So recently this site passed fifty reviews (or so), and I’ve been thinking over a kind of ‘what is this blog really about’ post for a while. Which might be a mistake. Here goes.
First, thanks to the folks who shared my work with a large audience for the first time and gave the first words of encouragement, without you I probably would’ve packed it in long ago. The number of people I owe for their thoughtfulness, their patience, their time and their good advice makes my head spin. I’m awfully lucky. Otherwise, thank you (yes, you) so much for reading.
When I started out four years ago, and up until relatively recently, I wrote about poems the way I wrote about films, or video games, as if poetry in these islands was a multinational billion-dollar market and my voice only one in a million. I felt like there was little consequence to saying the first thing that popped into my head, because hey, it’s not like anyone’s really reading these screeds, let alone taking them seriously, let alone the authors of the work in question.
I’m much more aware now that that is not the case, which should demonstrate how slow on the uptake I can be. Reading those old reviews feels like sitting with a friend in a pub who’s holding forth at great length and high volume. Specifically, I’d like to offer sincere apologies to Nick Laird and Emily Berry, whose work, though not my cup of tea, absolutely deserved better. In both reviews I questioned whether their work was really poetry when I should have asked whether my work was really criticism. It is totally possible to criticise – even dislike – a book and still write enlighteningly and generously about it. I’ve added editor’s notes to both reviews saying as much. I’m sorry. I can and will do better.
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There’s been a lot of discussion lately about prize-giving culture in poetry. Joey Connolly wrote insightfully on this in Poetry Review, a welcome call for transparency and inclusivity in a process in which few seem to have faith. Despite the handful of decent collections nominated for the TS Eliot prize this year, it is a deeply conservative shortlist, and Connolly is right to point out the ludicrous situation in which John Burnside can step out as a PBS selector long enough to be selected then step right back in. It would be laughable if it wasn’t a ticket to a 1 in 10 chance at twenty grand in a notoriously unlucrative genre.
For all the skulduggery, it feels like a good omen that Connolly’s article can be published in a journal that itself publishes some of the best critical work going. I spent an afternoon last week in the Scottish Poetry Library going through the periodicals for new reviews and essays, and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the state of criticism; as Claire Trevien demonstrated on a Facebook thread recently, many folk can name three or four quality critics or essayists each off the proverbial cuff. There is absolutely a warm glut of middling, mildly positive blurbism if you’re in a mood to look for it, but it’s not quite the end times. On the other hand, from a fairly unscientific first expedition the gender balance still seems heavily weighted towards male reviewers, and I expect an audit of the demographics of reviewers at large would show a relatively narrow field of reference. As a cishet white middle class able bodied well educated man I’m not exactly helping.
I don’t think it’s a painfully gauche daydream to wish for criticism as varied and complicated as the poets currently at work in these islands, though the Eliot shortlist again put pay to whatever optimism for the mainstream Kei Miller’s deserved victory in the Forward engendered. Poems that challenge our basic assumptions about the people around us require more time and thought – and run a greater risk of being misunderstood or simply ignored – than those that build upon or even exploit these prejudices. And sometimes critics like me just don’t have the experiential tools to speak valuably about it, even if our privileged positions might encourage us to speak authoritatively. In such cases the poet, the poem and the reader are all sold short.
Speaking of which, while a simplistic or compliant critical community is not necessarily an impediment to great poems, it does remove one good reason to work or think harder. More to the point, it perhaps willfully gaslights the reader, who is the supposed beneficiary from the work we’re supposed to be doing as, essentially, specialist readers. Encouraging this kind of knowledgeable, opinionated and empowered readership will probably not earn powerful friends as a by-product. Something that the best or most disruptive poetry does is highlight that the world, in more ways than we often care to acknowledge, is strange and awful. Recognising and expressing the ways in which art reproduces or even endorses strangeness and awfulness does not make you strange or awful, though it’s a good way to make life difficult for yourself (if it wasn’t already).
In short: more transparency, inclusivity and unwillingness to let harmful thinking stand unexamined, no matter how ‘masterful’ its control of language or its ‘musicality’, two words that give me the dry boak; the understanding that negative criticism is not a personal attack, and that personal attacks are not good criticism (Something I’m still working on – anger is a good motivator but a lousy editor); good criticism and journalism (see Connolly’s work, and Fiona Moore’s) are vital to holding the community to account, and posing a challenge to the astroturf canon presently being laid down for want of a mature discussion about what (and who) poetry in 2014 is really for.
But what is in our hands, and what Sabotage Reviews is already doing very well, is the ability to highlight and discuss work that deserves attention and struggles to find it, in a way that (at the very least) aims to be meritocratic. Poetry criticism, much like its opposite numbers in fiction, film, tv, games etc., should be a dialogue, should start a conversation, one that can be conducted in a transparent and safe space. I don’t think we’re all that far off, but it will take hard work and some difficult conversations.
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Okay, thanks for coming along this wee trip off the beaten track, hope it was worth something. See you next time with a review of Alan Gillis’ Scapegoat. Yes he’s still my supervisor, and yes there is much irony in reviewing my immediate professional superior directly after a post about transparency and meritocracy. Hope you trust me.