Saturday, September 18, 2021


Do artists get unfair summaries from mean-spirited critics? Yes. That's the risk you take if you're an artist and are inclined to have your work experienced by as broad an audience as possible; getting reactions and responses, good or bad, is part of the game. Most times, critics can fall back on the defense that most of the work they review is being sold to the public, that it's a consumer product and honest takes by knowledgeable reviewers or fervent consumers are legitimate ways of conducting business in the marketplace. 

That's no excuse for the nastiness the perennially sour rock critic Robert Christgau offers up too much of the time. Though I think he's among the best critics, there has always been a feeling that he's impatient, even the artists and albums he likes. There exists, however, a general feeling that some art forms get an available pass when it comes to reviewing the work. Theater, music, books and films pretty much get the brutal hammer of judgment from critics to damn what they claim is mediocre work. Poetry criticism, though, tends toward the gentle hand, the supportively spiritual, the reconditely impenetrable. The tell-tale tendency with that method is to declare a poet's work is impressive without being exactly forthcoming about why. On the one hand, poetry is fetishized even by astute reviewers as a precious and personal expression. The reader must empathize entirely with the poet's set of issues, demons, and prayers for transcendence from the pains of the flesh. 

Generally, the poems are prosaic, clotted with conventional "poetic" turns, without rhythm or pulse, wallowing in the memory of past hurts, real or imagined. Calling out such these traits or the lack of craft and true lyric sense marks the reviewer as a meanie, a vulgarian, an elitist snob. You either relate and praise the expanse of self-involvement, or you, the critic of verse, are a bloodless leech.

And on the other hand, we have the reams of experimental poetry where it seems the theory of which exists before the poem itself. Jargon, modernist cant, and postmodernist relativism dominate the discussion by those poetry critics who deign to assess the doings of poetry that claims to want to change the way readers see the world but which only frustrates and blinds them. Announcing tripe when tripe is served, to cadge the best line from the play "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," invites the discerning reviewer to be hailed as a boob, ignorant, racist, homophobic, the whole shot. William Logan, a poet and not a mean man, is the only reviewer of poets who gives an honest and knowledgeable review of what major and lesser-known poets offer the readership. And he gets it from both sides. 

The point of all this is that being a working critic is an occupation that requires a tough skin and a Trump-like refusal to back down from past judgments their readership disliked. Being an asshole is part of the critic's skill set: the fearless review that might offend or intend to offend fans is the very reason one reads criticism. But alas, I'm afraid the days of the brilliant contrarian criticism are very numbered and that music criticism will become as useless and choking on meaningless platitudes and gutless abstractions as poetry criticism have become.

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