when a book of poetry receives a tough verdict we often label the review “negative” and speculate about the reviewer’s motives, the agenda behind the takedown. Indeed, behind words like “negative” and “agenda” and “takedown” lurks the sense that the reviewer is the one making the trouble, and the book of poetry—whether it deserved a kicking or not—is being bullied. We’re far less paranoid about motives when, say, a movie receives a tough review in the New Yorker or Slate or Rolling Stone, even when we disagree with the verdict—even when we’re so outraged we fire off an e-mail to some editor’s in-box. This is because negative reviews of movies (and LPs and TV shows, etc.) represent the norm, and aren’t usually labeled “negative.” Movie critics with whom we disagree are merely wrong; poetry critics (and politicians) go negative.
After all, how many volumes of new poetry published in the last calendar year will still be jarring us in five years? In one? Shouldn’t the negative review, if we’re honest and adult about it, be the norm? And if so, shouldn’t we retire the adjective “negative” in favor of something far more accurate, if a little awkward, like “necessarily skeptical,” as in, “Man, William Logan sure has gone necessarily skeptical on that poet?”