the houlihan treatment

Over at Critical Mass, John Freeman was kind enough to post John Updike’s Rules for Book Reviewing, all of which fall well within the boundaries of common sense. As I mentioned in ur so hacky you don’t even know ur hacky, I’m relatively naive vis-a-vis the conventions of book reviewing. I sort of feel my way along. And so it’s nice to discover that Updike’s rules are in line with what I’ve been trying to to, especially:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

Which brings me to Joan Houlihan’s review, in The Contemporary Poetry Review, of Matthea Harvey’s poetry collection Modern Life.

Now, first I should say that I am a reader of contemporary poetry. I get a kick out of James Merrill. I just had a nice chat with a guy in the water at Bay Street about James Tate, whose Distance from Loved Ones is a favorite of mine. I read Ashbery’s Flow Chart, and it blew my mind. Charles Simic. Heather McHugh. Not to mention all the kids coming up. The list goes on.

The point is that despite not being a poet, I do read poetry. (Joan Houlihan would say that I do not exist: “With only other poets left to read poets…”)

Here is some of Houlihan’s take on Modern Life:

If “to read” means to follow with your eyes, one word after another, until a text becomes comprehensible, then I cannot say I’ve read Modern Life. If, on the other hand, “to read” means to scan, in the sense of reading labels, like a grocery store’s optical reader, or if it means to observe various-sized and colored containers without being able to see what’s inside, or if it means to skim, admiring the typeface design and visual placement on the page, or if it means to obtain data from a storage medium (the page), and transfer said data to another storage medium (the brain) via the movement of eyes, then I can say I have read this book. But what does such a reading mean? I can’t say I enjoyed it, nor can I say I didn’t enjoy it, since each word, then each poem, overwrites the previous one. Was I changed by the experience? I don’t know. I don’t think I had an experience.

Sounds like someone isn’t interested in Updike’s rule #1.

I myself stopped about halfway through Modern Life. I stopped because I came to a poem that moved me so much I was unable to read on. It felt like it was breaking my heart. I am still wrapping my head around that experience. Then I went back and read some more. It is difficult for me to understand how someone could read this book and not have an experience.

If one believes, as I do, that writing well includes, may even be predicated on, the higher-level ability of employing tonal shift, syntactical variation and pacing in the service of building suspense and interest for the reader, then the only conclusion I can draw is that Modern Life is not well written.

It becomes clear pretty quickly that Houlihan has an axe to grind with a certain kind of contemporary poetry, and that she’s merely using Modern Life as a whetstone. I hadn’t heard of Houlihan before, but a quick google turned up evidence that she’s been at this for a while now, complaining about the course of contemporary American poetry.

She basically embodies the opposite of Updike’s spirit-of-the-thing rule #6:

Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind.

And she’s not shy about dragging out the straw men:

If, on the other hand, one believes that writing such as Harvey’s constitutes a “project” whereby the text is in service to some political or aesthetic idea (cf Kenneth Goldsmith’s “boring, boring” and “unboring, boring” project), is happy with the driving idea and has no need that the actual writing be of any interest, they may read her work as exemplary without expectation of either pleasure or understanding. Not this reader.

I have no clue what would lead one to believe what she says one might believe. What she is describing does not seem in any way to describe this book.

Which is fine, which is typical po-world polemics.

Harvey’s book got a good (and more reasonable) review in the paper of record–which, last I checked, gets a few more readers than CPR.

Typically, this sort of thing wouldn’t warrant a post here on the venerable WOT-WHAT. But in her review, Houlihan does something so egregious, so offensive, Updike didn’t even think to put it on his list: she offers up a rewrite of Harvey’s poetry.

Yes, you read that right. She cuts, edits, and rewrites Harvey’s lines, then comments approvingly on her new version:

Removing the generalissimo’s glands, the horse’s gums, the uber-goon and other portions of the poem that seem pointless or silly and unnecessary, and beginning with a statement that piques curiosity (what is the “hard news”?) and ending with an intriguing quote, in an interesting syntactical position, enables a certain cohesion or structure and reveals a serious and frightening poem inside, one that may or may not benefit from another good line or two: “The sight of a schoolbag / could send us scrambling” (without the “Suddenly” of course) or “Never mind that we could only grow / gray things.” There is at least one good poem here, one that bears re-reading and takes its reader seriously enough not to strew red herrings around for the hell of it.

Now before I type what I’m going to type, please understand that I am a believer in editing. I am a believer in craft. I am a believer that things can get better with the assistance of a second or third party. However, I am also a believer in artistic freedom. I am a believer in artistic intention. I am a believer in trying to understand what an artist has made. I am a believer that when someone publishes a book, he or she is not putting that book up to be workshopped, edited, or rewritten, especially by someone with an aesthetic axe to grind.

And so I say, having barely resisted recourse to expletives:

Joan Houlihan, you have done a disservice to poetry.

One thought on “the houlihan treatment

  1. A,

    I agree with prety much everything you say here, and I appreciate this post more than I can tell you. Need to think on it.

    But on the topic of “peiople reading poetry” I wanted to point out that Houlihan might suggest that you essentially count as a “poet”… even though you don’t write poems. Because the world of poets is a world you move inside of.

    These poets you name, and others like them, are people to you, human beings. I think a lot about how that affects the way we read. How community helps to build the language we speak. Helps us to understand the project at hand. Gives us a kind of decoder ring.

    I’m not sure I can make this clear right now, in a comment field, but I’d love to talk about it sometime.

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