I recently read a review of a literary journal that I like and found myself wondering what it was exactly that the reviewer was trying to say. Luckily for the reviewer, I hadn’t seen the particular issue of the journal that he reviewed, so I could neither agree nor disagree. But if I had to make a decision to purchase a copy of the journal based on the review, I’d be at a total loss.
The journal in question is Rattle. I like Rattle. I liked it when it first appeared in the 1980s. Though I haven’t been a faithful reader through the years, whenever I have picked up an issue of Rattle I have not been disappointed. Yet I recognize that no poetry journal is perfect and all of them to some degree can be improved. I think Rattle’s editor, Timothy Green, understands that as well.
A review of Rattle #28, poems by and about nurses, appeared recently at Luna Park. I was baffled by the review because some of the metaphors, in fact the language as a whole, falls to the floor and leaves me grasping for meaning. It got me to thinking about what the purpose of a review actually is.
A Review Of Luna Park’s Review
Gregg Weiss’s review of Rattle starts off like this:
There is much to be said for sticking to your strengths, for the exploration of a narrow milieu. In the twentieth century, artists as varied as Martin Ramirez, Charles Bukowski, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and A.J. Liebling exploited the concept of a niche aesthetic, either thematic or stylistic, to great effect. And while we all (or at least I) wish that we were Pablo Picasso, as native to “Guernica” as “Hands with Flowers,” we are instead generally closer to Jim Carrey: excellent at a specific brand of physical comedy, but mediocre in the dramatic roles to which he has more recently “graduated.”
Weiss sets me up fairly well in the first two sentences. Right away, I know he is critical of Rattle’s literary aesthetic. That’s fine. That’s what reviews are for. To point out the good and the bad and to make sense of them. But “good” and “bad” are relative terms. Something is either good or bad based on a person’s point of view, a particular aesthetic rendering. And Weiss certainly has that.
Weiss lets me know immediately that he does not appreciate the niche aesthetic. While I appreciate his prejudice, I’m not sure that it is necessary for a review of a specific issue of a literary journal. What he thinks about Rattle’s aesthetic philosophy as a whole has no bearing on whether or not issue #28 succeeds or fails. If the reviewer starts off with a prejudice of the aeshetic that he is reviewing then he shouldn’t be reviewing it. How can he be objective about that which he obviously has no appreciation for?
Where Weiss begins to lose me is in the third sentence. This is where he introduces his own prejudice (an irksome habit that too many reviewers are too happy to do much too often). I’m not sure what the parenthetical first person is supposed to indicate; I really don’t care about the reviewer’s aspirations. I’m more interested in knowing what he thinks about the subject of his review. Furthermore, I do not appreciate the assumption that all of his readers have the same fantasy that he has. How does he know that we all want to be Picasso? The fact is, we don’t. In fact, when he contrasts Picasso with Jim Carrey, the only thing I can think of is “That’s an odd place for an allusion to bathroom humor.” And it nags on me that Weiss believes “we all” are like Jim Carrey – first rate at our own niche aesthetic and second rate at everything else – while he continues to criticize Rattle for being what “we all” are. Suffice it to say, I’m not with Weiss at all from that point forward.
Creedence Clearwater Revival Vs. Pablo Picasso
The first sentence of his next paragraph is a jarring obstacle as a follow up to Weiss’s thesis:
Nearly all weighty-topic free-verse, Rattle 28 has opted for CCR over Picasso.
So what? I like Creedence. I’m not a big fan of Picasso. So right away, I’ve discovered that this reviewer has a prejudice that I don’t share. He likes Picasso and not Creedence. I’m just the opposite. He is sour on Rattle; I’m not. Therefore, my conclusion is, based on his negative review, that I should perhaps buy the journal because I’d probably like it. I’m sure that wasn’t the reviewer’s intention and it begs lunacy to think that it should have been. That’s not how reviews are supposed to work.
It’s All Downhill From There, Pablo
From there, the review just gets worse. Sentence by awful sentence:
Only one of the 98 poems features either a rhyming or metric pattern.
A statement that Tim Green says is completely false.
In addition, the poems of Rattle 28 rarely attempt humor, and are explicitly concerned with Heavy Shit: assassinations, cancerous mothers, religious minority, child molestation, unity, the death of a parent.
Again, what’s wrong with that? Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies, but rarely did he write both at once. His plays were either comedies or tragedies. Where in the poetic handbook does it say that poetry should be humorous? Where does it say that it can’t deal with “Heavy Shit”? I’m not given a clue. This is just a statement that Weiss brushes right over to get to the next one.
The scope is ambitious. My preferred selections, however, flash a self-centered wit amidst an often ponderous crowd.
Again, the author here injects his own prejudice. Instead of just giving me an overview of what to expect from Rattle 28, he instead tells me that he prefers self-centered wit to emotional depth. How ponderously shallow of him.
What Should Reviewers Do With Prejudice?
While I don’t expect reviewers to hide their prejudices, I do expect them to be forthcoming about them and to not allow their prejudices to cast negative aspersions upon the works that they review. There is a stark difference between stating that one prefers a certain aesthetic and judging whether that aesthetic succeeds on the basis of generally accepted aesthetic principles. If a reviewer warns me, for instance, that there is not as much wit as heavy shit then I can judge for myself whether that is good or bad; but if the reviewer tells me that it is bad that there is more heavy shit than wit then all I get is a window view into that reviewer’s soul, but the reviewer’s soul is not my concern.
I do find it helpful, however, that Weiss gives me samples of the poetry involved. Then I can judge for myself, based on the passages, that the rest of what he says is right on or just too much of nothing. In this case, I’d say the latter.
How Weiss Helped Me To See The Light
One passage of Weiss’s review that really shines is when he talks me through the difference between the poems written by nurses and those written by non-nurses:
The 21 poems by nurses are interesting in how they relate to the rest of Rattle 28. As you would expect, the general subject matter does not lighten once we walk through the front doors of the hospital. There is, however, in many of the nurses’ poems, a gallows humor that, although not always successful, examines and comments on death, sickness, pain, etc. where the non-nurse poets of Rattle 28 often simply insist on the existence and awfulness of such facts. And as T.S. Davis notes in his essay on the relationship between nursing and poetry, the potential for thematic and emotional monotony in “nursing poetry” is overcome, at least in Rattle 28, by a visceral intensity of image and language that distinguishes similarly-themed poems from each other.
This section of the review tells me what is good and what is bad without the reviewer having to tell me. I can judge from the reviewer’s comments about the poetry as to whether the nurses’ poems or the non-nurses’ poems sound more appealing to me. And that’s what a good review should do: It should bring out the good and the bad in such a way that I see the poetry for what it is and not be overly concerned with the reviewer and his thoughts about it. Metaphors such as this one:
Rattle 28 reminds me of the dining-out scene in my hometown of Los Angeles: appealing restaurants like occasional plums in an overpriced and mediocre pudding.
For while the supposed small-moment magic of a Billy Collins may be endearing, expounding on the significance of a cloud passing a hammock depends on an expectational straw-man to an equal extent (although opposite effect) as Steven Spielberg does in Schindler’s List: the universe is more complex than a single cloud passing a hammock, and individual action is more personal than genocide. Like the emotional effect of Schindler’s List, the vast majority of small-moment poems may seem momentarily counterintuitive, but are ultimately self-evident.
do nothing to help me understand the nature of Rattle 28 and its good/bad qualities nor does it help me get a grasp of the reviewer’s thoughts on the work and whether I should trust him. These passages are overwritten and it appears that the reviewer is simply trying to be cute when he should be helping me make a decision as to whether I should spend the time and money on the product he is reviewing.
Is Weight-Free Verse Bad, Or Is That Prejudice?
Again, the final paragraph morphs into a void of misunderstanding as Weiss grasps for the right words to say, “Rattle needs improvement through diversity.” Instead of brevity and economy of words, he waxes into poetic mumbo-jumbo and unnecessary wordiness:
While competent small-moment poetry is easier to produce than competent weighty-issue poetry, Rattle 28 is emphatic in its embrace of the latter in a free-verse form. And while unrealized ambition is preferable to pandering, competence is always better than incompetence. How, then, to improve Rattle’s batting average? If Rattle was mine, I would either widen its aesthetic— specifically, to include more formal and thematically varied content— or reduce its length. In its current form, Rattle has a recognizable aesthetic— serious free-verse— but not enough successful poems. As I do not expect for Rattle to start restricting the length of future issues on the basis of this review, the success of these issues will be determined by the quality and number of weighty-topic, free-verse submissions— which Rattle obviously cannot control— or, conversely, by Rattle’s willingness, or lack thereof, to expand its aesthetic niche in regards to the “importance” of subject matter, comfort with humor, and diversity of form within its selections.
I am never led to understand why “weighty free verse” is bad. I only know that the reviewer doesn’t like it. That doesn’t help me as a reader understand why I should or should not make the purchase, which is what the reviewer should be doing. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be devoted to that one task, helping the reader decide. If I see too much reviewer and not enough review then I don’t trust him. In the same way, if when reading a poem I see too much poet and not enough of what the poet wants me to see in the poem then the poet didn’t do what he should have done. The same is true of fiction, creative nonfiction, humor, or any other type of writing. The reviewer must not make an appearance.
A review is not written for the author of the work that is being reviewed. Weiss’s comment “I do not expect for Rattle to start restricting the length of future issues on the basis of this review …” is simply uncalled for. Whether an author, editor, poet, or other producer of artwork makes any changes on the basis of a review should never be of concern to the reviewer. Whether or not the consumer can make an informed buying decision on the basis of a review should be the reviewer’s chief and only concern.
Why Getting Past Prejudice Is
A Reviewer’s Greatest Brush Stroke
Gregg Weiss falls short, not because he doesn’t have intelligent things to say, but because he doesn’t help me decide whether to purchase Rattle 28 or pass. Instead, he tells me why I shouldn’t buy it on the basis on his own prejudices and I end up wanting to buy the journal on the basis of his prejudices because I don’t share those prejudices. I have my own. A good reviewer gets past the prejudices and sheds light on nuances within a work in such a way that prejudices don’t matter. And when that happens, whether one likes “Olga” or “Susie Q” is a moot point, because reviews shouldn’t revolve around redheads vs. blonds arguments.