THE POET CRITICS / PETRA WHITE
So Long Bulletin salutes Southerly for the broad approach to poetry reviewing outlined in its new statement. Reviews editor Toby Fitch aims to cut across ‘cliques and coteries’ and ‘transcend the comforts of pack mentality’ by encouraging ‘the rabbits to review the monkeys, the monkeys to review the elephants, and the elephants to review the dinosaurs’. I admire Fitch’s intent to shake up the reviewing scene and to increase the number of reviews that are published.
I suspect, however, that the problem is not people reviewing only those to whom they are sympathetic – though that certainly happens sometimes. I think the problem is more that poets, writing as critics, feel they have to be nice to each other. Perhaps it is tempting, when you are reviewing a fellow poet’s book, to be careful what you say, in case they end up reviewing your book, or perhaps they will one day sit on the Literature Board or judge you in a premier’s prize. Most of us would want to preserve critical integrity and strike out that thought immediately, in favour of writing a clear, honest and unbiased review that puts readers ahead of poets: but it is something that has to be thought through, and it requires courage. In an ideal literary world, there would be enough non-poet critics, and poets wouldn’t have to get involved; but I can only think of two or three of these wonderful beasts and they can’t cover everything. In our world, poets are the reviewers, the judges, the editors, the funding assessors. And this is a fragile world. I have heard of reviewers being advised to ‘go gently’ on a first book; to avoid being ‘negative’ about poets in general. It is like a system of entitlement: at some stage, everyone gets a review, a grant and a premier’s prize. The problem with this system is that it disenfranchises readers in favour of looking after poets’ careers.
I’m not sure what the solution is. I write criticism because I think somebody has to do it – and I draw on my background in literary studies and on my knowledge of contemporary Australian poetry. I try to be a critic first and a poet second. I’m sure a lot of people attempt this. Perhaps there is a role for our editors here – to encourage us to write open and honest criticism that may not always be favourable. Readers of poetry need the guidance of critics, and this should be our first duty. I agree with Fitch’s refusal of ‘hatchet jobs’, but I am uneasy with his insistence on ‘positivity’.
I wonder why we are all afraid of the ‘negative review’. Is this timidity really doing poets any favours? I would have been appalled if I heard that a reviewer had ‘gone easy’ on my first book, and I’m sure any poet would feel the same way. It is possible that a poet can learn something from intelligent criticism. Or, that an interesting debate can be generated. I didn’t agree with the views of a critic who wrote about my second book, but I was glad that he was free to express them and that people were able to comment, and critique the critique – this seemed like a rare moment in Australian poetry criticism. A ‘negative’ review can be positive: clarifying what is wrong with a book, why the poems aren’t working as poetry, and leading to a discussion of what poetry is.
We are in a good position right now for our critical culture to flourish, with major journals such as Heat and Southerly both committed to expanding into online formats and stimulating genuine debate. Let’s hope they will be as bold as they need to be.