The Acid Tongue
The necessarily skeptical
Selected By Cyril Wong
Jason Guriel has much against what he reads in contemporary poetry. In his lashing of three books by Jane Mead, D.A. Powell, and John Poch respectively, in a single review in the March 2009 issue of Poetry Magazine, Guriel stands by his general belief that there is nothing good to read these days. He says as much in his introduction:
The negative review is a curiosity, unique to anxious enclaves like the poetry world. It's not that people who review movies don't say harsh things — they do. But when a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review "negative" and speculate about the reviewer's motives... Maybe poetry is so marginal, so fragile a commodity, we worry about kicking it... [H]ow many volumes of new poetry published in the last calendar year will still be jarring us in five years?... Shouldn't the negative review, if we're honest and adult about it, be the norm... [S]houldn't we retire the adjective "negative" in favor of something far more accurate, if a little awkward, like "necessarily skeptical"...?
And "necessarily skeptical" he surely is (more like "deliciously cruel"), when he embarks on his unflinching rampage, starting with a focus on Jane Mead's poetic language in The Usable Field:
We can imagine Jane Mead's language all too well. Indeed, it's the Language of Our Time, a verse that's free (though not too free), with a dash of John Ashbery and a hint of Jorie Graham (though not too much of either), a verse that's aimed squarely at a woodlot... Mead, less poet than stenographer, substitutes a vague, blurry shorthand for the specific, vivid images one finds in the work of visionaries like Dickinson... Her poetry, then, doesn't so much describe its objects as obscure them with prefabricated language as airy as bubble wrap...
Chronic by D.A. Powell does only a little better, mainly because of his titles:
Many of the titles of the poems in D.A. Powell's fourth collection, Chronic, are so catchy they constitute events in and of themselves, micro-masterworks of wit. In his earlier books, the first lines usually doubled as the titles, lending the poems an offhand cool; poems so self-sufficient they spoke for themselves...
But, alas, the clichés and poetic style are too much for the reviewer:
The clichés are compounded by Powell's now-familiar style, which includes a long, fragmented line, colons followed by gaps of white space, and a refusal to capitalize anything but "I." These stylistic tics must've seemed risky once… But such tics have long since become codified short cuts to mild shock, like those T-shirts that claim their owners to be "PUNK."
John Poch's Two Men Fighting with a Knife fares the best. Although in this case, "best" is still not good either:
John Poch's second collection contains the sort of poetry that confronts most reviewers most often: poetry that's not especially bad but not especially good either... Books of poetry that are merely OK constitute a much more insidious norm that, over time, wears reviewers down …The result is the gutless review — a non-review, really — in which mild praise cancels out mild reservations, leaving the reader without a clear verdict and the poet, if he's lucky, with a blurbable quote.
Clever dig at many other poetry reviewers in the above passage, and Poch's poetry itself suffers no less under this reviewer's bored and "skeptical" eye:
QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012
There are no out-and-out disasters; Poch's commitment to craft — to ensuring that his lines scan and rhyme — guarantees that the slightest of his works are always readable, even enjoyable... However, it's this same commitment to craft, to satisfying a pre-imposed pattern, that can lead Poch's verse into subtle but costly contortions... Frost's great innovation — a voice so natural you don't notice the iambs — remains much impersonated but, as Poch proves, rarely possessed. Poch simply doesn't make it look easy... [T]he real failing of Two Men Fighting with a Knife — a failing, to be fair, shared by most of the collections which smart, well-meaning editors, even now, are FedExing to their rosters of reviewers — is the lack of game-changing metaphors… Certainly Poch's subjects — desiccated Americana, the stepladder at the Strand Bookstore, spinal surgery — brim with potential, but his actual language — "I'm dead / yet want to open, close, and surprise / like a heart or sunset" — is business as usual.