Processing Negatives: A Big Picture of Poetry Reviewing

By Helen Guri

I have no beef with negative reviews, per se. Some are vitally necessary. Many more are not, but have entertainment value, or stimulate conversation, or lend insight. If my own consumer behaviour is anything to go by, they sell more books than their positive or neutral counterparts. Sharing a dislike can make a person vulnerable, and in certain circumstances this vulnerability is appealing. I have a friend, for example, who hates green peppers. She talks at length on the subject. I once watched her painstakingly remove diced peppers from an entire pizza before taking a slice, practically trembling with the level of her disgust. I like green peppers. Even so, I found her act charming.

Negative poetry reviews do not need to be culled, as some have suggested that others have suggested. But neither are they white tigers in need of protection. To see the mode as legitimate, I do not believe it’s necessary to fetishize negative reviews as more “truthful” than other kinds of reviews (a silly assumption, unless you believe that everyone secretly finds all poetry vile), or as something at risk of being censored. The last time I checked, border guards were much more likely to confiscate LGBT comic books than anything written by Zach Wells.

Negative opinions aren’t riskier than other kinds. Positive or even neutral ones can do you in just fine. A few nights ago, someone I know mounted a vigorous defence of Eat, Pray, Love before an audience of chick-lit phobic book snobs. I judged the risks to be substantial. When I tell people I am bisexual (essentially an admission of indiscriminate enthusiasm for everything: “I like sex with men. And women. And people who can’t decide. I can’t decide!”), I sometimes perceive a risk. So the suggestion that people shy away from reviewing books negatively because they fear what others will think rings false to me. Saying what you like is often scarier than saying what you don’t.

Furthermore, risk-taking, by itself, isn’t a virtue. Telling people what they don’t want to hear can be brave or stupid, necessary or gratuitous, or plain awkward, like the dialogue in Peep Show. It depends on the circumstance.

In my view, there is only one real problem with the negative review, and that is its close association, at least in Canadian poetry, with a particular demographic of critics. Let’s call them white men. White male Canadian poetry critics write in other modes too, of course, but they are noticeably dominant when it comes to expressing disdain. They do this particular activity, it seems, largely without the company of their brown or female counterparts, and within structures (newspapers, magazines) that are still largely controlled by white men. I do not personally have the resources to put my observations to a scientific test. It is just something that I, as a white female poet who reads things, have anecdotally noticed. Critic Carmine Starnino has more or less noticed it too. The male voice choir seems to enjoy expressing disdain, and from a distance, it does look like fun. Whatever you think about the opinion advanced in this review of Tim Lilburn’s work, you have to admit that its sharply worded put-downs—“small-souled,” “hectoring… Pentecostal maximalism,” “Apollonian bummer bumf”—must have been exciting to pen.

It seems intuitively right to me that white men would dominate the field of expressing disdain about books. Here, for illustration, is a summary of my own relationship to reviewing. I have never really considered myself a critic. Reviewing isn’t an activity I generally seek out. The few times I have been motivated to write criticism have been because I read a book that was extraordinary, and which I wanted to think about extensively and share with people who might not otherwise hear about it. “Might not otherwise hear about it” has always been a crucial clause, the thing that has motivated me to actually get the piece finished. If the books I loved were tearing up the charts (insofar as poetry ever does), then I would probably just hang back and use the time to read more books, or earn some money.

But, as a woman poet who increasingly reads the work of other women poets, I know that a too-large proportion of the books I love don’t get their due in the public sphere. I cannot begin to tell you how many “underrated” poets presently occupy places of honour on my shelf. I say this not to diminish the books I read or write about, nor the marketing skills of their authors, nor to suggest that I write reviews or read books out of pity—I am at heart a lazy hedonist, and do in my unpaid hours basically only what brings me immediate pleasure[1]—but to question the context in which poetry books by women and other “minorities” are received.

I know that every poetry reader feels this way—all poetry, when not being secretly vile, is underrated—but the past two years of CWILA statistics support my claim. Across all genres, female-authored books are under-represented in the Canadian critical landscape, particularly in mainstream publications like the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Walrus (up until last year, at least), and Brick. Female critical tastes are arguably even less well represented in the mainstream. (This is to say nothing of non-white critical tastes, perhaps the least represented category, proportionally.) I don’t have statistics on the gender breakdown of poets I studied while in school, nor on the gender of those who selected them for my textbooks, and I am glad of this.

Given this landscape, almost necessarily, my approach to reviewing when I do it is as a supplicant: Would you please, O readers, O booksellers, O editors of the next Norton Anthology, the next Oxford anthology of Canadian poetry, consider paying attention to what I like. I like it oh so very, very much. And if I praise woman writer X strongly enough, if I make sure to emphasize the importance of her work while also explicating its more complicated bits, perhaps you will also consider, once she is past the age of 50, no longer describing her as “emerging”? “Fame is a shuttlecock… it must be struck at both ends,” said Samuel Johnson. Within this metaphor, reviewers outside the mainstream are perpetually serving.

Male reviewers, by the CWILA stats at least, are more likely to have their tastes taken care of—assuming, as I think is reasonable based on my experience studying friends’ bookshelves, that tastes often diverge by gender. And really there is no better illustration of this than the relative freedom many of these reviewers seem to feel, the leftover energy they seem to have, to express their dislikes too. Singling something out and saying “no, not this” is a gatekeeping behaviour. It presupposes an ample supply of the things you like and need—people don’t generally demand to have the peppers taken off their pizza if they aren’t regularly being fed.

So, no, I don’t have a problem with the negative review, except insofar as the strong association of a sexually and/or racially homogenous group with any one activity tends to make that activity and its relationship to the wider world problematic (see going on safari, NHL hockey, sandwich-making). The activity, through no particular fault of its own, becomes laced with the sorts of prejudices, privileges (or lack thereof), and blind spots that mark that group’s place in our still very stratified world. I believe that what most people who object to negative reviews really object to is the correlation of these with the dominance of white male viewpoints. Disdaining a poetry book while white and male is not by itself bad, but it is loaded.

This brings me to a review I read a while ago, “Rosy-Fingered Yawn,” by Jason Guriel, about Alice Oswald’s work of poetry Memorial. It appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of the PN Review, although I did not notice it until a year later, when a link was posted on what would become a baroquely awful Facebook thread, the kind we Canadian poets seem to love to make, and which some might argue is our true genre of artistic achievement.

In case you are not familiar with Alice Oswald, here is some context. The author of six books of poetry and the winner of several prestigious awards, including the T.S. Eliot prize, Oswald is, I sense, on the cusp of being declared “major.” I would describe her work as adroit, humane, oddly luminous, and among the best being produced by living English-language poets.

Memorial, her latest book, is a translation and radical revision (reduction, really) of Homer’s Iliad, in which the epic is pared down to the death scenes of individual soldiers and extended pastoral similes. I first read it on New Year’s Day, while hung-over and riding a Megabus (a cheap Ontario regional transport option beloved of poets and students), and it kept me awake, which is saying a lot under the circumstances. I found the violence of it jarring. Re-reading it later, I confirmed this impression—it was not just the bus. Some death scenes were frankly gross. The similes were hauntingly, even studiously beautiful, some to the extent that they almost parodied themselves. I liked thinking about this tactic of ping ponging between the B-movie and the Victor Erice or Andrei Tarkovsky film, and what it meant to see The Iliad this way.

In keeping with its title, the review is dismissive, and rather severely so. “Ouch,” read a blog entry about it on the Poetry Foundation’s website. But, although I admired Oswald’s book, it wasn’t the negativity of the review that bothered me. I am generally open to reasonable, and even festively unreasonable, critiques of books I like. Being a radical revision of Western culture’s most classic Classic, Memorial, I expected, would attract plenty of both.

It was another quality, a seeming lack of interest in presenting the poet as a coherent actor with credible motivations (posited motives for Oswald’s project include a desire to “blind us with brilliance,” be “fashionable,” and “get all up in our helmets,” whatever that is supposed to mean). It was, in part, a failure to give context to her career or to acknowledge that, while the reviewer found this book lacking in many aspects, Oswald has otherwise shown signs of being important, at least in the eyes of other people. And it was a footloose sarcasm that kept the reviewer unattached to any particular stance or view while he took repeated jabs at the poet, whose work fails against a scorecard we are not quite permitted to see. Of the project of translating The Iliad, Guriel writes:

Traditionally, The Iliad has been understood to be about the Trojan War, which was triggered when Helen ditched her husband, Menelaus, King of the Argives, for Paris of Troy. (We are more sophisticated now; we understand Homer’s epic poem to be about a battle between the forces of good and evil—a scapegoat and her oppressive patriarchy.)

Taken alongside other snide remarks in the review about contemporary attitudes (e.g., “We’re supposed to be irreverent now, aren’t we?”), the bracketed reference to sophistication and patriarchy is confusing. Are we to understand that Guriel finds feminist approaches to The Iliad trendy and frivolous? If so, on what basis should we agree? Or is Guriel, in this one instance, playing it straight? The result of the confusion is that Guriel gets to be simultaneously a feminist and an anti-feminist while harshly critiquing a woman writer’s foray into the male-dominated field of translating Homer.

Some word choices in the review troubled me deeply, on account of the fact that they evoked, for me, a female body (Oswald’s) before a male readership, and implied rather retrograde things about the relation between these. Guriel refers to Oswald’s book as “Anne Carson-lite, [though] it is not to suggest that Carson, the Canadian poet and classicist, is especially weighty” (emphasis mine). The problem with this phrasing? Any way you slice it, “lightweight” is a slur. Insofar as it means anything, it means “effeminate” (women, on average, weigh less than men, which affects their ability to metabolize alcohol, and the classes in which they box). The connotation of effeminate in our culture is of course negative—ineffective, unimportant, or (of men) gay-in-a-bad-way. “Lite” isn’t any better. It comes from diet food products, which are marketed primarily to women, lest they consume enough calories to start hitting with the heavies. These terms are, again, a cover that allows the reviewer to dismiss the work without real explanation.

Oswald, whose weight we are watching, is criticised for her run-ons and lack of punctuation, which are a kind of “willed breathlessness,” and are “the sort of easy, go-to solutions a poet will grab for when she’s after some violent spontaneity.” Maybe it’s just me, but the part of my brain not paying attention to the literal meaning (which, to Guriel’s credit, is about syntactical effects), the part that reads as a poet does, starts to get a picture akin to the cover of an ’80s romance novel: the lady, corseted, breathless, willful yet “easy” looking, clutching a young Fabio, her “go-to solution,” whose muscular physique promises a spontaneously violent good time.

About this Fabio—apparently he is learning to read. Guriel writes:

Had I a young ward in my charge, one who could do with some culture, that’s how I’d pitch Oswald’s book to him. He would want to return to his World of Warcraft, his Game of Thrones. But I would counter him his entertainments by reading aloud the following verse paragraphs.

There is admittedly a well-established tradition of men teaching younger men about books. In recommending to his “young ward” a book written by a woman, Guriel introduces what could be seen as an admirably progressive twist. Memorial, says Guriel, is a good read for novices, “a notch on a bookworm’s spear.” But I am at this point thinking equally of another well-established educational tradition between men that involves a woman, and another object people are commonly said to notch. Taking a young neophyte to get his rocks off at the bawdy house with an experienced older woman isn’t something I especially have a problem with. But the part where he ditches her and marries a virgin, whose skills pose no threat to his own, is a real loss to society. Relationships in which men remain devoted to older and more accomplished women are a wonderful thing. They have potential to change much about current power dynamics. My Spidey sense tingles with the suspicion that Alice Oswald is simply too good at what she does to be permanently welcome in Guriel’s canon.

Perhaps when reading the review you don’t see this gendered body stuff. It leapt out at me, though my partner, who is male, had to stare longer. It is like a Rubin vase—depending on your perspective, you see one picture or the other. I would bet quite a lot that Guriel did not create his subtext deliberately. But once you are on that level, it is difficult to climb back up.

It is not my goal to nit-pick, or to scare critics, like high school teachers, off ever using the word “oral,” or even the phrase, “trying to get folks to appreciate an oral art.” That the seedy underbelly of this review looms so large for me is, I think, a symptom of a bigger failure, on the part of both reviewer and editors, to recognize and respect the larger context in which the review would be participating.

Let me explain. Strip away, for the moment, individuality. Strip away, for the moment, the particular biographical interests and artistic agency of both author and reviewer. This is a belittling process for both, and I apologize. But the point I want to make strikes me as crucial. It affects all of us who write poetry and review it, and I can’t think of two writers who illustrate it better, right now, than this pair.

Here, on the one hand, is a woman writer of considerable talent. Her back catalogue, well received though not quite A-list famous, consists of poems about wildflowers, forests, rivers, and the moon. Yes, the moon in a quasi-menstrual sense. Her most recent effort is a departure: a translation of The Iliad, distilled to just the gory bits where men kill each other.

Alice Oswald the individual, a trained classicist, no doubt has many complicated and overlapping motivations for being interested in this topic at this juncture. The strength of her artistic (and scholarly) engagement with the topic speaks for itself. But of this pared-down Oswald, the writer whose specificity has been erased so we can see her role in the social scaffolding, I cannot help but observe: Is there a clearer, more naked way of declaring, I am a boy now too, and I would like to join your club?

Jason Guriel the individual no doubt has complicated and overlapping motivations for being largely unimpressed with Oswald’s latest book, as is his prerogative. That he is a clever person and a talented writer is apparent in his other reviews, and in this review too, despite my objections to it. But as to his response, which makes clear that these attention-grabbing scenes of violence are the first he’s noticed from Oswald (or, if he has noticed her work before, that he’s not inclined to tell), and which emphasizes her bodily femaleness, her lack of “weight” as disqualifying factors? It seems to me a bald way of saying, No girls allowed.

Memorial and reviews of it are involved in a dance I’ll call Getting Past the Gate (allusion to Troy only partly intended). The presence of even the shortest clip of music from this dance, the sound of even a few of its steps, should signal to a reviewer, especially a white male one, to tread carefully, acknowledge aesthetic affiliations and biases, substantiate criticisms concretely and without whimsical or sarcastic flourishes (though at other times such flourishes can be nice), spell out, not imply, any perceived lack of worth, and err on the side of caution when using language that has sexual or racial implications.

A lot of books are involved in this dance. I am not sure I could provide a definitive guide to picking them out from the rest. When in doubt, ask the audience, or call a friend. Think on it awhile. You can even stall for time by telling us about your secret love of Billy Collins, the ampersand, or being a furry. It isn’t cowardice.


Guri Match author photoHelen Guri’s first book, Match was published by Coach House Books in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Her poems and essays have recently appeared in the WalrusThis magazine, Lemon HoundHazlitt, and Event. She lives in Toronto, where she works as a freelance editor of art books, textbooks, short fiction, and political reports.


[1] The present article is an exception. I define this as “work,” in case you wondered.

Published December 13, 2013

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