Seth Godin says in The Icarus Deception that however many good reviews you are lucky to get for your work, it is the bad ones you always remember. Even if there is only one bad review. Especially then.
I wrote a while back about my own experience of this, specifically how reading Sean O’Brien’s poem ‘Before’ rescued me from the misery of an especially unpleasant review.
Of course I wanted to answer back. Instead I hid. I hate conflict. However hurt I was, I remain a coward.
So I have a kind of grudging respect for two poets I have seen taking issue with reviewers in their work, using their anger as material. These are Jaan Kaplinski and Robert Rehder.
I am a fan of both poets, the way they examine essentially inconsequential dailiness and expand it into some kind of grand moral and aesthetic quest. The results are often funny (‘I have lived through the crisis/ Of losing my diary// And perhaps not being able to buy/ The same kind again […] // An event of this magnitude/ Overshadows the destruction of the Berlin Wall/ And the trouble in the Caucasus.’ Rehder: ‘Hidden Agenda’) and mournfully tantalising:
The children are asleep. On the stairs,
A long row of shoes and rubber boots.
It happened near Viljandi: an imbecile boy
poured gasoline on the neighbour’s three-year-old son
and set him on fire. I ran for milk.
You could see the yellow maple from far off
between the birches and the spruce. The evening star
was shining above the storehouse. The boy survived,
probably maimed for life. The night will bring frost.
Plentiful dew. (Jaan Kaplinski: ‘It gets cold in the evening’)
Here they are with a very different kind of point to prove:
The Pequod Meets the Virgin
A would-be poet whom I will call D
Because you have never heard of him
And I hadn’t either –
He edits an obscure magazine
Of quite breathtaking mediocrity
Due to his total incapacity
To tell a good poem from a bad one
And made more obscure
By the publication of his own mawkish verses,
D read a few of my poems
And told a friend that they were
When the first blind unreasoning rage had passed,
My impulse was to smash his face in
And knock him down.
He’s smaller than I am
Even if he is a pretentious cretin.
I have no problem with criticism
As long as it’s constructive,
But kicking him very hard in the crotch
Might not hurt him enough
Since he’s a eunuch,
Therefore, it might be better
Just to beat him to pulp.
Then a more moderate approach
A rocket attack on his car
To blast the little twerp to smithereens.
Later, in a calmer mood, I contemplated
Using plastic explosive to blow up his house.
I would be sorry to harm his wife or children,
But the important thing is
To obliterate every trace of him.
Doing an insurance case in Florida,
Stephen had met a shady character
Who had offered to bump off anyone he didn’t like,
So months later,
After my anger had passed,
I thought of taking out a Mafia contract
And wondered if I could get
The name and address from Stephen.
Finally, I decided to forgive
Simply vowing him
My undying hatred.
The future, so they say, depends
Upon harnessing solar energy.
Who am I to disagree?
I am Rumpletstiltskin
And this is my stamp collection. (Robert Rehder, from The Compromises Will be Different)
Kaplinski’s poem takes the risk of printing the very criticism he is taking issue with, as an epigram:
Saying everything, almost equal to being able to say nothing, and saying anything, a basically uncommunicative conception of language, has made J. Kaplinski’s most recent poetry a fount of ineptitude and unintelligibility, and of the author himself a singer in the wilderness for whom the gap between recognition and understanding is reaching its frontier.
On the border between recognition and understanding,
sometimes this side, sometimes that, sways J.K.
in the autumn wind, like the dry stem of a meadowsweet.
When he writes, on the far side of the border of intelligibility.
When he makes porridge, washes the clothes or washes his face,
presumably on the near side. Close to the border
measurements, distances and qualities alter.
Things get mixed up, soap doesn’t lather,
water boils at room temperature, ice doesn’t melt,
ermine stays white in summer and art seems so artistic
that J.K. wants to write himself free of art,
write himself free of himself. Everything around him
becomes ever more distant — newspapers, children, books,
everything becomes less his own; the distant
is even clearer and sharper, while what is close by
become hazy, books difficult to read, and what is closest of all
dissolves completely, so
you point your finger and probe the part of the room
where your body or soul should be,
but there’s no trace of either.
Presumably poetry has reached its goal. (Jaan Kaplinski, from Through the Forest)
I like these poems very much indeed. They bring different kinds of smile to my face. They expand my day with the ungenerous though that I do not suffer alone.
The first time I read ‘The Pequod Meets the Virgin’ I laughed out loud. It says: If you’re going to get your own back you may as well do it in style.
However, the thing I notice about both poems now, some years since I first came across them, is less their successful (and differently funny) venting of spleen, and more their success as lyric poems, however much they purport to have designs on us poor readers pulled along in the slipstream of rage.
The Rehder poem is still a Rehder poem, that is, about nothing much but nevertheless managing to convey an urbane and wry intelligence which is as at ease with references to obscure poetry magazines and the Mafia as with fairy tale archetypes. The speaker’s plans for revenge seem to spiral in ever more inventive fits of fury, fuelled by self-feeding flights of imagined physical pain.
In other words, like all good lyric poems, the poem draws energy from itself. The speaker may have begun with the ‘idea’ of poking fun at ‘D’, but I doubt if he planned to traverse the Floridian underworld while doing so.
Similarly, Kaplinski’s poem is written in Kaplinski-speak. All of his familiar tropes are there: porridge, children’s clothes and newspapers rub shoulders with his reliable Big Themes: Art, Literature and what he slyly refers to as ‘Understanding’. Kaplinski’s critical ingenuity is not far from the surface. The notion of the ‘border’, a subject he devoted a whole book of poems to, appears in line 4, at which point the poem makes a turn, not away from hurt or from anger, but further into it, via daily domestic chores.
To borrow Seamus Heaney’s phrase about Wilfred Owen, both poems ‘outstrip’ their occasions. They end in places —myth and meditation — which are far removed from the occasions which gave them their impetus, entertaining and drawing us in to their worlds, however small, along the way.