Hurricane season was about to begin and I was reading Roger Robinson. I’d been asked to do a review. Robinson, born in Britain but with Caribbean roots, had already won the TS Eliot Prize, the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize and been shortlisted for the inaugural Derek Walcott Prize—all for A Portable Paradise. Steeped in Robinson’s books (several volumes of poetry plus a short story collection) I found myself contemplating not only the different political positions poets adopt (or subvert) in their writing, but also the array of positions open to the poet-critic.
For some of us, criticism is an art. Oscar Wilde felt critics could be more creative than creation itself. Susan Sontag said there is no art without interpretation. TS Eliot himself, though, cautioned against the impressionistic approach of those who, without the spine of logic, paint pictures of pleasurable musings. For him, the lustre of verse is insuperable. No review can compete.
But there are some who throw all these positions out the window, subvert the notion of hierarchies of received knowledge, and reject the systems of dominance implied by the very notion of “critic”.
I have sympathy with all.
These positions need not be inconsistent. Nor need they clash with the personal inflections that accent any writer’s work. If a critic is truly independent, they may bounce, fearlessly, between each axis. They may draw from a distinct set of personal values in their own process of response, and each response could adapt, sometimes within the space of a single piece of writing, the guise of what is under discussion. For instance, when reviewing I try my best to get a sense of what others have said before me in order to add something new; and to get a feeling for how the work has been received. But when I did this recently for Paradise something happened. I noticed more than one reviewer, in literary publications of international repute, used the word angry to describe Robinson’s poems.
It struck me that the use of the word risked evoking the limiting (and dangerous) notion of the “angry black man”, or the “angry woman”. Both are the same as the notion that other voices have little to offer but sound and fury. It may well be none of these associations were intended, but in simply deploying the word in the context of reviewing a black writer’s book, these reviewers feigned an obliviousness to offensive tropes, opening the door to an area of discomfort for their readers. That insensitivity is something I feel we should avoid. I will be the first to admit, it’s hard. And with looming deadlines, it’s definitely not always easy to get right. But to borrow Samuel Beckett’s phrase, perhaps we should aspire to fail better each time.
Don’t get me wrong. Nothing’s wrong with being angry. In fact, we should be angry about the world and where we are at the moment. By the same token, people are entitled to use the word anger in a review. What gives me cause for concern, though, is the double-standard it often involves. Would people dismiss The Beats as merely angry? Do people not appreciate how this word is easily co-opted by the implied and insinuated codes that govern how we relate to race, power, and privilege? Anger supplies a superficial vantage point, it tends to cut off deeper inquiry and appreciation. Why might a person be angry? And what else is being achieved in the writing? Some of my favorite poems are curse poems.
These were the kinds of things on my mind as I reviewed. Perhaps they fed into my own, to use a word once used by one of my favorite poet-critics, animus as I wrote in a world then bracing itself for coming storms.