine. Robert Duncan got reviewed again and again, as did Zukofsky, and O’Hara, and James Schuyler. Lewis Warsh even wrote a couple very funny reviews for Poetry in the ‘60s. In the late ‘50s and ‘60s, even on into the ‘70s, “experimental” work was being talked about at least as frequently as work we might now group as the American “mainstream”—poets like Richard Wilbur, and the Jameses Wright and Dickey.

That’s perhaps not too surprising considering Poetry’s roots in the big Modernist bang, but then again, it is—or could be—when we realize how automatically we just accept the distance now between journals and magazines aligned with one or another aesthetic program. It was actually pretty beautiful to read Galway Kinnell grappling with Frank O’Hara in 1958, or X.J. Kennedy reviewing The New American Poetry (the feeling that obtains throughout a major portion of TNAP is that of listening to a stream of talk—like a party at which each guest, variously high, engages himself alone in conversation”) in ‘61. By the 80s, though, a lot had disappeared from the magazine—including reviews themselves. (Reviewing in Poetry seems to have hit its voluminous height in the ‘50s and ‘60s.) But the magazine had ceased to engage with innovative writing as well: the word “language”—as in you-know-what—appears about once, in a 1989 review of Michael Palmer’s Sun by Stephen Yenser. It’s a smart review, and praises Palmer, which makes one sadder for all the odd pairings that could have happened (Robert Lowell on Lyn Hejinian?) but didn’t.

There were so many narratives going on in the reviews: the engagement of American poetry and poets with the British, for example (dozens of reviews of British poets—often alongside American poets!—and the million dollar question: why do British poets not write like Americans? asked almost ad nauseam); the number of books by women reviewed (started out strong; at a dribble by the ‘60s; then feminism, mostly as represented by Sandra Gilbert, hit); books in translation (Poetry reviewers seemed to like to say: translation is impossible! Here’s another book to prove it); books by minority writers (scarce and, as might be expected, extremely problematic). Some poets got reviewed again and again—like H.D., whose reputation in the magazine seems a kind of synecdoche for her reputation generally. R.P. Blakmur said of Red Roses for Bronze in 1932 that, “We read the bulk of this volume in order to dismiss it”; by 1974 F.D. Reeve was declaring of Trilogy: “Again, she was ahead of us…” And then of course there was the language of reviewing itself, which changed over the years, though not as much as I would have guessed.

Some of the reviews were just amazingly written, or interesting in a way that the vast majority were not. There was a review of Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1957, for example, written from the voices of the three reasons its reviewer (Reed Whittemore) was going to “go out and buy a copy (six bucks).” This is the review that alleges: “It is possible to have a career, a fine career, in a dark hole where the Kenyon Review never reaches.”

ZS:  Never reaches…until now. You mentioned “the language of reviewing itself.” How did you see it change?

HBM: In August, 1953 Richard Eberhart reviewed a book of criticism, Poetry in our Time, by Babette Deutsch. In his review he said: “The best poetry of our time will be read a century from now. Life will shine out from it. The best criticism will have only an academic interest, a period value.” Many of the reviews that took on works of criticism, or self-consciously addressed the task at hand (generally in their opening paragraphs), included such disclaimers. The general feeling, then, seems to have been that the review is a certain species of ephemera, or a hostile terrain in which lasting (“artistic”) kinds of language—metaphor, figure, lyricism, narrative—can’t grow.

That said, there were definite and distinct variations to the ephemera. The early reviews, for example, tended to rebuke the poets themselves: Harriet Monroe reviewing Mina Loy, in 1923, wrote, “In my opinion this poet’s style, like that of many another radicals, dilutes instead of concentrates.” Monroe also wrote, of a poet named Roberta Teale Swartz, in 1933, “Miss Swartz should be more studious of details, she passes too many imperfect lines.” That kind of scolding was generally, though not exclusively, reserved for women poets; men got things like this said about them: “an impressive personality is outlined in the best poems here” (Morton Zaubel on Stanley Kunitz, 1930).

The early reviews are hazy—it’s difficult to understand what kind of poetry is under review. Little dollops of quotation are flung into the review ostensibly to solve this, but the form of any given poem itself is rarely talked about. Marianne Moore, when she started reviewing for Poetry in the 1930s actually wrote reviews that are strikingly contemporary-sounding because they pay attention to what’s happening within the language of a poem: “The method is a main part of the pleasure: lean cartography; reiteration with compactness; emphasis by word pattern rather than by punctuation…” (On TS Eliot’s Marina, 1931). When this kind of attention starts in earnest, in the 1950s, it’s welcome, even if the observations soon feel all bloated and “New Critical.”

A dull review in Poetry from the 1950s might include passages like “The incoherence of the structure is reflected in the failure of the parts… The imagery proceeds also by concatenation, not organic fusion, never once capturing the emotional idea exactly, inevitably. There is, again, radical uncertainty of tone, ranging from conventional pulpit oratory to dramatic posturing” (Seymour Betsky on Ronald Battrall, 1950). So this is a review obviously about the poem’s “form”—we’re in the contemporary jargon of what the poem “wants” to do, as opposed to what the poet has failed to achieve. But it’s also obvious that Betsky himself has a very definite idea of what he, as a reviewer, wants from a poem—“organic fusion,” which sounds to me like a shampoo by L’Oreal.

Negative reviews are pretty prevalent in the ‘50s, and sometimes they’re intentionally funny: “Out of my fifteen volumes, these two pieces have especially haunted me,” Leslie Fiedler wrote in 1951 of some especially bad collections, adding that, “the recognition of bad poetry depends on our being inside the canons of verse against which the poem in question blasphemes.” Reviewers seem to have been considerably more comfortable inside the conventions of those cannons of verse, even if the work under question wasn’t concerned with symbolism and all that stuff. (Though there are reviews with assertions like this: “Assuredly, the log is also a sword, as the bough is a weapon of combat, and the bomb likewise.” Parker Tyler on Randall Jarrell, 1952. How Jarrell must’ve loved that “Assuredly”!)

When these kinds of reviews were interesting to me, as the Fielder one is, it’s because there’s something incredibly personal about their tone. It’s like he’s writing you the story of his vacation with these books, and you just happen to be a close friend, and he just happens to be a witty bastard. The best reviews are the best written: that is, they’re personal, spirited, willing to be a little bitchy. (John Berryman on a mediocre collection: “Nothing here will ever distress anyone except a poet.”) This tendency is strongest in the ‘60s, when Poetry actually reviewed a variety of poetry, and had a variety of poets and critics to do the reviewing. Lewis Warsh, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Aram Saroyan all wrote very readable, funny, kind of kvetchy reviews. There’s another class of reviews that are written by famous poets and very loudly sound like it. Cid Corman’s review of Creeley’s The Kind of Act of, in 1954, is a good example: “THIS is the kind of act of Robert Creeley. And that it is HIS, that particular e-motion of speech, which is true to his uses, gives it identity, shape.” W.C. Williams also wrote reviews like this, and to a certain extent Ezra Pound did. James Dickey wrote a very weird review in this vein of Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu: “If poetry means anything, it means heart, liver, and soul… Great poetry folds personal death and general love into one dark blossom.” That’s like a Dickey poem, disguised as a review.

As I got closer to the present, I noticed that a real anxiety with defining the whole of “contemporary poetry” started to appear in many, many reviews. It was generally a worried kind of hand wringing (to be fair, this was sometimes present in earlier reviews, which fretted whether poets were producing poetry that accurately captured the “modern technological society”), and the language of the reviews took a diagnostic turn. Here’s Robert Pinsky in 1973: “For many contemporary poets, the effective practice seems to be based on a particular kind of voice: enigmatic, slangy, fey, tough, idiosyncratic, darting between the plain and the daffy with a mock-naïve, teen-age sort of detachment.”

The cooked/raw stuff was going on earlier (for a while it seems to have been a war between “the Shaggies and the Fleecies”!), but by the late ‘70s and ‘80s there’s an emphasis on acknowledging, upfront, the reviewer’s inability to offer some definitive description or comment on “the state of American poetry,” even as the review itself goes on to tic off its symptoms. By the ‘80s this was almost exclusively focused around the horrifying state of contemporary poetry’s obsession with “self” and its corrosive effect on certain poetic techniques: “But I can’t help feeling that our lessened sense of power in the active ego has made our new-found irrationalism less a tonic, more an enfolding—soothing or paralyzing—darkness, than it was in the 1960s; hence the blurred portents, the unknowable dreams” (Alan Williamson, 1980).

By the ‘90s, there’s a common refrain of “plain-style.” As in: “four of the five authors under review, like most American poets of the moment, write in variations of the plain style” (Alice Fulton, 1991). All these are opening comments to round-up type reviews, which then go on to treat individual books and individual poems within those books mostly in the way that reviews from the 1950s did: a brief description of “how,” some vague commentary on “what,” a little dispatch of opinion about “why” or maybe “how come.” I guess I began noticing that nothing’s really changed significantly—reviewers got better at deploying the terms of their generation’s debate, but the way of reading a poem—of thinking about it and trying to help someone else think about it without them also reading it—has remained more or less the same for the last 60 years. We still notice the same effects, or lack thereof, feel guilty as we reach into the cookie jar of the poet’s biography…

Here’s Hayden Carruth, in 1960, on Conrad Aiken’s book of collected reviews: “The reviews remain, indubitably, of the past. They retain much of the inevitable shortsightedness, of writing done on the spot. Mr. Aiken’s judgments of his contemporaries are, as I say, mostly impeccable, but today they seem not at all original; they are just obvious… In other words, the substance of the reviews is slight, as seen at our present remove. Beyond this, the reviews are not well enough written, not sufficiently personal, to fall into the class of literary appreciations, as done so well, for example, by Virginia Woolf, nor was this, after all, their intention.”

ZS: Pinsky’s assessment resembles complaints one hears about current poetry (he says “darting,” Tony Hoagland says “skittery”), though I suspect the poems he’s referring to, in 1973, differ from today’s period styles. In the most recent reviews you read, what terms and concerns seem distinct to our moment? Is our “generational debate” about ellipticism?

HBM: The debate, at least in the pages of Poetry, seemed very concerned with the notion of the “self,” that I was talking about earlier. Even in 2003, Bill Christopherson, reviewing a bunch of books (by Gerald Stern, B.H. Fairchild, Eamon Grennan, Carl Dennis, and others) opens his review with these questions: “At what point does a self-referential approach become solipsistic? Self-indulgent? Trite? Every writer who puts pen to paper with the familiar injunction ‘Write from your own experience’ ringing in his or her ear needs to think about how much of that experience the reader can be expected to care about—and how to leverage the reader’s sympathies for the rest.” That concern with the self—whether as it’s manifested in a “plain” or “skittery” style—and how to present it, feels very relevant to a lot of what gets written about today’s poetry: ideas of “conceptual lyricism” and “New Sincerity” seem in some ways fundamentally concerned with presentations of self, even as they posit a kind of exhaustion with that project.

David Orr reviewed C.D. Wright’s Steal Away in Poetry in 2003. This is perhaps not a big moment in Poetry, but it is for me. I remember reading Wright in college; she was one of the first contemporary “experimental” poets I really read and it was so exciting! There was something familiar and totally strange about her writing that I, and probably lots and lots of other college-aged poets, tried hard to imitate. Orr gets the familiar strangeness, and connects it to James Wright (and “Deep Image,” which is one of those generational debates that was super hot for a while and then just evaporated off into the ether, sort of like “ellipticism” for the Vietnam set); he also notes her self-conscious interruptions, how “we’re constantly rooting for those halting phrases to become graceful.” Even in 2003, though, there’s the awareness that all of this is becoming a kind of tic: “But this approach can seem facile as well: the ground is currently thick with poets dropping obliquities like phone numbers on napkins, in part because of the ease with which this method can be adopted.”

I didn’t read as much of the very contemporary criticism for this project, but even glancing through the reviews quickly it’s obvious that there’s a lot less MFA/workshop ranting—the reviews get more specific to the book at hand, only occasionally rising up to attempt the kinds of humongous synthesis that was happening earlier. (They also begin reviewing small-press books again, something that the magazine seemed to do more of in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) Maybe it’s an acceptance of the contours of a contemporary moment that’s lasted almost 50 years? I don’t know. Here’s Ben Marcus on Alice Fulton, in 2004: “If one strain of American poetry has insisted on English as a foreign language, and has given up on the romance with content, sense, and some sort of narrative order, a poet like Alice Fulton could prove that storytelling inside a poem is not necessarily an exhausted option.” In a way, reviews are always doing this—using an argument about what “contemporary poetry” is to showcase how their particular contemporary poet is not. That urge to describe “against” seems one way of formulating a review; the other is to define a poet or book of poetry as sort of hopelessly “among.”

Like Brian Phillips on Loren Goodman’s Famous Americans in 2004: “most of the poems in Famous Americans are the kind of clever nonsense verse that many young poets are busying themselves with today. Spontaneity, playfulness, and a love of popular-culture are its self-advertising features. Surrealism is a justification, not a principle; a sanction, not a code.” I don’t know how different this is—in content, form, or tone—from Mary Kinzie on Michael Brownstein in 1978: “This is, after all, poetry that will manage to take itself seriously while everything else it touches is taken as casually as possible. In some loose sense it is a Song of My American Self…a rendition of the purer products gone transparent if not mad,” and later on: “His book is evidence of the serious or professional flakiness that in various homely chunks now seems to constitute the American avant-garde.” Or even James Wright describing the “trite practices of so much modern poetry” in 1960: “poems about Orpheus, poems about unicorns, poems describing paintings, and (God save us all!) poems about… about… how do you spell the plural of ‘phoenix’?” Notions of what’s “trendy” and “trivial” feel consistent in reviews that focus on younger poets/contemporary poetics; while it’s not so much that big themes and somber manners are seen to last, it’s at times assumed that the poems won’t last if they’re absent. (Some early reviews of O’Hara make this point: “The strangest poem in the book is Ave Maria, addressed to ‘Mothers of America’ who should let their kids go to the movies so they can have early sexual encounters; I miss evidences, if they are present, of satiric intent.” Raymond Roseliep, 1965.)

Generally, the reviews themselves are blessedly free from jargon—but that’s probably due to the venue (Poetry, after all, is an INSTITUTION). The reviews in the last ten years are perhaps even smoother, more urbane, well informed, and comprehensive than ever—often excited but never quite thrilled. The tone of reviews, of “critique,” seems to have solidified into a monolithic façade in the past 60 years—as someone who tries to write criticism I can feel it in my fingers. It’s how you sound smart, logical, right. One easily could read David Orr all day, but would one? Part of the thrill of reading the old reviews had to do with certain qualities, or tones, of voice. So it’s not that the content was particularly groundbreaking, but that something was alive, moving, even extraneous to the thing at hand. There was a wildness, or a light, or a something, shining out.

2 thoughts on “A Century of Reviews

  1. It might be worth mentioning that the Roberta Teale Swartz (chided by Harriet Monroe in 1933) later encouraged her husband, Gordon Keith Chalmers, the president of Kenyon College, to establish a literary journal which first appeared in 1939…

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