Sean O’Brien on Jack Underwood – Happiness

Full Disclosure: I just reviewed Underwood a couple weeks back. O’Brien was my external examiner when I did a creative writing masters in 2008, and he marked me generously. So, Underwood 0 Me 1, basically.

So Sean O’Brien reviewed Jack Underwood’s first collection on Saturday in the Guardian. O’Brien has several collections under the belt dating back to the 80s, TS Eliot and multiple Forward Prizes to his name, an influential book of essays, a professorship at Newcastle University and the Vice-Presidency of the Poetry Society. Underwood has just been published by Faber and is pretty much set to have a lengthy and high-profile career in the business, alongside his academic post at Goldsmiths. So when I say the review is first and foremost a kind of intra-mural bullying, I’m speaking in pretty relative terms. Underwood will be just fine. However, I think there’s something useful in examining O’Brien’s approach here, the particular guise of his critic/poet relationship, and the assumptions that inform that relationship. So hop on the ol’ Close Reading Express, destination: THE MAGIC CIRCLE.

3 LW

O’Brien: “When his initial Faber pamphlet came out in 2009, Underwood appeared to show Donaghy’s influence, but now he recalls a poet of an older generation, Hugo Williams, for whom, as now for Underwood, the world is largely a personal matter composed of the problems of love and selfhood, as well as that of Frank O’Hara, whose presence is now as ubiquitous as weather, with his “Personism” manifesto seeming to promise access to all areas.”

Throwing three major poets’ names around in your opening lines performs two functions: i) it overwhelms the new poet in existing authority; ii) emphasises the critic’s mastery of the scene, very literally putting the poet in their place. If I was Hugo Williams I’d be feeling some severe shade in this paragraph; I don’t think the comparison is complimentary. What exactly prompts O’Brien to ‘recall’ Williams is a mystery. They both… talk about themselves? In kind of a funny, wry way?

O’Hara is a bit more believable, but the claim of ubiquity as it stands here can only illuminate so much without going into specifics; how (or if) he functions in Underwood (and Happiness is a homebody of a collection, decidedly anti-cosmopolitan) is different to how (or if) he functions in any of Underwood’s peers. Did Personism really ‘promise access to all areas’? Wasn’t O’Hara acknowledging what had been the case for years? Which areas were inaccessible before? Is Hugo Williams really the primary exemplar of a modern poet making the world a matter of love and selfhood? Precious little substance so far from O’Brien.

2 JP

SOB: “By moving in this direction Underwood has apparently renounced the implacable rigour on which Donaghy’s own playfulness was founded. At times, indeed, Underwood seems to be aspiring to invertebracy. […]The cartoon detail, combined with a tone at once demonstrative and short of affect, mark a kind of indie house style that can be read (and perhaps more significantly, heard) almost anywhere at present.”

Is Faber indie now? I think ‘Indie’ is a kind of pun here, signifying ‘fashion-conscious young people’, while ‘house style’ suggests some kind of young poets’ union whose aim is to sound indistinguishable to careless outsiders. And they’re anywhere at present. Terrifying. As we know, no generation of poets who have grown up working alongside each other experiencing the same social conditions have ever wound up sharing influences, aesthetic common ground, or, yes, a ripping good in-joke. Real poets, as we know, spring fully-formed from Zeus’ skull with a unique and peerless aesthetic. O’Brien’s distinction between good, rigorous, real men’s playfulness and the cartoonish, limp, undergraduate variety is spurious at best. The vicious lack of generosity in this paragraph reminds me of a young me. And that guy was terrible.

SOB: “Innocence, of a kind clung to like a pillow placed over an alarm clock, is perhaps his central subject for now. It is, inescapably, a studied state, composed partly of the innocent egotism that moves attention back from the child to the beholder, partly of openness to the steady rain of impressions and to the fleeting absoluteness of happiness and of “cack-handed LOVE”.”

O’Brien, you’ll note, hasn’t forgotten that Underwood is, to his discredit, YOUNG, and thus his aesthetic cannot but be immature and a stay against adulthood as O’Brien defines it. Because, again, as we know, older poets are famously mature, generous, selfless souls who cannot bear to take centre stage, as O’Brien’s missive in a national daily demonstrates. Seriously though, Happiness has at its core an understanding that love is anything but absolute, and arguing that a poem about a newborn artificially takes attention away from the child discredits similar poems by Yeats, MacNeice and Paterson, just off the top of my head. A baby’s interiority is not quite as interesting as one might hope. Also, look at that ‘for now’. Soon, O’Brien implies, he will come back to the proper established fold, like all mature artists. It’s worth noting, too, that this review returns time and again to question Underwood’s manliness (as opposed to childishness, in this case). It seems a matter of great concern.

SOB: “Combine these conditions with intense self-consciousness and it might all, to an ancient and sceptical reader, sound like adolescence outstaying its time. Yet as a depiction of conditions prevailing among many of Underwood’s generation (he was born in 1984), it sounds accurate. In the last half-century in the west, the process of getting older has ceased to necessitate (or perhaps even permit) what would once have been thought of as growing up – for example, in the wartime conditions in which Keith Douglas (dead at 24) or Wilfred Owen (dead at 26) wrote.”

I mean. This is just bizarre. Summoning Douglas and Owen from their eternal rest to fling them at inadequate millenials in the middle of what is ostensibly a poetry review is an odd move. Is warfare the true test of maturity? What of the non-combatant poets of both world wars who didn’t have the chance to be forcibly matured by their circumstances? Are we really holding up social conditions of the 1910s and 40s as a better time for poets? ‘An ancient and sceptical reader’. Sir, you are 63. You are not Melmoth the Wanderer. Again, the call to dismiss adolescence is inadequately articulated. Adolescence is a time of great change and upheaval, and without a precise definition of the adulthood one should move into, ‘adolescence’ is a meaningless concept. Harsent just won twenty grand for one of the most adolescent collections I’ve ever read, one that thinks insensitivity to suffering shows how much you understand it. Maturity is complicated, and doesn’t always come in wearing a plain, serviceable pin badge that says ‘I am a grown up’.


SOB: “By its own neurasthenic lights this may be honest, but it doesn’t wholly deflect the unworthy, unwanted and unprecedented urge to say: get out of the house more; take up the biathlon or cage-fighting.”

Witness the Raine school of saying by not saying. The irony of demanding that a poet get out of the house a bit doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind (note also the STRONG MANLINESS of those alternative pursuits). The urge is unworthy and unwanted – I’ve no clue what ‘unprecedented’ is doing there, I’m sure I can find some other established poet berating the new starts – and utterly meaningless as criticism. Telling a poet to get their life in gear is not within a critic’s remit, and O’Brien knows it. This is lousy behaviour, an extra-curricular, real-life insult.

SOB: “And what a whimsical, winsome battleship that would be: very hard to resist sinking it with a deftly hurled rubber duck.”

The condescension. Underwood has clearly spent a lot of time on Happiness, and O’Brien thinks he can tear it down on a whim. The posture here is ‘this is so beneath me I’m not even going to dignify it, despite asking the Guardian if I could spend 900 words dignifying it’. If there was the least engagement with the ideas explored by Happiness, O’Brien might have a case to make, but he hasn’t even tried. He is caught between wanting to cast the book into the darkness and refusing to sufficiently engage with it to do so, and we get this insubstantial nonsense.

SOB: “Altogether more substantial is “Wilderbeast”. This is partly a matter of the quality of attention Underwood brings to the series of nightmarish transformations through which, it seems, male sexuality reveals and condones itself, before a glimpse of the redemptive possibility of love and a final return to mirror-gazing: […] It’s an ambitious and energetic piece of work. It’s also, in contrast to some of the other poems here, attentive to line, to the tercets that frame the lines, and to the accumulating rhythmic consequences of a poem conceived as something more than a clever accident.”

Discussing a poem! Saints be praised. Look at him almost give some credit. He just can’t help dropping in that punitive ‘mirror-gazing’, though, and the back-handedness of the second half – ‘unlike some poems I could mention’. Something more than a clever accident? Underwood spent eight years (or more) on this. You think it just sorta happened, that he only bothered his arse on this poem? Happiness pays extremely close attention to its lineation, and the vast majority of its poems are very regularly patterned, even those which don’t make that patterning typographically obvious.

Again, it seems like O’Brien first identifies a quality he values (formalism) and then accuses the poet of failing to embody this quality. But it’s completely unfounded criticism. How could he have missed this? Is he thinking of one of Underwood’s indistinguishable peers?

3 PF

SOB: “That Underwood has entertained not only this charged, highly wrought kind of work but also some narcotic inertia might indicate that he risks losing his way. But, on the other hand, he is not content to be the acolyte of a perceived formalist orthodoxy. He is after something that has yet to take shape. His talent is obvious even when he seems to be misapplying it. In music it used to be the third album that was the test, but time has accelerated, so a good deal will depend on what follows Happiness.”

This mess needs serious unpacking. Losing his way from what? How does O’Brien know what ‘his way’ is? A ‘perceived’ formalist orthodoxy? Is the central influence on British poetry of formalists like O’Brien, Paterson, Muldoon, Robertson, Symmons Roberts, Burnside and Harsent all in our heads? Why would Underwood be content as an ‘acolyte’? Is his attention/lack of attention to formalism the central tension in his work? Wasn’t Frank O’Hara the orthodoxy back in the first paragraph? What is the something he’s after that’s yet to take shape? What ‘shape’ should it be taking? How should he be applying his talent, and where does he so frivolously abuse it? What in the name of fortune does that last sentence even mean?? Time has accelerated, but young people don’t grow up these days, plus difficult third album that makes the earlier ones irrelevant so who even cares about this one, something something Wilfred Owen?

The review is a patronising mess, a collection of unsubstantiated accusations and aesthetic prejudices, and it doesn’t take a clever Freud with a calculator to see why O’Brien has jumped at the chance to take Underwood down a peg. His poetry is barely under discussion here. O’Brien summoned the straw poet of his mind and set fire to it, all under the banner of a national daily newspaper.


22 thoughts on “Sean O’Brien on Jack Underwood – Happiness

  1. Claire A August 4, 2015 / 10:10 pm

    “the world is largely a personal matter composed of the problems of love and selfhood”

    ^And why the haaaale is this something to be sneered at? Have we not got past this? (Actually what am I saying: I know we have not. This is THE criticism that is so often thrown at female poets who have the audacity to write about things that might be even slightly based on their own lives ALL THE TIME.

    “as we know, older poets are famously mature, generous, selfless souls who cannot bear to take centre stage, as O’Brien’s missive in a national daily demonstrates.”

    “what is ostensibly a poetry review”

    “Sir, you are 63. You are not Melmoth the Wanderer.”

    “Harsent just won twenty grand for one of the most adolescent collections I’ve ever read”

    OK, after a while I stopped copy/pasting all the bits of this article that made me want to stand up and applaud, because there were too many. But seriously. Thank you for writing this. Really.

    (+ FWIW, “Melmoth the Wanderer” made me genuinely LOL. No mean feat.)

  2. Nigel Prentice August 5, 2015 / 10:50 am

    Thank you so much for this, Dave. I had huge trouble with the O’B review – firstly, just trying to understand it. Dense, clotted prose, ‘over-referenced’ even for a reasonably well-read reader, and – not so well-hidden behind the academic style – patronising and sneering. And, while I’m writing: thank you too for your own reviews, which I’ve found consistently illuminating. I’ve been reading contemporary poetry and poetry reviews for over 40 years, and still have real problems with both! Ironically, at least O’B is critical. My greatest problem with reviews is that 95% of them are written by fellow poets: they’re insiders, they sympathise fully with the creative processes and struggles involved in producing a small collection; they might meet their reviewee at a future reading. So they are usually less than frank – by instinct, by inclination. Your own reviews do manage to step outside this rather closed orthodoxy. Please, let’s have more non-poet reviewers! – the so-called ‘general readers’, if they exist. I find that the books pages of most newspapers offer far more nuanced reviews of novels – the possibly good and possibly bad features of a book – than any reviews of poetry, in mainstream newspapers or specialist journals.
    Nigel P.

    • davecoates August 5, 2015 / 1:21 pm

      Thanks so much for the kind words Nigel, that really means a lot. It’s a difficult situation, made no easier by the lack of funding for poetry itself, never mind the critical apparatus that keeps novel-writing such a (relatively) critical/open space. This piece has got more attention than almost anything else I’ve written, which I can’t help feeling is significant.
      In any case, thanks for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.
      All best,

  3. angelatopping August 5, 2015 / 1:14 pm

    I agree with you and this is the kind of asinine crap that happens when these nig name poets feel they need to defend their man-caves against new talent. And they get paid for writing this smart arse meaningless tripe. Dave, you are the great unfrocker.

    • davecoates August 5, 2015 / 1:23 pm

      Ha! Put THAT on a t-shirt. Many cheers Angela.

  4. penelope shuttle August 5, 2015 / 1:35 pm

    Oh the testosterone!

  5. idlereader August 5, 2015 / 2:34 pm

    There’s always something to disagree with in every review. So here are mine. I too like Jack Underwood’s poetry; I also liked David Harsent’s latest collection. Far from adolescent.

  6. Nell Nelson August 9, 2015 / 10:06 am

    I’m interested in poetry reviews that *don’t* feel the need to ‘rate’ the book against the perceived masters. (I won’t comment on the fact that the masters all seem to be men, though they do, in this case.)

    But O’Brien is doing that rating formula deliberately, invoking the ‘greats’ from square one. The Guardian has called him in to do just that, it would appear. But the way he approaches his evaluation is, as you show here, not genuinely evaluative. It is not an argued, reasoned review, and you highlight this clearly. It is an O’Brien personal response.

    I don’t have an issue with personal response, positive, negative or mixed. In fact, I found O’Brien’s quite interesting, since I still haven’t fully decided how I feel about Jack’s book.

    I DO have an issue with a Guardian reviewer billed as master poet and judge, and trying to live up to that role. And having never seen anyone take a review apart in this way before, I see it’s a valuable thing to do because reviews of poetry books, especially first collections, should not be written easily or lightly. My favourite bit of your commentary, which pins down the problem of portentous style perfectly, is ‘Sir, you are 63. You are not Melmoth the Wanderer’. Yesssss.

    Could we not have poetry reviews in our national papers written with the art, attention and respect that poets draw on to make poems? Reviews more like the ones Robert Nye used to write. Responses, rather than Judgements. Then more people might read them with pleasure, interest and illumination, before going on to make up their own minds.

    • davecoates August 9, 2015 / 12:57 pm

      Excellent points here. Ultimately, all responses to poetry are ‘personal’ responses, but I think there’s a responsibility to contextualise your response, to make it meet both the perspective of the poet and of a potential reader. And given that you can’t tell who that reader will be, I guess it’s a matter of marking your thinking as clearly as possible, making a map a reader can follow. O’Brien’s map doesn’t have a tremendous amount of detail. ‘Here be dragons’.

      Regards the attention and respect of reviewers, I think it comes down to time/payment. A lot of reviewers are academics doing this kind of work in between an extremely busy schedule, often for little or no payment. Very few, quite understandably, can justify the time necessary to write something really in-depth. Without some benevolent millionaires kicking about I’m not sure how that situation can change.

      Anyway, thanks so much for reading, and for making some damn good points.

  7. Nell Nelson August 9, 2015 / 1:21 pm

    Dave, I agree — ultimately all responses ARE personal. But I think I was trying to react away from the kind of review that makes a final master judgement (that basically gives an ‘expert’ view on how the work should be regarded) and towards the careful (and carefully reasoned) expression of a personal view. Which we may or may not share. If that makes sense.

    Wholly agree about mapping the thinking. Although sometimes newspapers editors remove a number of the key markers before the review goes to press . . .

    I am more brutal than you about academics writing reviews for little or no payment. I believe they should not write them at all unless prepared to spend the necessary time. The service is too important to be undertaken lightly, and it’s not so much about payment as honour, and honouring the craft we serve. Sorry to use high-flown language myself, but I find I feel strongly about this. (Byron believed it was the Edinburgh reviewers who killed John Keats, I seem to remember, though he was wrong. But that he should have thought that says something in itself.)

    TNC on a discussion platform somewhere, somewhen, or in a pub possibly. Soon.

    • davecoates August 9, 2015 / 1:38 pm

      Hm. You’ve got a point there about honouring a craft and providing a service, which I certainly agree is pretty darned important. And it’s still very much a part of academic career advancement to be writing reviews.

      That’s also a very Byron thing to say. Though from what I understand of Edinburgh literary magazines back in the day he might not be far wrong…

  8. Matt Halliday August 20, 2015 / 2:13 pm

    THANKYOU for pointing out that David Harsent’s poetry is adolescent drivel. I cannot believe the thrift given to that bollocks by serious reviewers. Its all blood, cheap religious imagery and other portentousness rubbish. With the odd tit thrown in for its jouissance or whatever. The fact that it won shows there is something seriously wrong with the Poetry incumbents.

    Much in that Harsent book is atrocious, and would be called up for being meaningless word association and assonance in any normal creative writing class. We need youth consciousness, friends. It seem there is a gerontocracy awarding itself awards (and monies) that is malignant to the world of Poetics and that.

    The Guardian article of the prize announcement, picked a quote from the collection (presumably to display the lyrical virtuosity therein):

    It breaks and reforms: patterns unpick,

    the dance
    dips and spills, a churn of heads and

    arms, spin-daze
    of ecstasy, a deadweight on the air

    which is augury, which is judgment,

    which is fire feeding fire.

    THIS is what they chose. Oh dear. ‘Weak’ comes to mind.

    And I agree totally with your review. Sean O’ Brien obviously feels threatened by something. Jack Underwood isn’t really my cup of tea, either, although I do admire some of it. The review is so full of his desperation to keep the mantle of feinschmecker firmly to himself. If, as you rightly point out, O’ Brien feels he is above this, he can kindly fuck off.

    We do not need more fossils with their portentous, tough, warry bloody manly poetry, especially not from these sinecured armchair twats. I haven’t even mentioned Craig Raine, although he does symbolise something very similar. They are all too entrenched to examine their own Great White Male-ness; poor old Craig can become an internet laughing stock and still think the whole world was wrong, and all the snakes in the zoo have their eyes on his gorgeous pate.

    Oh dear this appears to be rather a long rant. Anyway, I enjoyed the analysis very much. Thanks!

  9. Edward Ferrari October 2, 2015 / 9:49 am

    Read the comment above if you haven’t.


    Glanced this over earlier tonight. Now sitting in a friend’s kitchen at 2:44 am having read this piece over several times and O’Brien’s review (you might want to check the link out, it seems to be broken, from iPhone at least).

    I’m having trouble understanding your motivation for writing this.

    Why state that Underwood doesn’t need defending and then defend him? Why accuse O’Brien of being biased against — for example — Underwood’s youth by being biased for it? Which I infer is what’s behind the reiteration of how long it took him to write the book.

    (How does spending 8 years on anything guarantee its quality by-the-way? I mean, apparently it’d take you the same amount of time to get to Jupiter, but it would still be hot air.)

    You mention that Happiness “is thoroughly coded as middle-class” in your review but seem to shy away from making a clear judgement about that fact. Even going so far as to suggest that you’re not a very politically minded critic. Are you in denial? Or aren’t you being honest about the book? I think what draws most of your readers is that you are a politically minded critic and are confident about it.

    It’s why I recommended you to the tiny group of poets I know here (in California) as unique among the British critics I know of. I know they’d much rather read you reading Underwood for race. Much rather have you being honest about why it’s different, or better, for the young white academically trained middle-class male poet that Underwood ostensibly is, to be taking up our time rather than someone other.


    Thanks for all the hard work you put into reviewing and congratulations on the Saboteur!

    • davecoates October 2, 2015 / 2:28 pm

      Hey Edward! Thanks for your thoughts, glad this caught your critical attention and apologies for the late night!

      So, I started writing it as an investigation of bad criticism – and O’Brien’s review is exactly that. He pays little attention to the book’s ideas and attacks instead the very fact of its existence – a critically acclaimed book by a young man writing poems differently to O’Brien. As it went on, the issue of youth = grounds for disrespect became too large to ignore. Nobody is unbiased, of course, and maybe I read O’Brien’s attack on youth as an attack on mine (kind of; I’m 29, Underwood is around the same, I think). I hoped I wasn’t defending Underwood specifically so much as defending a marker of a new poetic generation under attack from a marker of a much older, more established one. There’s also the fact that I was angry as heck when I wrote it and wasn’t necessarily thinking as clearly as I might have been.

      Bias isn’t a problem as such – it’s pretty much unavoidable to some degree – but being aware of your biases/prejudices and how they might cloud your judgement is perhaps *the* foundational critical skill, without which no amount of clever articulation will make your criticism worthwhile.

      And you’re right! No given amount of time guarantees quality (Rilke wrote the Orpheus sonnets over three months, I think), but I (thought I) detected in O’Brien’s tone the implication that these had been put together quite flimsily. What I should have said was ‘there is clear evidence that these poems have had very close attention paid to their formal construction’ rather than giving a piece of trivia that only suggested that idea.

      On the politically minded critic thing – I was being ironic. As in I used that phrase as an excuse to express the concerns that I (a very politically minded critic) had about the book. Sorry if it was misleading. Fortunately my own critics leave me with no choice but to acknowledge that I am deeply politically minded 🙂 On the middle class thing – just a note to acknowledge that it was going on, that even if it is very common for lauded British poets to be middle class, it shouldn’t necessarily be normalised, where that normalisation suggests that anyone *not* middle class is abnormal.

      Thanks so much for recommending my work, I really do appreciate it. On the question of why Underwood rather than someone else, again, that’s an excellent point. I’m working on it.

      Very best, and thank you for reading,

  10. Edward Ferrari October 2, 2015 / 6:00 pm

    Bit disturbed my sense of irony’s begun to atrophy already, but glad I was totally wrong. As for staying up late—what can I say—the anger sure gets the urgency across.

    I don’t see how anyone could disagree with your analysis of O’Brien’s review in general. It is ridiculously transparent, and doesn’t do much reviewing. But I think, while acknowledging the point I’m trying to make, you’re trying to sidestep it. So, bear with me, I’m going to try and pin you down on this one.

    Not, ‘why Underwood’? But, ‘why bother with Underwood?’ If he’s already as snug as you suggest in his “lengthy and high-profile career in the business, alongside his academic post at Goldsmiths” why help him? Because you want to wrong the right? Because writing about him will bring traffic to your site? The fact that he’s “a marker of a new poetic generation under attack” sounds pretty ad-hoc to me. You can hardly escape the fact that you’re specifically defending him when you’re writing a review of a review that’s attacking him specifically.

    Also, it’s not that Underwood is middle-class. It’s that I would argue his authority is propped up by his own “privileges as a wealthy white male academic” too. I don’t understand what the “certain loss of comfort” you say editors, poets, and critics should be ready to embrace is (‘What is Reviewing For?’) if you’re prepared to pull out all the stops to defend someone who already seems—by your own admission—to be very comfortable.

    Oh, and while we’re at it, “bias being pretty much avoidable to some degree” sounds like the understatement of the century to me and you’re deluding yourself if you think a good bit of introspection is going to sort that out. Since almost all the evidence points to bias—racial bias in particular (there’s an article on recent tests for bias done on medical students you might be interested in)—being hard-wired into our subconscious I don’t think rhetoric—well meaning or otherwise—is going to be sufficient.

    So to that end, why not have affirmative action on your blog? Why not positively discriminate and have a whole year where you don’t write about white men who write poetry?

    • davecoates October 3, 2015 / 1:30 pm

      Hey again Edward.

      I wasn’t escaping at all, I very clearly said that there’s every possibility I wrote the thing for less than noble purposes. We’re very much on the same page there. Don’t much like the implications of opportunism, mind, and I don’t know what ‘wrong the right’ means. Was I ‘helping’ all the other poets I’ve written about? Isn’t there a chance that I just wanted to write about something because it interested me, or even because at the time it seemed like the right thing to do? People make bad decisions sometimes, and I seem incapable of doing anything but.

      I also say in the very first paragraph of the O’Brien review that Underwood enjoys no little privilege, and this piece in particular wasn’t addressing that. Several people have already pointed out that the O’Brien/Underwood piece was a less than useful exercise and I tend to agree with them. It was self-indulgent and I enjoyed writing it greatly, but self-indulgence isn’t a great quality in any writer. And again, you are right, while it possibly reminded O’Brien that he shouldn’t feel comfortable coming down the mountain and smiting the unfaithful, defending one white academic from another really wasn’t the best possible course of action, and I don’t plan on doing it again. I don’t think, however, as you seem to be suggesting, that this one action invalidates an entire discourse around valuing and sharing the work of marginalised artists. A bit of nuance in your reading would go a long way to stopping me pulling my own hair out.

      Now, I think you’re willfully misreading me regards bias, and please don’t insult me by calling me deluded or suggesting that I think racism is like a cold you can just shake off with some positive thinking. What I said was that you cannot “sort out” your biases, but you can be aware of them and try to work around them. There is no objectivity to aspire to, and all we can do is remain hyperaware of the cultural contexts of our actions.

      Finally, I have written exactly one review since this piece, on Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’. Furthermore: But thanks for your suggestions.


  11. Edward Ferrari October 3, 2015 / 6:20 pm

    Sorry for flogging a dead horse. We are on the same page, agreed. Also, I should have familiarised myself with the context a lot more before weighing in. Should also have noted the date on it. Apologies for how I come across too, a belligerent pedant, and not a very eloquent or perceptive one at that—I’m working on it.

    Thank you for responding though. It’s an education in itself and productive for me as long I learn something. Learning to remember people online will react like actual people if you’re rude to them is clearly something I still need to study up on. Apologies for insulting you.

    Think you’re being a bit coy about opportunism though. Doesn’t every self-starter online have to be? Why take it personally? I’m not sure you could have achieved what you have without writing about books that would bring sufficient attention to you and your writing in an intentional and, yes, opportunistic way.

    The critic is complicit in the system they’re criticising, as Charles Whalley seems to say on Twitter (Aug 5). Whether they like it or not. Which you don’t because you have a conscience and actually want to do some good with the credibility you have.

    Apologies again. Will focus on doing your writing justice by reading it closely and in context in future.

  12. davecoates October 6, 2015 / 9:56 pm

    Hey Edward, thanks for this. Was having a stressful one the other day and maybe wasn’t as chill as I might’ve been, so apologies here too. And I won’t ever criticise someone too harshly who’s openly and actively learning, god knows I am too. More power to you.

    Yeah, I know what the analytics say. If I wanted nothing but folk to read me for *any* reason, all I would write is jeremiads against established male poets – folk are wild for those. But they don’t accomplish much in the grand scheme, necessarily, and it’s time and energy I could be spending one someone else (as you point out), which I’m now making a conscious effort to do. And yep, it’s all well and good saying that now I’m here (whatever exactly that is) – I never had a plan, and every time someone says something nice about the site it’s hard to process. I can only tell you that I got here by dumb luck, no small about of white/male etc privilege, and a lot of very public stupidity, much of which I’d undo in a heartbeat if I could.

    Anyway, thanks again for reading, for engaging, and for being patient. That’s kind of awesome.

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