Friday, May 16, 2008

Elizabeth McFarland and the Work of Writing Reviews

There has recently been a wonderful and spirited conversation over at the Wom-po list serv about a review in the Contemporary Poetry Review about a new book of poems by Elizabeth McFarland. Below is my response to the discussion. Joan Houlihan has also written about it with great thought at her blog.

I'm the person who used the word "catty" and so I feel I need to try and respond in some sort of way, with the caveat that I wrote my original email hastily while traveling. Still, here are my thoughts and why I felt initial peevishness about the CPR review. Rooney actually begins the review with an important question, and perhaps the question of all reviews:

Why should we bother reading this poem or care who wrote it?

I approach all reviews with that question in mind (though I tend to think of it as a first person I and not a plural we, but that my just be stylistic). In fact, as Claire's comment indicates, I don't think that the review really answers that question fully.

One of my first reactions to the review is exactly that, why review this book at all if indeed it is as the reviewer presents it to be. I think one of the first and important questions for a reviewer is why spend this time and energy writing about a book. When I invest time and energy in writing about a book, I do it because there is some exigent reason to read the book or at least know about it. I felt like some of that was missing from Rooney's review - and I think there is an editorial responsibility to answer that question about reviews run.

Also when I encountered the review, the language that Rooney used to describe McFarland's poems was language embedded in gender roles and sexism. I challenge you to find a review of a book by a man in which the words "prim" "quaint" "winsome" and "romantic" are used, particularly all piled atop one another. In addition, the entire paragraph about McFarland's attire while on it's face I take issue with (again when is the last review of a book of poetry by a man talked about his attire) but in addition if the attire is going to be discussed at such length, it seems to me it deserves to be contextualized in a particular time and place for which it may be, actually, quite appropriate! That simply wasn't done.

To add insult to injury (at least to this reader) there is a substantial paragraph about McFarland's marriage. Again, why isn't her work taken as autonomous? Why is it important to contextualize her (for what there is of that) in light of her husband ? Again, I think about this as a question of parity. When you read reviews of male poets, is there a paragraph or two discussing their husbands? Some perhaps, but I would argue those are anomalous.

Those were the things that I found peevish and lead me to say that the review was "catty." And by that I mean, the easy "fight" or tousle was picked. I take the point made on Wompo that "catty" is a word with sexist connotations, but I do think that the tone is "catty" and not say "combative" or "negative".

As I have reread the review and have been mulling it in the back of my mind, the other things that bothers me most about it is the complete failure to contextualize McFarland's poetry either with peers at the time or to consider it in relation to other poetry in other historical contexts.

Rooney mentions McFarland in comparison to Sexton, Plath, and Lowell. It's an easy statement, but I just don't think that it takes McFarland's work on her own terms. From what I know of her poetry, I think that the comparatives to consider are more along the lines of Stevie Smith, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Sitwell or Letitia E. Landon. Reading the poetry and biography of McFarland against any of those would, I think, make a much more interesting and illuminating review and put McFarland's work into relief to answer the question that Rooney poses at the beginning of it.

Ultimately, I think that CPR, from what I have read of it, is invested in judging "excellence" as though it were a term not bound by time and changing standards of reading and understanding poetry, and I think that underlies Rooney's review. Though I haven't read the new book, I don't think McFarland is a poet who I will love and who will change my life, but I do think that she deserves a fair appraisal and one that contextualizes her work on her own terms and in conversation with others who would be sympathetic with her project.

1 comment:

Frank Wilson said...

I quite agree with what you say. I reviewed McFarland's book and her best poems are comparable to those you can find in any book of German lieder. They have a folk-like quality that hints at an underlying mystery of being. A good 20th-century example would be the Hermann Hesse poems that make up three-fourths of Strauss's Four Last Songs. Rooney misses the point of them entirely I think and insists on seeing them through a prism of temporal and cultural provincialism. Auden's poem about the sailors and the whores wouldn;t likely have made it into any mainstream magazine in the '50s.