Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?

Why bother going negative on poetry when American culture has gone so negative on poetry already? It's already well below zero, so why pile on? Why not focus on what's good, on what's desirable?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Everybody's a critic. Though some people would like to think of themselves otherwise, we all make distinctions. That's a fact. It's just that some of us are more forceful in our distinction-making than others.

Some readers might have, for example, taken in that first sentence and thought to themselves, "Ugh. I'm already bored by this rote re-hashing of a tired lit crit meme." Then they may have clicked over onto the NSFW gallery to my left (your right). And that clicking would, of course, be a critique, though no pamphlet or blog was launched onto the world taking my work and my person to task. Still, that clicking away is an act of literary criticism! The difference between the NSFW-clicker and Lionel Trilling is a matter of degree.

The question that rolls around the Internet from time to time is what is an appropriate level of expression for these distinctions? Is it enough to simply ignore what's bad, or is it necessary -- essential for the lifeblood of an art, maybe -- to have a loyal opposition? What is an acceptable level of negativity? In the poetry world, this gets especially tricky since, well, I'll let Thom Donovan from Harriet explain:

In terms of 'negative criticism' (so called), I rarely see the use of it. If it is to dismiss a work of literature/art as unvaluable/irrelevant, don't we already do this by not attending it, or by not investing our desires and passions in it? It is so much work just to understand poetry/art (for works of art and poetry to become legible to one's self) I have never understood why people would want to waste their energy on what does not interest them (what, that is, they do not love or desire).

In other words, why bother going negative on poetry when American culture has gone so negative on poetry already? It's already well below zero, why pile on? Why not focus on what's good, on what's desirable? Donovan sees a poet-critics job as to, first, "do no harm," and then, in a sense, to work out of love.

Not surprisingly the comment stream to this post has turned a bit frothy:

Colin Ward asks, "Does the critic who stands silent against a tidal wave of blurbing on a sea of mediocrity really 'do no harm'?"

Cheryl Gilbert says, "Poetry is a variety of things, but it is also a conversation. Poets and critics and readers grow through interaction. This can be separate, even if negative, from a notion of love."

Kent Johnson asks, "Where would radical Modernism have gone without negative critique? What would Pound have done with himself, for example? The avant-garde, ipso facto, has always relied on it."

Henry Gould: "A critic's task is to educate popular taste - to help readers discover the best their culture has to offer - & WHY it is the best."

Sina Queyras: "Tougher criticism to me means more probing, less judging."

And then Thom comes back in to say, "More often than not, my 'reviews' and other criticism attempt to make legible the work of friends and contemporaries in an attempt for myself to understand them. and I think this is a super important function that criticism can serve."

On on it continues now with critics and poets chiming in to state their cases.

Over at the Poetry Foundation we've had this discussion a few times (here and here), but it always generates new questions and different answers from the hardcore poetry audience.

I wonder, Huffington Post readers, what you think. Is it useful for poetry critics to "go negative?"

Popular in the Community


What's Hot