November 1st, 2013 / 1:44 pm
Mean & Snippets

“Perhaps if I avoid critical reviews (not merely negative ones), what I acknowledge is that I am afraid that I will actually be read carefully, deeply, and that the results will complicate my endeavor. But surely a complication of that sort could materialize (with any luck) in one’s very next poems. It might improve them.”

— Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s thoughts on poetry criticism over at The Volta are I think legitimately splendid, of a shiny clarity, and they make me feel shitty about how often I’ve let opportunities/invitations to do more nuanced critical work slip by because they promised to take more time/work than manic imploring.


  1. RM O'Brien

      I like the idea of being okay with other people’s ideas about my ideas. But it’s so overwhelming. It’s like walking into the Total Perspective Vortex. Don’t we have to suppress our awareness of competing points of view to, like, do anything?

      That’s just a response to this post, not the essay. Sorry. Will read now.

  2. Owen Kaelin

      David Lynch said once in an interview that when people criticize his movies for things that he knows are inaccurate and/or ignorant: those criticisms hurt less than criticisms of mistakes he know he made. It’s the latter, he claimed, that hurts the most.

      I disagree completely. I can take criticisms of mistakes I know I made, simply because I agree with them. But when somebody criticizes my work out of ignorance: this still hurts, even after all the years of my receiving criticism for my writing (which I knew from the very beginning would be unpopular).

      The real problem with criticisms (as opposed to friendly critiques/observations) is that they destroy the artist’s motivation — no matter how much he/she has tried to steel his/herself against such attacks. I spent 2 or 3 long years being unable to write because I was paralyzed by self-doubt. Many years of creativity and exploration just died, because I kept second-guessing myself.

      I had to set up a collaborative project with other writers in order to free myself from it, in order to try to reclaim my youthful enthusiasm for invention. It worked. (The site is still up and anyone who wants to research it can find it.)

      Criticisms are dangerous. They destroy our literary culture, no matter the intentions of the critic. They make writers decide to stop writing, particularly in high school and college.

  3. deadgod

      Thumbs-down reviews, parceled into ‘vicious’ and ‘impersonal’ (or ‘ad hominem and ‘work-related’), confront people in every “‘conversation[al]'” situation; every interaction is potentially a negative review.

      But this excerpt from Wilkinson’s essay is about something different: about the discomfort people feel at any close attention.

      Most teachers are familiar with the problem of students disputing obvious points or indulging in an empty skepticism out of otherwise-admirable resistance to authority.

      It’s the same in everyday life: one doesn’t want to account to a competitive incomprehension, especially if one senses a determination to win the “‘conversation'” rather than to understand. (I don’t mean clinging to a different point of view; I mean ‘disputing’ from no point of view at all.)

      But when one puts an artistic thing out to be experienced by others, there’s a great temptation for the artist not to want that experience to have to be “‘conversation'” for that artist.

      ‘My poem [let’s say] isn’t legislation, it’s not disciplinary, it’s not homework — pretty much, don’t tell me anything about your reading of it that might wound me. In fact, unless you can make it seemly obsequy, don’t say anything.’

      As the essay suggests, internet threads are an effective analogy: personal offense is fairly ignored or flamed back, but people hate being contradicted rationally.

      What’s different with an artwork is that as a proposition, the experience of it doesn’t admit of falsification, exactly. The experience IS the demonstration.

      So the urge, born of reasonable vulnerability, is to say, ‘Why you gotta argue with my poem?’

      The responsible response, as (I think) Wilkinson is suggesting, is, ‘It’s not personal; it’s the busy-ness of coming to understand.’

  4. Jeremy Hopkins

      Good read; lots of good points. Thanks for posting.
      Frankly, I don’t have a clue what poets do or feel or think outside what I read in their open letters and cultural rhetoric (I realize I left out ‘poems’) and they pretty much all say their ‘world’ is somewhat ‘insulated’.
      There’s a music site called The Quietus that reviews albums in a similar way to what I think Wilkinson is getting at. No number/star rating, just context and description. It’s great. You read it and think “That’s something I’m interested in hearing,” or “I don’t feel interested in hearing that.” It usually isn’t such deep criticism that one suspects the author is expecting/hoping to be quoted in journals, but it’s plenty deep for someone looking for more than a pass/fail/incomplete grading system.