Not that I need open the whole debate again (nuff said on that I think), but here’s a little piece by Michael Robbins that appeared in Poetry Magazine. Back when I was posting about reviews, Robbins and I were having a back and forth about what people were thinking of when they used the word “negative” in relation to criticism. He sent me a snippet from this review of Hass which made me laugh. Partly because it’s funny, but it’s funny because it’s true. We shared a laugh. Not, I might point out, at Hass’ expense. Or at least it didn’t feel that way to me. If it’s a visceral response one might use to gauge a critical position, good criticism makes more. Negative criticism makes one feel like losing one’s lunch. Negative often seems to come in a one-two punch with grudge.
I don’t get that feeling here:
Like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Sharon Olds—in their different ways—Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery. Unlike those poets, Hass has real talent. The Apple Trees at Olema is a frustrating blend of banality and brilliance. The second volume, Praise, now reads as a primer in late-seventies period style, the kind of laid-back beach koans that led people to believe Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear” was a good poem. There are more berries, more naming of flowers, more embarrassingly tin-eared warbling in the demotic:
It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman
he fucks in the ass underneath the stars
because it is summer and they are full of longing
and sick of birth. They burn coolly
like phosphorous, and the thing need be done
—From “Against Botticelli”
Does ass fucking really require such a high-minded justification? Upon being told someone is fucking someone else in the ass, has anyone ever responded, “What! Why?” I regret to inform the reader that Hass goes on to compare this sex act to the sacking of Troy.
Again, funny and insightful.
Here’s a review of the review, oddly enough. And in the comments you’ll note Steve Fama taking Robbins to task for the following:
Look, the cheap stunt nature of Michael Robbins’ rip on Hass’ “list of stuff in [the] kitchen” is plainly shown by the fact that he doesn’t bother to discuss, or even mention, the context in which the lines appear.
I didn’t feel the piece was either gratuitously stuntish, or mean-spirited. It isn’t how I would approach the task, but then I don’t think everyone should approach the task the same way. What Robbins points out, that I think needs to be pointed out, is the sentiment and the sincerity, that in so much contemporary poetry seems to me more laughable than Flarf.
And we really need more lucid, engaging, and less long-winded criticism. Seriously. It’s called editing.