What is Reviewing For?

Full Disclosure: This is a slightly adapted/updated version of a talk I gave for students at the Oxbridge Academic Program in St Andrews in July. Cheers again to Tristram Fane Saunders for inviting me, it was great craic. This is also a bit of an apology for not getting more reviews out lately. Once again, thanks for reading. [ed: there’s a really good discussion about this essay going on in the comments.]

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A discussion about what reviewing is for is also a discussion about who it is for. Up until the very recent past writing about writing in these islands has been the domain of middle/upper class white men, with only a few notable individual exceptions. As with many poetic-critical matters, I first turned to the American poet-critic Randall Jarrell, whose essay on “Contemporary Poetry Criticism” in 1941 might have been written yesterday. Here, he identifies a distinction between publisher-friendly ‘good’ criticism, the kind that provides a kind of advertorial testimonial and drives sales, and the good criticism which “is often involved or difficult, and which always tells the public not what it wants but what is good for it”. Jarrell here co-opts the language of the doctor, probably for dramatic effect, though the connection between good art and a healthy body politic is rarely so clear-cut.

What has changed most noticeably since Jarrell’s time of casually using male pronouns when describing ‘the poet’ or ‘the critic’ is that such obvious markers of exclusion have faded out of use. What they have left behind is the more insidious means of silencing and erasing that characterise the culture at large: i.e. codes of practice that favour men very much like Jarrell, a university educated, cishetero, able-bodied, middle class white man. Literary research body VIDA’s recent figures on representation have returned some fairly damning statistics, particularly regarding the 80:20 male-to-female ratios in the London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement. In a subsequent discussion on Twitter, TLS assistant editor Michael Caines dismissed the statistics out of hand, even blaming women for not working hard enough to be commissioned by him. His behaviour is perhaps revealing about how such journals operate: cultural change is understood to be the responsibility of the oppressed, who are expected to overcome institutional prejudice simply by working harder to meet pre-existing male-friendly standards. This line of thinking allows editors to assume an ostensibly neutral position – ‘let the market decide’; ‘cultural change takes time’ – without examining their own roles in upholding those same prejudices about whose writing ‘matters’, in fixing whiteness and maleness at the centre of culture.

Economics also factor heavily in who can and cannot participate in an artistic community, and, given poetry’s scant resources, it’s perhaps unsurprising that low-paid or unpaid critical work or editing internships disproportionately favour middle class men with money, and thus time, to burn. I should point out (I should have pointed out earlier) that I am one such man: I was invited here off the back of a writing career I made online, for free, bolstered partly by financial support from home. In a recent interview with Claire Askew at the Scottish Review of Books, poet and artist Harry Giles argued that austerity measures make it ever more difficult for young writers to develop their work and support themselves, and that such measures are exponentially harsher on writers facing other forms of marginalisation: women, LGBTQ, racialized and disabled writers have suffered from cuts to public funding far more acutely. He continues:

“What’s needed are not nebulous opportunities and endless carrot-work, but schemes to make jobs for young writers (and artists of all disciplines) and bursary support. Initiatives like the Edwin Morgan Award, from which I’ve benefitted greatly, are very welcome indeed – but we also need initiatives that aren’t based in competition, and which enable writers to support each other.”

This last point is simply expressed but cuts to the core of how poetry culture in many ways reflects the aggressive neoliberalism of British culture at large; under the current system, only a select few receive huge portions of funding, and the substantial prizes that do exist (TS Eliot, Forward, Costa, the new Roehampton Prize) tend to favour older poets who often already hold lucrative and influential positions in academia, publishing or both. The ‘competition’ is rigged, stepping over other, less privileged writers is the norm, and the criteria by which artistic ‘value’ is judged are far from apolitical.

Meanwhile, in America, the fiasco over Michael Hudson’s use of a female Chinese pseudonym to gain publication in the Prairie Schooner and subsequently entry to the Best American Poetry anthology shows how willing some white male poets are to maintain their perceived entitlement to cultural centrality. In an article for VIDA, the poet Purvi Shah identified the practice not only as ‘yellowface’ (which had been in currency since the story broke), but coined an extremely useful term: ‘literary manspreading’, the act of occupying more space than one needs, to the detriment of those who need it more. Perhaps more importantly, Shah identifies a number of ways to further equity in future; these strategies revolve around providing solidarity for poets of colour, and an increased emphasis on working collectively or as part of a community, for example, “the next editors of the anthology could be a collective of women of color poets across diverse communities and be given the latitude to set criteria for their poem selection […] it is too easy to throw stones at one editor from an historically-oppressed community”. I was guilty on that last count, and I find myself once again regretting rash words. Shah’s point stands: if we are genuinely concerned about including marginalised writers in the literary communities we as white writers and readers have taken so long for granted, it will take direct action, and (maybe) a certain loss of comfort. It will take monitoring the work of editors and presses and demanding positive steps towards inclusivity, even from poets and editors we know, love and respect. Perhaps particularly from them.

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I want to argue that poetry is not a sanctified space, and that the lines Seamus Heaney drew between “the actual conditions of our daily lives [and] the imaginative representation of those conditions in literature” are dubious at best. For a great many people, the ability to make poetry intersect with the reality of one’s daily existence is a matter of life and death; for a great many of our most lauded poets, it is an intellectual exercise.

This year’s TS Eliot Prize winner, David Harsent’s Fire Songs, is an excellent example of a poet in a position of no small privilege exploiting the language of atrocity (including images of torture and the Holocaust) to make rhetorical hay and, ultimately, pick up twenty grand for his trouble. The book is full of scenes of violence against and revulsion towards women’s bodies, and repeatedly treats female desire as untrustworthy; the book also contains insensitive depictions of mental illness and war crime. The authority of the speaking voice in Fire Songs, I would argue, is propped up by Harsent’s own privileges as a wealthy white male academic. There is little evidence in the book that he has questioned his own position relative to his subject matter, or what right he has to be handling it; the speaker seems to aspire towards a stance of apoliticality, as if his poetic messages and gestures are free from cultural context. If it wasn’t clear already, no such position exists, and the fact that such a pretence is so richly rewarded by one of poetry’s most powerful institutions has troubling implications.

In a review in Poetry London, Michael Hulse called Fire Songs “a dark set of meditations on destruction, loss, last things […] a Sebaldian natural history of destruction, a vision in which processes of pain and occlusion are hardwired into a fabric of existence that offers no redemption […] Definitely not for the faint-hearted”. What Hulse does not discuss is what message those meditations deliver, the political implications of a wealthy white man so richly imagining a world without redemption; what position would such a man hold in such a world? Note also his deployment of other powerful men for ballast, and the pre-emptive strike on the ‘faint hearts’ of potential critics; these acts are intended to frame both book and review as unassailable, to reject the very credibility of critique.

Hulse’s review is in many ways deeply conventional, in that it first discusses the poet’s past achievements, superficially relates the book’s content second, and leaves little or no space in which to discuss the mundane-world implications of the book’s ideas. Much like Jarrell, Hulse writes under a great many assumptions about the relationship between poetry and the society in which it is an active participant. Indeed, regarding “Fire: a song for Mistress Anne Askew”, Hulse seems to take as much pleasure in describing the poem as the poem does in describing Askew’s suffering:

“Passion comes with a gravelly, darkened beat, sounding as if a Kiplingesque long line of iambics leavened with anapaests had been broken on the rack. Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr at the centre of the opening poem, was broken thus before being burnt as a heretic.”

Hulse’s conflation of metrical jargon and a real-life tortured woman is itself a deeply insensitive act, and speaks to the intellectual distance underpinning his critical work. And this is a key point; in the short space of a conventional magazine review (around 800 words, often less), there is little room for examining one’s own aesthetic prejudices; it could be argued that an appreciation of Fire Songs is dependent on the assumption that poetry does nothing, is removed from the workaday world, is consequence-free expression; again, imagine the social standing required for these conditions to be the expected norm. Under these conditions, criticism of the book’s overt misogyny may be explained away as over-literalism, a censorship of the imagination, or simply lacking the ‘heart’ to consume Harsent’s play with suffering, to see ‘how things are’. Under these conditions Harsent can play the taboo-breaking outsider or neutral bystander casting judgement from a safe distance.

Harsent, aided by Hulse and others, maintains his cultural authority through a systemic refusal or inability to permit discussion of his work’s underlying messages, or the power structures that allow, even encourage, such arrogation of authority in the first instance. As Charles Whalley puts it:

“The politics of established verse, where it has any, are predominantly Lib Dem: its emphasis is on individual freedom and dignity, while mostly ignoring the conditions through which that freedom is granted. In claiming, in its humanity, to soften the edges of C21st neoliberalism, it perhaps merely soothes the consciences of its beneficiaries. The suspicion remains that, as in much of the past, most poetry is only a store for the values of the affluent, only a ruling class talking of and for itself.”

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In short, it’s all sunshine lollipops and rainbows. But the point of this talk was to identify what reviewing is for. To the best of my understanding, it is this: reading. Jarrell argues that publishers need reviewers to boost their products, but that it is far more important that readers have trustworthy advocates; a reviewer is a specialist reader, an expert practitioner of a common skill. If our goal is to build a creative culture that respects the marginalised and holds the powerful to account, we need to first acknowledge how ingrained the resistance to such change will be.

To that end, if you want to review: first, that’s awesome, get online as soon as possible; second, read as much as your time, energy and sleep patterns will allow. Read poetry, read criticism, read essays you find on twitter. Our culture unduly respects voices that disrespect the marginalised and their experiences, voices that refuse to see abusive structures of power and how poetry aptly mimics them. It is the work of the reviewer to identify how these trends manifest in art, how art can be complicit in the systemic violence of society at large.

Pretending the world of the poem ends at the edge of the page is a dangerous falsehood; pretending the only poetry worth rewarding is written by liberal academics is harmful and culturally stymying. A good reviewer must first recognise their own position within these oppressive structures, and ultimately act according to their best principles. Which isn’t easy! Sometimes that will involve recognising your own prejudices, and maintaining a critical practice that constantly questions its own motives and cultural context. You will make mistakes sometimes, and you will sometimes do so publicly; the real test is how you respond. Understanding the artistic community not as a state of cultural Darwinism but a potential means of collective empowerment is an excellent place to start.

There is no way you hold within your person the means to understand every possible perspective, and you should be suspicious of those who claim authority where they have little or none (this essay included). Understanding and respecting the work of others takes time, effort and often a total rethinking of how you act or express yourself. It sometimes means creating platforms for or signal-boosting marginalised voices, even if that means relinquishing some of your own institutional power. Such acts are not easy, but they are, I think, a positive first step towards a culture that can speak honestly and openly about its past and future.

20 thoughts on “What is Reviewing For?

  1. sheenaghpugh September 26, 2015 / 2:32 pm

    “Hulse’s conflation of metrical jargon and a real-life tortured woman is itself a deeply insensitive act”

    But aren’t metre, rhyme and all such technical devices *meant* to echo and reinforce theme? What are they for otherwise? Tennyson used the rhythm of a cantering horse to convey the Light Brigade riding to its death. I don’t suppose he or his readers thought of this as insensitive to the dead soldiers. Hulse, as a reviewer, tries to analyse how the poet being reviewed uses technical means to convey his point, and the observation “as if a Kiplingesque long line of iambics leavened with anapaests had been broken on the rack” strikes me as quite perceptive. Surely neither Hulse nor Harsent needs to state the bleedin’ obvious, ie Burning People Is Nasty And Should Not Be Enjoyed. We all know that, and as readers we don’t need our intelligence insulted by being told what to think about it, either by a poet who chooses to write about it or by a critic who reviews him. You state that “pretending the world of the poem ends at the edge of the page is a dangerous falsehood”, with which I’d agree, but surely proscribing certain material and saying a poet has no “right to be handling” controversial subject matter is itself a recipe for anodyne poetry that doesn’t risk offending anyone?

    • davecoates September 26, 2015 / 3:51 pm

      Metre and rhyme can do far more than echo and reinforce theme. They can undercut and question that theme, or outright contradict it. They are tools, they’re for whatever you need them to be for.

      I have to ask: where is this certain material I’m proscribing? Where did I say ‘never write about any bad thing, where ‘bad’ covers a very narrow set of obvious moral absolutes’? Part of the essay is about racism and social exclusion, and poetry can and must discuss these things. My problem is that neither Hulse nor Harsent seem to see any issue with making torture and state-sponsored murder seem racy or sexy or otherwise pleasurable to read/watch. We might ‘all know that’ murder is bad, but art does have an affect on how we think, and Harsent’s Sexy Torture Jamboree is a very damaging thing to be waving off as harmless.

      And yes, the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ *does* sensationalise and sex up the blind stupidity of what was essentially the needless murder of hundreds of people. That he made his poem sound like horses doesn’t excuse that.

      Thanks again for reading, Sheenagh, and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, it’s genuinely very much appreciated.

      • Claire A September 28, 2015 / 8:38 am

        I am a descendant of Anne Askew. In the past, I have always been happy to see poems about her, to see her story re-visited. However, I found Harsent’s ‘account’ of her death pretty offensive: it reduced her to a sexualised female body on a pyre. The poem flies in the face of everything that she stood for: when she was executed in the mid-1500s, at the age of 26, she was doing things like campaigning for a woman’s right to divorce her husband, or a woman’s right to keep her maiden name when she married. IN THE 1500s. The poem made no mention of her achievements, no mention of her various struggles against an establishment into which she was forcibly married. It made no mention of the fact that she was tortured in the hope that she would give up the names of other women “heretics,” but stayed silent, knowing she’d be executed for it. We’re talking about a hard-as-nails woman who was willing to be BURNED ALIVE for what she believed in. Yet in the poem she’s this sexy, scantily-clad waiflet, and the whole thing pivots on a line about her taking off her gown for the prison guards. I feel I can safely say she’d have hated this poem. I’m really disappointed that her story was told in this way, and that this man who appropriated her story was so rewarded for doing so. I’m in the process of writing poems of my own in an attempt to right the balance. But it hurts. I feel hurt, on a personal level, by this poem.

  2. hitherkusum September 27, 2015 / 2:35 am

    Dear Dave,

    You have raised some relevant issues pertaining to creative vocations. The existing divides based on gender, color and sex in our creative spaces is not new; however, what is interesting is that despite all debates, Edward Said’s Orientalism, these divides have not died, rather have become stronger. it seems that the world is revolving in a circular direction, where every practice, whether decadent or liberal, resurface after a while in the similar form. Marginalization of women from creative spaces due to patriarchal politics or institutionalization of women in certain traditional roles not liberating enough for exercising their real passions also does not seem to be going anywhere.


  3. sheenaghpugh September 27, 2015 / 6:47 am

    But Tennyson wasn’t celebrating the stupidity – he explicitly says “someone had blundered”. He was celebrating the poor sods, the lions led by donkeys, who behaved so bravely. Their officers’ incompetence does not diminish their courage, nor make it less worthy of praise, and i think he was right to make that distinction. Now coming to Hulse and Harsent, Hulse’s comment seems to me totally neutral; he isn’t sexing anything up, merely making a comment on metrics and the way they’re used in this poem. Harsent is talking about torture. To do that honestly, it is necessary to admit that some people quite enjoy being cruel to others and may even get a buzz out of it. To admit that this happens is not to condone it, but it would be pure dishonesty to pretend such feelings did not exist – and pure patronising didacticism to point out heavily “these feelings exist but You Should Not Share Them”. Really all a poet can do is show not tell: show the operation of human cruelty and leave the reader to draw from it what s/he will. One would hope that (a) if the poet has done the job well, the readers will draw what the poet wanted them to and (b) that those readers who are depraved by nature are also mostly not the sort of people to be reading poems. When I read that poem, it has never caused me to think “wow, that sounds like fun; think I’ll go off and try it”. Incidentally, since Askew, like most martyrs, was possessed not only of great courage but of considerable showmanship and exhibitionism, I suspect she’d be happy to live on in any art form, not that it matters, because like all of us living and dead and everything in the world she is legitimate material for artists if they want to use it, provided they stay clear of the law.

    I enjoy your reviews. I do not wish to seem combative but have been disturbed by quite a lot of the criticism of Harsent because, though I don’t know him well, I have met him a couple of times; he has always seemed a perfectly decent, civil sort of man and I also happen to know that he has been very kind to someone else I know (a female poet, as it happens), with no remotely possible ulterior motive. From a close reading of “Legion”, one of my favourite collections, I also came away with the feeling that he was indeed a caring sort of person whose time in Bosnia marked him. It is possible to feel compassion without constantly advertising it and emoting all over the page; I rather like the way he keeps himself in the background and leaves the reader to do the feeling. I’m also ill at ease with him being constantly described as a ” wealthy white male academic” when he’s the son of a bricklayer, left school at 16 with no qualifications and earned every penny of what he’s got, mainly by writing in less esoteric genres. Critics are always complaining about poetry being too university-centred; this is a poet who did not come by that route but it still seems he can do nothing right (for critics who are mostly academics themselves!).

    • davecoates September 27, 2015 / 1:15 pm

      Hi again Sheenagh. I don’t know Harsent at all and I apologise if I’ve misrepresented him personally. From what you’ve said it’s all the more surprising that his poetry is quite so unfeeling. Beyond that, Fire Songs is not Legion – I don’t know Legion well, but I found Fire Songs’ rendering of interpersonal relationships particularly disturbing, and I’m extremely reluctant to use your personal experience of meeting him as literary critical information. I understand (and wholly agree with) the idea that the human behind the poetry is a factor in the poetry, but it doesn’t turn my reading of a thoroughly grim and ungenerous book into something radically different. Perfectly decent people are capable of writing despicable things. I flatter myself to think I’m a fairly decent human too, and I’ve written horrendous stuff in my time.

      Once again, at no point have I suggested that poets should tell us pretty lies, and I think it’s an unfair reading of my response to imply so. Poems don’t happen in a vacuum, and even with the best, most decent intentions, poems can still cause real harm. I’m glad you personally don’t fancy giving someone a good torture, but I assure you there are plenty of people who do want to cause people (particularly women) harm, and will feel validated when they see it in literature. I’m talking about insidious and widespread messages throughout our culture that carry these messages, from arthouse movies to 50 Shades to TS Eliot prizewinners; Harsent is by no means the only one perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Also, poetry readers are not necessarily saints.

      I suspect Anne Askew would much rather have had her life’s work as a missionary and spiritual thinker celebrated in art than her murder. Choosing one over the other is a potent political choice, and not one that respects her as a human being who spent her life resisting oppression. Absolutely we should talk about historical figures, but we need to take care about how we represent them. Exploiting the suffering of people through history has to be done with some degree of respect, and ‘Fire song: for Mistress Anne Askew’ was not.

      There is a huge difference between acknowledging the violent side of human nature and formalising it in art, and between the various ways you can formalise it, present it, criticise it. The way it appears in Fire Songs doesn’t suggest to me that the poet considers it’s a bad thing, or a thing that should be criticised (even if that wasn’t his intention), and in a culture full of such unexamined violence (again, particularly committed by the powerful against the marginalised) I think that’s a real problem.

      Thanks again for responding, and to be honest I’d be disappointed if you weren’t being combative. From one obstreperous scribbler to another, thank you for reading.

      • sheenaghpugh September 27, 2015 / 2:23 pm

        “Once again, at no point have I suggested that poets should tell us pretty lies, and I think it’s an unfair reading of my response to imply so”. No, I didn’t mean to imply quite that and am sorry if it came over so. What I take from words like “The way it appears in Fire Songs doesn’t suggest to me that the poet considers it’s a bad thing, or a thing that should be criticised”, and from some other comments in reviews, is this: that you feel a poem should be a sort of Handbook for Virtuous Living And Correct Thinking; a poet can write about evil, but only if he takes care to spell out the proper response, in case the naughtier reader should feel validated in his sins. (If this is a misinterpretation, I’m sorry, but it is how it reads to me). Personally I doubt that poetry really has that much of an effect – I don’t quite go with Auden that poetry makes nothing happen, but I think he’s right that very rarely does an individual poem make *much* happen, and the exceptions, eg Hood’s “Song of the Shirt”, are not generally held to be great or lasting works of art, which is fair enough; they were for and of their time and written for a specific purpose. (And if most poets had the choice between writing a mediocre poem that achieved a social good, or a great poem that would secure them eternal fame, I know which I think most would go for, and a good job too.) But it is principally as a reader that I react against this notion of a poem flagging up to me its moral purpose and the correct response. I don’t want to be nannied like that. Nor do I want the poet to be bending over backwards to show he isn’t “unfeeling”. in fact I don’t care what the poet’s feelings are; I would rather he kept them entirely in the background and let the readers do the feeling. This he can best do, not by emoting over the page, but by keeping ice-cool and concentrating on his craft.

      • davecoates September 27, 2015 / 6:57 pm

        Hey again Sheenagh. Once again again it feels like you’re taking a nuanced idea to its most absurd extreme. There exist plenty of books that have a clear and readable moral compass that are also spectacular works of art – Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax and Kei Miller’s The Cartographer… spring immediately to mind. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is very open indeed about its social and political message – it’s clear from the book that for Rankine, her friends and her colleagues that delivering an unambiguous political statement is an urgent necessity, for the sake of her emotional (and very possibly physical) wellbeing. I wouldn’t call that nannying.

        You’re also setting up a blunt binary between ‘eternal’ and ‘socially good’ there, and a very narrow definition of how poems affect our thinking. One poem might do little, but hundreds of poems (or novels, films, comic books, whatever culture we happen to consume) can have a very definite affect on what we consider acceptable. Also, there are plenty of great poems that speak to a very specific social/political circumstance, while retaining their status as great works of art. I don’t think this is an either/or situation.

        I would grieve if, say, Michael Longley or Sharon Olds or Mark Doty left their work ‘ice cool’. And I’d say you’re leaving a very narrow definition of what ‘craft’ is; isn’t there craft in working an emotionally charged voice into the formally constrained world of the poem? Also, and I hope I’m not being pedantic, you’ve stated concern about my narrow view about what poetry should be, and then left very narrow guidelines about what poetry should be (cool, non-emotive). That might be the kind of poetry you like, and that’s great! But I don’t think it makes sense to set limits like that. Every time I think I’ve come up with a template for good poetry someone comes along and smashes it.

        Thanks again for reading, and I hope you’re well.

    • Claire A September 28, 2015 / 8:41 am

      Sheenagh, please see my comment above about Anne Askew. I find the idea that she’d be “happy to live on” in this poem pretty problematic (she “lives on”, if you will, in me — I’m a descendant of hers).

      • Claire A September 28, 2015 / 8:52 am

        You know what, actually don’t. I’m not in a place where I can debate this with you. This isn’t an intellectual exercise for me and I am too angry to get into what I’m sure would be a fairly maddening back-and-forth. Excuse me for displaying my hurts on this page — apologies to Dave. Just ignore me.

  4. Simon R. Gladdish September 27, 2015 / 11:30 am

    Dear Dave

    ‘It will take monitoring the work of editors and presses and demanding positive steps towards inclusivity, even from … editors we know, love and respect.’

    With the possible exception of Nell Nelson, I can’t actually think of any!

    Best wishes from Simon

  5. Charles Whalley September 27, 2015 / 1:20 pm


    This is an interesting discussion, and I (by turn) agree with what both Dave and Sheenagh are saying.

    I just wanted to make one point on what Sheenagh argues about “the bleedin’ obvious”, and the license it gives to poets. Whilst there is a lot of sense in assuming some sort of ethical common ground between author and reader, and indeed it is this assumption that then allows art more generally to test moral thinking and scenarios in a safe space, the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ comes with its problems. All sorts of bad thinking is disguised and passes unchallenged within ‘the bleedin’ obvious’, within ‘common sense’.

    We can all think of times in history when, or places in the world where, what here and now seem as gross injustices pass and have passed unchallenged, and are accepted as the bleedin’ obvious. It would be foolish to assume that somehow our culture in this point in time was any different, that we are the victors of history and the ultimate good people. The sort of societal oppression that criticism should attempt to expose when furthered and justified through art is the sort of oppression that progresses through implication and omission, that resides in the bleedin’ obvious, and that is furthered by good people. And whilst this criticism can sometimes seem tedious or even patronising (“Of course the burning of women is bad!”), it’s never unnecessary.

    Doubtless David Harsent is a caring and kind human being — most people are and always have been — but it doesn’t mean that his poetry might not express the sort of cultural biases that Dave has been discussing. I’ve not read Fire Songs so couldn’t say whether I agree with his reading of it.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion everyone. I hope my thoughts are useful too.


    • Edward Ferrari October 8, 2015 / 11:15 pm

      Sorry for this not being particularly timely, but I was reading over these comments and thought I’d add my two pence.

      I don’t think someone who invokes common sense and the need for more of it in the way we approach poetry–and language arts in generally–should be dismissed quite so offhandedly.

      Isn’t it worth acknowledging the distrust, the suspicion of academia in all this and the sometimes counter-productive insistence on academic language–that is, somewhat rarefied, exclusive language–within discussions about poetry?

  6. Simon R. Gladdish September 28, 2015 / 2:10 pm

    Dear Dave

    I haven’t read Fire Songs but I did read ‘Fire: a song for Mistress Anne Askew.’ I found it voyeuristic, sadistic and thoroughly nasty. I certainly have no desire ever to read it again.

    Best wishes from Simon

  7. Desmond Swords September 30, 2015 / 7:10 am

    Hi Dave. Great blog.

    It got me thinking when you wrote: ‘Metre and rhyme can do far more than echo and reinforce theme. They can undercut and question that theme, or outright contradict it.’

    Can you give us any specific examples of ‘metre and rhyme’ ‘undercutting’, ‘questioning’ and outright contradicting’ ‘theme’; please?

    Thanks very much.

    • davecoates September 30, 2015 / 2:35 pm

      Hi Desmond! Good question. I think it works in much the same way an unexpected minor or major chord works in a song, a slight and quite unintrusive change that alters your understanding of the literal content of the line.

      In poetry that tends to be most evident with poets who work with a strong ironic tone, so here’s Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176996

      It’s probably the best example I can think of. The repeated line ‘the art of losing isn’t hard to master’ is almost perfect iambic pentameter, except for that last syllable in ‘master’, which rhythmically falls away and adds to its chatty, off-hand tone.

      But the actual emotional content of the line is devastating, and obviously of deep importance to the speaker, contrary to appearances. The line contains (in the sense of ‘holding back’ as well as ‘consisting of’) something deeply, traumatically unhappy in its almost merry rhythms.

      You can see this in a hell of a lot of Bishop’s work, this gap between the manifest content of the poems and their latent meaning, and a lot of the time that gap is maintained formally.

      Hope that’s useful! Rhythm’s a tricky old topic, and a lot of the time it works kinda subliminally – I’m still getting my head round it, to be honest.

      • Desmond Swords October 5, 2015 / 7:01 am

        Thanks very much, Dave.

        Yeah, I see what you mean. The lightness and forward projection of the metre undercutting the theme of the poem.

        Iambs doing the job of trochees. The feeling of divine dread the counter-intuitive, backward-going trochee foot. Like walking the opposite direction of a mechanised walkway or escalator. An unnatural feeling.

        I read yesterday a great quote from a reporter following Republican leadership contender, Ben Carson: ‘Perpetually languid in both movement and speech, Carson barely appears capable of keeping his eyes open at times. He speaks to large audiences in a near-whisper, the intonation of which sounds a bit like a late-career Michael Jackson telling a particularly terrifying ghost story.’


        Yeah, and as we all know, getting into conversation about metre can quickly lead into lala language and the sort of escapist prose flights into a central opaque and formless mushy centre in which we all end up talking utter tripe and not having a clue what we are saying as we trade our tin-pot ideas on the essential working parts of poetry and filiocht.

        Keep the faith dudemanbrosis, s/he is with us intellectually and She is above us spiritually and we are all vibrations spoken from the one source of sound spoken on the pages of reality and stages of our imaginative life.

        Keep up the good work. Sláinte.

        May you live long and become the most hated authentic critical voice of your generation, before becoming its most beloved Salmon of Wisdom; as you swim and prove day by day that the pool you are in and path you are on, with the eye of the mind we all are, be steady, still, true and straight. Swirling imbas from the source of Segais Well.

  8. andrewjshields October 14, 2015 / 11:24 am

    I finally got around to reading this essay, which has been on my list for three weeks now! An excellent piece, and an excellent discussion following it, especially when Dave and Sheenagh are commenting.

    Dave, there is one sentence that I think is inaccurate: “Meanwhile, in America, the fiasco over Michael Hudson’s use of a female Chinese pseudonym to gain entry to the Best American Poetry anthology shows how willing some white male poets are to maintain their perceived entitlement to cultural centrality.”

    I agree completely that Hudson’s use of the pseudonym was unacceptable and even makes the point you say it makes. But he did not “use the pseudonym to gain entry to BAP.” He used the pseudonym to get the poem published in “Prairie Schooner.” Once the poem was in that journal, Sherman Alexie picked it for BAP.

    Is this distinction important? In one sense, not really. But in another, it’s a matter of getting the facts straight, isn’t it? Of not misrepresenting a case that you want to criticize?

    That said, in Hudson’s own words, the pseudonym was “a strategy for ‘placing’ poems” (scare quotes his) that “has been quite successful.” The “yellowface” moniker is thus entirely appropriate.

    • davecoates October 14, 2015 / 12:38 pm

      Thanks very much for this Andrew, that’s an excellent point and I’ve updated the article accordingly. Thanks also for the kind words, they’re very much appreciated!

  9. Tristram October 18, 2015 / 12:00 pm

    Only just got around to reading this (having heard an early version in St Andrews). A question for Dave & the panel: could you consider a piece of writing to be ‘a good poem’, if you disagree, morally and politically, with everything it espouses?

    A poet I admire very much attempted to win me over onto Frederick Seidel recently, on those terms – any thoughts on Seidel?

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