Reviewing the Review: July 9 2006

Poetry
Rave fiction reviews happen more rarely than one would expect in the New York Times Book Review, so it's encouraging that this week's issue contains two. Tom Barbash makes a compelling case for debut novelist Clare Allan's Poppy Shakespeare, which takes place in the depths of a mental institution:

"Doctors or administrators are scarcely seen, and unlike One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the novel with which Allan's is most likely to be compared -- the book has no easily identifiable villian, no obvious Nurse Ratched."

I'm definitely going to look for this book, in which a long-term inmate coaches a new arrival in the rules of the madhouse game. I'm not as completely clear on why Francine Prose seems so ecstatic about Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of stories by the late Chilean activist writer Roberto Bolano. As explicated by Prose, the book seems to promise a subtle but powerful experience:

"What amazed me was the aura of mystery and melancholy Bolano created, a sort of microclimate reminiscent (as was the terse, reportorial style) of Babel and Kafka, a weather that obliterated everything outside the story."

I don't tend to love novels that rely on atmosphere and melancholy mystery, but I am glad to see both a debut novelist and a late Chilean exile receive this kind of star treatment in the Book Review.

The USA's new poet laureate Donald Hall gets a much ruder reception in the hands of Don Chiasson, who starts his review with a weak generalization:

"There are two kinds of poets: the ones who tell the stories and the ones about who stories get told."

Actually, there are more than two kinds of poets, and this critic is trying way too hard to find a hook for his article, which portrays the poet as a careless gossip and busybody whose poetic vision is polluted by too many human involvements. I can't believe this line:

"A poet who publishes this kind of thing, in a career that also includes some great poems, could still be considered an important, even central, writer; but a book that includes such work cannot be considered an important or central book."

Strange, because the book satisfies me greatly and is in fact one of my favorite collections of recent years. Chiasson makes no strong case for his dismissive conclusion, and he also writes sloppily:

"The main way to make it into a Hall poem is by dying."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but "The main way to make it into a Hall poem is to die" would be both more grammatical and more pleasing. Score a strikeout for Chiasson; Hall emerges unscathed from this disappointing performance.

The Book Review continues to prove that it has no capability at all to review poetry, and I wonder if anything short of regime change will cure this. The Library of America has just published Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics, which is something like a book of poetry, and I'm happy to say that David Barber manages not to mangle the coverage of this work. He writes elegantly, and paragraphs like the following match their subject well:

"It didn't hurt Porter's fortunes that he hit his stride during an especially word-happy chapter in American pop culture. Although commercial success came relatively late ... his years living abroad as an aristocratic expat beginning in 1917 only seems to have made him dote all the more on his mother tongue, and his sesquipedalian flourish and jaunty banter were perfectly attuned to the era when radio and the talkies were injecting new juice into the vox populi."

Of course, critic David Barber is on loan from the Atlantic Monthly, where he is the poetry editor. I guess I'll have to pick up the Atlantic to find a useful review of Donald Hall's book too.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: July 16 2006. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: July 2 2006.
3 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: July 9 2006"

by Billectric on

human interestRegarding poets "who tell the stories and the ones about who stories get told" - many times, these qualities are one in the same. Look at Coleridge, Poe, Dylan Thomas, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Bob Dylan.

by DrMabuse on

well-equippedIt's because Tanenhaus is tone-deaf when it comes to poetry and literature, much less poetry critics. David Orr is a very good poetry critic and even wrote one of his NYTBR reviews in poetic meter.

by brooklyn on

Good to see you here, Doc. I'm definitely inclined to agree with your theory on Tanenhaus's ear for poetry. David Orr a good poetry critic? All I know is what I've read, and I don't see it. The record shows I gave him every chance: I greeted him happily on his debut which also happened to be the week I began reviewing the NYTBR here. I had high hopes. Then crap like this started to happen. I find a deadly streak of conventionality and cocktail-party cynicism in his writing. When does he ever reach for the sublime? When does he venture a heartfelt, riveting opinion? I respect your judgement, Dr. Mabuse, so please fill me in on why you call Orr a very good poetry critic. It's entirely possible I'm missing something, and I'm willing to listen.