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.