Some books are big in global history, some in national history, and some in personal history. Lucille Clifton’s work is big in all of those categories. That’s why I chose Rachel Richardson’s review of it for KROnline and, I think, why Richardson chose it herself. As she explains in her personal introduction, Clifton’s work served Richardson when she was a newborn poet needing bold, proud words. Clifton’s poetry withstood the test of time in Richardson’s personal history. She could read it again and again throughout her life, like a great album replayed, enriching in many contexts. (For me, Adrienne Rich’s work played the same role.)
Clifton’s poems, of course, have that kind of importance for many other readers and thus earn their place in the national and global canon as well. Classically, the Western “canon” consisted of sacred texts: the Bible and its philosophical commentaries. These were the books to be studied by all educated in a tradition; the books that were read, reread, and commented on. Clifton’s work belongs in our American canon of books to be read, reread, taught, and retaught. In the new collected poems, the reader can explore the range and depth of Clifton’s work. Yes, she wrote about how she killed the roaches—Thank goodness she wrote that! Where would contemporary poetry be without the sound of her little, big “i” stomping out those bugs?—but she also writes sweet, intimate, introverted poems, profound poems, poems that echo, that ramify beyond a decade or two decades. Her work can withstand the pressure of repetition. Few books can. When they can, we know they are Big Books.
Should we review Big Books for KRO? Perhaps, perhaps not. Big books already get attention in daily and weekly publications (The New York Times or LA Times Book Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Slate.com, the Rumpus, for some diverse examples). Book reviewing iterates patterns already at play in contemporary culture. Among the types of books completed and the types selected for publication, reviews contribute attention. A book review can be a kind of emboldening, underlining or italicizing in the big book list of culture. This book should be read, we say and—we hope—more people read it.
The books we choose to review have often already received some baseline of attention: a prize, a pre-press blurb by someone notable, etc. Reviewers run the risk of rehearsing—retweeting—established preferences and biases. For example, much has been said recently about how few books by women are reviewed and, in particular, reviewed by women (Megan O’Rourke’s article on Slate and VIDA chart). The New York Review of Books, a publication I otherwise revere, has the most paltry showing in this regard. I hope we can subtly change those biases. In order to do so, I ask myself questions as I choose which authors to review and have reviewed. Should we choose to have more women write reviews? Should we choose more reviews of books by women? What about reviews by Asian or African Americans, Latinas, Puerto Ricans? Should we just focus on reviews of good books? Can we distinguish good books from Big Books?
Reviewing books here and elsewhere is a task that I see as—however subtly, minutely!—conditioning the landscape of power in contemporary culture. I invite you to think of it that way and contribute reviews in the spirit of establishing a culture in which you want to participate. I am glad Richardson chose Clifton’s collected work, and I agree with her: read that book.