The first book was written 5,000 years ago, and the first book review 4,999 years, 11 months, and 28 days. There’s been quite the hubbub ever since, particularly when it comes to reviews of poetry. Should we waste space writing negative reviews, when so many brilliant collections languish in the shadows? But if they’re always positive, don’t they become as uninteresting and distrusted as blurbs? Does critical opinion even matter? Is any publicity good publicity? And so on. Here are some recent rounds of the brouhaha: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. (Hey, one of those is me!) There are plenty more where that came from — if you read any of those articles, there will be links to other articles, with links to other articles, and so on.
Most of us fondle the elephant in the room, but for some reason we stop short of naming it. Maybe (to borrow Marlon Carey) the elephant is just so evident that addressing it can’t be revelant. Or maybe there are just too many careers at stake. Either way, no one seems willing to confront how fundamentally subjective art really is, or how successful art — and I mean art that has the power to transform people — is an unharnessable snowball of luck and skill and temperament and vision and time and timing. I’ve been to the contemporary art museum. I’ve seen Frank Stella and Blue Square #2. Doodles my kid could draw — and I don’t even have a kid! It’s not, as Vonnegut muses, that there are detailed frescoes buried beneath three gallons from a Sherwin Williams color swatch. Mark Rothko couldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel. And yet people are moved by post-minimalism and abstract expressionism — at least enough people to fill a room if you hang a painting there.
I’ve never read art criticism in my life, but I can tell you how Red Rectangle with Yellow Stripe works. Stripped of all referents, all sense of time and place, the viewer is forced to enter the painting — is forced to daydream, not in the direction the artist commands, but anywhere the mind desires. With all the claptrap of meaning removed, we see art finally for what it fundamentally is: a mental mirror. Art is the place we go to lose ourselves in the oneness of creation, and the best way lose yourself and touch the infinite is to dive deeper within (I don’t want to get off on a tangent, so just trust me on that). Hence the subjective nature of art.
Every reader carries their own baggage on that journey, because there’s no one there to carry it for you — it’s an entirely private experience. Through the dual miracles of nature and nurture, we all have a hell of a lot in common, but no two people share the same history or identity or logophilia. We have moods that can change in minutes. All of that effects the way we encounter books (or any works of art). And everyone knows it.
Over on the Harriet blog, Thomas Brady posited that the public’s lack of interest in poetry is due to a failure to sustain consensus of opinion: “if no façade of objective stability exist over and above that subjectivity, and the public senses no objective control, public interest is sure to wane—eventually destroying contemporary poetry’s legitimacy.” I would argue the opposite: If anything turns the public off of poetry, it’s the pretense of objectivity — it’s the professor in your ear telling you that Edna St. Vincent Millay is great, when you can read for yourself and see that she does nothing for you. In the baseball metaphor we were using, you don’t need a box score to tell you that Babe Ruth just hit a home run — you’re at the game, you can use your own eyes. And the disconnect appears when that voice in your ear doesn’t match what you’re seeing on the page. That’s why so many people who don’t read it say “I just don’t get poetry” — they’ve been taught that poetry is something to be gotten, instead of what it really is: something to be experienced.
Critics like to pretend that an official scorer is necessary, when we’d be better off at the other end of the press box — the TV booth, where there’s as much color commentary as there is analysis. The game is right in front of us and we can score it ourselves; we just want the experience enhanced. Tell me where to look, not what to think.
So three days before the quincimillenial anniversary of the first book review, I’d like to propose a new kind of book review (and maybe it’s not even new for all I know). Let’s stop pretending these are objective critiques and start writing personal narratives — don’t tell me whether or not a book is good, tell me about your experience with the book. Tell me why you picked it up in the first place — did you know the poet, were you drawn to the cover, the title, what was it? Where did you read it? How long did it take? Were you transported immediately or did you daydream? Which poems resonated with you and why? The speaker in the poem reminded you of your sister? Your experience of Brazil was different? You’re growing tired of poems about divorce? Why?
Not only would reviews like this be more interesting to read, but they’d be more honest, more true to the real experience of reading poetry. Because every time you respond to a book, that response has just as much to do with you as it does to the author. Let’s finally face it.
This is an idea we’ve been kicking around since publishing Cameron Conaway’s review of Clifton’s Voices. Conaway starts and ends the review with an anecdote about having dinner with Clifton when she visited his college — it was a strange way to write a review, and at first we were skeptical, but the more we thought about it, the more we liked it. And I think you can go a lot farther than Conaway did.
So we’ve decided to add this note on style to our guidelines. Getting poets to follow guidelines — or often even to read them — is like herding cats, and we have dozens of traditional reviews scheduled to be published over the next few months. But I’d like to gradually phase in this new style — the personal narrative review. We have hundreds of books available for review, and we’d be happy to send you a few. Anyone willing to write yourself into the script?