Reviewing poems: sad, serious business.
Daniel Scott Tysdal launched his poetry handbook, The Writing Moment a couple of days after Jason Guriel, Anita Lahey, and Zachariah Wells discussed matters of criticism at Ben McNally Books. The fact of the latter panel—its mere existence—is great. We clearly need such a discussion, and The Puritan and Town Crier have enthusiastically taken part in that discussion over the past little while.
Still, while we should talk about talking about important things, we might also remember the stuff that started it all. In this case, that’s poetry, and Tysdal’s event served as an opportunity to tune back into the source. Tysdal—an old and close friend of both The Puritan and The Town Crier—centred the event around a lot of great (and very Dan Tysdal-esque) writing activities, as has already been covered in this space. But beyond the focus on poems, (collective) composition, and the teaching of the craft, there was an ingredient essential to this gathering that set it apart from both the poet-critics’ discussion and the broader conversations that motivated and resulted from that debate.
That ingredient is humour. The first thing guests saw as they entered the bar on that cold, sunny afternoon was a life-sized, motivational speaker-like cardboard cutout of Tysdal. So you entered with a laugh, and that kept up throughout. I don’t think I heard anyone laugh at the “What we talk about…” panel. In fact, the one thing you can say for sure about the endless series of “controversies”—some arguments do deserve the term, some not—surrounding reviewing in Canada is that they are damn humourless. There’s wit, sure, but it’s usually mean-spirited, and the dominant tone is Profound Seriousness.
Maybe that’s the problem. Seriousness is necessary often, but it can become detrimental (not to mention boring) when not checked by levity. And poetry is nothing if it is not playing with language, so shouldn’t a critic be playful, too? Or is that the role of the poet, while the critic must maintain accuracy, judging and damning at a cold remove?
There are no ultimate answers to these questions, of course. That’s why it’s worth it to keep asking them. I’ve been trying to write about poetry’s balance between the sacred and the silly for a couple of years now. I’m still reaching, and expect to keep at it.
But even if that balance is hard to find, an imbalance toward the Serious can be identified in our recent critical puppy fights. I don’t expect criticism to ever be filled with hilarious jokes; that would be exhausting. I don’t expect, or want, criticism to become light; that would defeat its purpose to inform. I would not mind, however, if some critics in this country were able to make use of humour, even if it doesn’t come out in the final pieces, for two reasons:
1) To open their minds to new possibilities. Even if they eventually bring the hammer down on those possibilities, at least give them due respect. Rigidly divided aesthetic camps are boring. As Tupac put it, “Don’t gotta bump this/ but please respect it.”
2) To take themselves just a tad less seriously. Show some humility. Maybe don’t be an ass, even on the internet (it’s hard, I know). This point isn’t even really about what makes good criticism or bad criticism. It’s more about being a decent person. And hey, if you don’t give people a reason to think you’re an ass, then they might be more willing to buy into your arguments (that old ethical appeal). Likewise, if you make good arguments, you do nothing but undercut them if you don’t consistently act with the dignity your good arguments deserve.
Critics, most of you know this. You don’t matter. I don’t matter. Not as a critic, at least. Readers might decide my words matter. That’s fantastic, but also small change. I’m just a part-time doodler on a planet being killed by my own species. Why the hell would I think I matter, or that my opinions on poetry are worth getting mad about?
Then again, maybe that’s just the poet talking.