Pay attention to the poetry world, and you’ll notice a kind of false advertising: most of published criticism is positive even though so much of published poetry is bad. (This is probably why a lot of people don’t pay attention to the poetry world.) One reason for the dearth of critical comeuppances is that even bad poems are often hard to understand and harder to understand conclusively, so negative critics risk missing something and looking like fools. They misinterpret what they malign, they butcher what they slander. A way to acknowledge the problem without giving in to it is to qualify criticisms with an implicit “unless I’m missing something.” As in, unless I’m missing something, the line “At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness” sounds like a parody of a pop song. It describes an emotion without conveying it, exaggerates images without making them interesting. “His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars.” Unless I’m missing something, that’s vaguely whimsical but impossible to visualize at all. Blood, toil, sweat, and tears are also ethereal, I get it, but the words are tossed together like a collage I can’t actually imagine—is there oil and bloody garbage floating near the Milky Way, in which case how can the poet see it? How does it look to him like a superhero’s outfit? How is the line not sappy, trite, and nonsensical?
more from Adam Plunkett at Bookforum here.