A couple of years ago I worked as an assistant editor/reader at The Iowa Review. During that time assistant editors, mainly students were encouraged to contribute book reviews. I'll admit, I cared precious little for the enterprise of reviewing and was more concerned with entering my name, in a very small way, into the national literary dialogue. I went to the library and picked up several collections of new poetry from the University of Iowa's library. While I picked up books that had blurbs by authors I'd heard of and a couple that had won significant awards, I didn't find anything that I found exciting, or memorable. In response I wrote a couple lukewarm reviews, and one patently negative review.
However, when I submitted them to The Iowa Review's editors they were widely rejected. The general consensus was that publishing a negative review was petty, and in some way detrimental to the enterprise of poetry as a whole. The Iowa Review's main editor David Hamilton explained that to him it seemed as though there was no point in damning a collection with faint praise, because most poetry is doomed to obscurity anyway. Instead he preferred to use the reviews as an area to showcase and promote writing that the editors felt deserved a better readership.
Certainly that's a worthy editorial stance, however, it then seems disingenuous to call these sections and contributions "reviews." To my mind a review should at least have the option of being negative, or at the very least, critical. Otherwise literary journals should rename their review sections "Writer Showcases" or succinctly, "Props."
The most recent edition of POETRY includes an opinion/review piece Going Negative, by Jason Guriel, that addresses this issue. Guriel is perturbed that reviews tend to have a generically positive slant, and he offers up three brief reviews that take a more analytically critical approach. While I appreciate the candor of Guriel's reviews I'm not certain what he hopes their impact will be. However, Jason does offer this reason for why we read so few "negative" reviews of poetry collections:
"Maybe poetry is so marginal, so fragile a commodity, we worry about kicking it when it’s already pretty clearly down."
This captures at least a part of The Iowa Review's sentiment. Unfortunately, this fear is holding poetry back. It seems as though most books of poetry are reviewed by another poet, often times a poet who knows the author, or would like to be on good terms with the insular academic community most poets are a part of. This means reviewers are taken not as independent arbiters of opinion, but instead as members of a club dedicated to promoting other club members. If all reviews are positive it artificially inflates the value of poetry as a commodity.
But more than the issue of reviews, the poetry community needs to do some serious consideration of the last part of his statement, poetry is "pretty clearly down." And so I ask, why is poetry down? How is that poetry has become so culturally irrelevant? And what can the poetry community do to change that perception?
As a start I think acknowledging the over all state of poetry and minor individual failures, or "going negative," is at least an honest first step, and it's significantly better than running, or hiding scared.