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Kristin Prevallet

Why Poetry Criticism Sucks

A response to the conference titled "Poetry Criticism: What is it for?" - speakers Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Stephen Burt and Michael Scharf, moderated by Susan Wheeler, at Wollman Hall, Cooper Union Engineering Building, 51 Astor Place, New York City, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, early in 2000

This piece is 2,700 words or about seven printed pages long

You can read other papers from the panel and some discussion with the audience in Jacket # 12.


ACCORDING TO a recent article by Ian Hamilton in the London Review of Books, Randell Jarrell's descent into madness, and his speculated suicide, were in part provoked by a negative review in the New York Times accusing him of "doddering infantilism." Jarrell, who was hailed on the Poetry Society of America's panel "Poetry criticism: What is it For?" as being the model poet-critic, apparently could not take the blow, after having dished out a fair share of them for so many years as "poetry's high-purposed body guard."

Marjorie Perloff, meanwhile, encouraged young poets to critique each other, putting themselves and their friends in the line of fire. She clarified that she did not mean that poets should trash each other - just to take risks and engage in critical dialogue.

Michael Scharf pointed out that Perloff underestimates the extent that this is already happening, in journals such as Shark, Rhizome, and Tripwire, and on-line in the various poetics lists and their sub sub spin offs. Scharf exclaimed with great bravado that the exchange between Brian Kim Stefans and Standard Schaefer was a model example of this kind of cross fire, to which Perloff replied "and how many people actually know who Stefans and Schaefer are?" Twenty hands, not bad for an audience of 200, went up. This was the most interesting exchange of the evening.

Although the panel topic was certainly pertinent and each of the panelists were either well prepared or knowledgeable, the discussion provoked more questions than answers. There was nothing new; as usual, the discussions of poetry always fell back on definitions of what poetry is or is not, should do or should not do. But these definitions are not critical to the discussion of criticism; nor are they particularly critical to the discussion of poetry. Ultimately, Perloff, Helen Vendler and Stephen Burt were all coming from the same premise: poetry is self-contained and works within a very specific set of criteria and definitions, the specifics of which can be debated endlessly. Burt stated that the root of poetry is epistemological, and pertains to the poets complicated relationship with "self." Perloff quoted from Wittgenstein saying that poem should never give information, but contain it. Vendler believes that poetry is for pleasure and that its sense and sound are akin to a melodic singer who touches the reader. Of course this is grossly paraphrased from my rather hastily taken notes. Scharf was the most expansive of the group, discussing poetry's ability to actively participate in the "creation and elaboration of our moment."

You can read Stephen Burt's paper in this issue of Jacket.


Perhaps an indication of "our moment," Scharf proceeded to critique MFA poets and their programs. But if the most impassioned discussions of poetry criticism revolve around the mainstream's overflow into experimental rivers (and visa versa), then the state of poetry criticism is really bleak. It means that poets are not really thinking critically about the state of poetry, politics, and the world, but rather are keeping tallies on prize money and whose book was published by what university press. It would have been interesting if Scharf had discussed the extensive critical debates that have occurred around this issue (between Fence editor Rebecca Woolf and the sub-press/poetics lists skeptics; between Charles Bernstein and the AWP). But Scharf just restated what Kenneth Rexroth referred quite belligerently 25 years ago as "toilet paper poetry. Every sheet looks just like every other sheet." This kind of attack falls flat when the distinctions between who is mainstream and who is experimental are blurred.

You can read Michael Scharf's paper in this issue of Jacket. - ed.
Of course, it all comes down to the marketplace in which we are all consumed. It is argued that because there is no economy in the "experimental" poetry world that we are therefore not subjected to the lures of seeing poetry as a commodity. MFA's are easy targets because they do believe in a marketplace and saturate bookstores with free-form doggerel, get prize money, colony recognition, etc. (Excuse the generalization. After all, EPs have been known to saturate the underground airwaves with their own kind of derivative gibberish. There's enough bad poetry for everybody to buy into.) However, therein lies the contradiction. So-called Experimental Poets (EP's) want to be recognized by this marketplace, but simultaneously critique those who are making dents in it. So the  theory that EP poets have no broad market support, and from this economically marginalized position need to get EP methods out to the manipulated poetry masses - is ultimately seeking to mimic the very structures that it claims to undermine.

The point is that we live right now in a economy where any half-witted sap can learn how to day trade. Compared to 5 years ago, the number of small press publishers has significantly waned. The combination of decreased grant opportunities, rising urban real estate, and the general NASDAQ marketplace, has contributed to the necessity of many of poetry's most impassioned perpetuators to find full-time jobs.  Market anxiety is very pertinent to the larger consumerist climate that we all live under. It makes sense that the EP's want to win contests, have books published by larger presses, and have their pedagogical exercises applied to the general curriculum. But rather than complaining about economic marginality while simultaneously wanting to benefit from it, let's critically engage with the larger facts of our social environment. Let's figure out, as Carol Mirakove recently said, how to work within structures that aren't prize/award/money dependent, and invent them if they don't exist.

Of course, contradictions abound in assuming such a structure-busting utopic world view. It is not easy to be a poet in 2000. Resisting the capitalist marketplace is not as easy as resisting war, protesting sweatshops, or sending money to Greenpeace. It is everywhere, and has permeated our reality. Every time I turn on the computer I am aware of how I have bought into capitalism, both psychologically and materially. Democracy is no longer the political system that defines our rights. Soon we will all wake up and find that the Third Amendment has been destroyed by the very people attempting to exercise freedom of speech. No one wants to hear anything that is not delivered by official media channels. This means that "I hate speech" is not the poetic slogan for the 21st century. Speech is threatened everyday, so speech and the articulation of radical content in poetry is more important than ever.

To offer my two cents about poetry criticism I will say:
1) poetry reviews are seldom poetry criticism. They are usually fondling acknowledgments demonstrating likeability, and serve the absolutely essential purpose of keeping us sane. I write them, and will continue to do so, with pleasure.

2) criticism rarely gets written among people who know each other personally; as a rule of thumb, critics do not socialize with those they critique. The fact of the matter is that poetry has very few actual critics who are not poets, or who are not interested in socializing with poets. This is of course a problem, and means essentially that poetry criticism needs to be defined separately than ordinary criticism because it serves a very different function.

3) Poetry bantering and the inevitable personal repercussions are not poetry criticism. The poetic exchange is critical, but is not necessarily criticism; poetry criticism is a critique that takes into account the larger contexts - theoretical, social, cultural - that led to the production of poetry. The issue of whether poetry or a particular poet does or does not function within a particular scene is merely anecdotal; the real question is where does poetry intersect with larger contexts? Are poets willing or interested in forging that bridge?

4) It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed (ask Jarrell). For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal. Just ask anyone who has been in the ring of fire: even the grandest provocateurs of the EP's - people like Dale Smith, Brian Kim Stefans, Alan Gilbert, Henry Gould, Ben Friedlander, Dodie Bellamy, Juliana Spahr, and a host of others, including myself, who are opinionated when they write about poetry - can testify to feeling the pain of critique. Friedlander finally went underground, writing his reviews under a pseudonym. Gould launched such an assault on the poetics list that he was ultimately kicked off. Smith's mocking sense of humor gets taken so painfully literally. Ultimately the general feeling among poets that I hear over and over again in conversations is the same: poets who make waves are annoying.
We know all about the poetry wars, and we are suspicious of them. We're hip to the Oedipus game and we're steering clear of manifestos that attempt to set us apart from our "elders." However, critical banter, whether or not it leads to intellectual wars, serves a scientific function. Schaefer and Stefans arguing back and forth is no different than physicists X and Y arguing over formulas of cosmic strings - a dialogue extremely important to the scientific community and any interested stellar gazers wanting to listen in, but ultimately not relevant, nor trying to be relevant, to the general culture. Poetry moves forward in little spurts and starts, and certainly this kind of inbred dialogue has a very specific place in the loosely defined, but vibrantly confrontational, EP scene. These conversations shouldn't be swept under the already dusty poetry carpet. They should be enlarged and expanded to actually offer insightful commentary on the state of poetry, and to critique or articulate the larger forces that contribute to its production.

So the question for me is how can poets who think critically about each other's work write criticism that makes culturally relevant those inherently specialized definitions of poetry?

As a little anecdote, I have an artist friend who decided that she wanted to go to the recent "Issue Zero" Small Magazines Conference hosted by Brendan Lorber and Douglas Rothschild, held at a variety of poetry haunts around New York.
[See Brendan Lorber's report on the conference in this issue of Jacket.]
So used to the fact that no one outside of poetry likes poetry, I hadn't even thought of inviting her. Her reason for going, she said, was to investigate how small press publications function to build communities; and how the art world might learn from this in their own attempt to get away from the market driven economy of art and into the more grassroots endeavor of thinking about process and the making of new art forms. I too became excited by the prospect of her going away from a poetry event inspired with some larger plan; but alas, poetry-as-usual disappoints. The conference, and this has nothing to do with the diligence of the emcees, nor the participants themselves, was just a presentation of the magazines to an audience comprised mainly of poets. It was, as my friend said, small magazines 101 - telling her, (and she is not even in the "scene") what she already knew about poetry magazines. There was no real insight into the specifics of the economy of small press publications, the communities that are formed through the magazines, or the particular intersections of society, art or culture that the magazines represented. It was just a "check out these great magazines!" kind of enthusiasm.

There, for example, some critical interludes might have been applicable. How do these magazines represent a counterculture alternative to the market driven economy? What are other models, outside of poetry, that these magazines can point to as influences? Why did the editors want to start a small magazine? How are the magazines read? Is the audience intentionally small? Why or why not? Where does the magazine fail or succeed in doing what it set out to do?

When journalist / poet Alissa Quart asked the panel why poetry criticism could not take as a model art criticism, Burt looked as if he had bitten into a piece of sour cabbage. You want the poetry world to look like the art world? Yuk! Yet, this was not really the point of her question. How can poetry criticism find a language, a formula for talking about itself that somehow links with what is culturally relevant? The problem of the "difficulty" of poetry was raised on the panel. I still have not heard a definition of this "difficulty" that takes into account why poetry is any more "difficult" to write or talk about than art or music. Why do poets embrace "culture" and external contexts in the formation of poems, but not in the discussion or writing of poetry criticism? Why does the connection of poetry and pedagogy, a crucial and culturally relevant link, have to be a cold-turkey conversion process as opposed to an intersection with radical pedagogical practices already in existence? Why does what passes for criticism usually come down to wrong vs. right ways of writing, or this is or this is not what makes a poem?

The words "culturally relevant" did come up at this panel (unfortunately). Although Vendler's response was honest, it was also a bit shocking. She said that she  never cared about culture, nor was she ever immersed in it; she had lived in books since she was a child; she has lived within a rigorous academic environment for most of her life, has never voted or been a part of a club; she admitted that she was perfectly content with her approach to poetry, and that her scrutinizing taste in poetry was driven by the pleasure of the text. Scharf and Burt were contradictory, if only because they seemed to understand the cultural relevance of poetry, but simultaneously  wanted poetry to stay in the same old place. Poetry may be about motion, but it is not about moving from one place to another; not about intersecting critically with another discipline like art.

To me using criticism to make bridges between poetry and the social/ cultural world that creates it is not a question of selling out, but wanting the assurance of relevance in a context that is larger than myself and my little dog that knows me.


Kristin Prevallet

Kristin Prevallet's most recent chapbook is Selections from The Parasite Poems (Barque Press, 1999:

She wrote an introduction and edited a selection of poems and collages for an upcoming book on Helen Adam. You can read Kristin Prevallet's piece on Jack Spicer titled "Jack Spicer's Hell, in Homage to Creeley" in Jacket # 7.


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