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Shut the Phoque Up #1: This Old Poem

September 15, 2010

Bad reviews are important. No-one is going to dispute that. If all reviews were positive, then a ‘good review’ would cease to exist, and the role of the critic would fall redundant. This is all obvious. The discerning critic exists to distinguish the good poetry from the bad, and while opinions may differ, it is the ensuing debate between schools of thought that keeps modern criticism interesting.

However, all reviews, however merciless, should be respectful. If given a poem to critique, I try my hardest to find good and bad in it and whatever conclusion I put forth, I make the greatest effort to be fair-minded and not arrogant or supercilious. If nothing else, this is just good manners. I will willingly concede that not everything written is my cup of tea. An undergrad essay on J.H. Prynne and the post-modernists is testament my belief in defending my opinions. But even when I think  what I’m reading is utter twaddle, I balance my criticisms against the work of other critics. Not to do so would be petty, snobbish and more than a little ignorant.

But this kind of ignorance is precisely the attitude proffered by Dan and Jessica Schneider on This Old Poem, a blog that exists not only to defame the work of established poets the Schneiders have deemed ‘unworthy’ but also to REWRITE the offending poems according to their own egotistical standards. To criticise is one thing, but to assume the authority to produce an ‘improvement’ on another’s work requires an audacity that borders on shamelessness. Not only that, but the reviews themselves are far from cohesive. Believe it or not, calling a poem ‘crap’ is hardly an example of refined critical discourse. And while we’re at it, attacking the contents of a publication simply because your wife’s own ‘slick & musical’ sonnet has been rejected from it is petty beyond belief. Accusing the editor of publishing ‘doggerel’ on this basis is a vicious and unfounded attack on both the publication and the poor soul lucky enough to be accepted. Seriously, Schneiders, grow up.

The maligned wife herself is no better. Her cocky unpicking of her peers and forebears is little more than an exercise in smugness and intellectual snobbery. Having decimated a fine poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück, Schneider has the insolence to claim, ‘OK, I realize that I completely hacked this poem & probably changed some of the original “meaning”. Who cares? This version is better.’ (What’s more, she didn’t even go to the trouble of using the umlauts. Please, Jessica Schneider, get over yourself.) Her pathological aversion to cliché is further evidence of her profound ignorance. Schneider freely admits, ‘this is the only book’ I’ve read by Gluck’, before proceeding to harp on with self-proclaimed authority about how ‘Louise Gluck Sucks’. And this is only one example; the Schneiders’ well of venom seems almost inexhaustible.

Lastly, and on a purely superficial note: any critic, however haughty, who chooses to pare down another’s poem into meaningless two-line stanzas clearly has confidence in her own sense of aesthetics. So why is the vociferous blog in question such an eyesore? Mr and Mrs Schneider, I disagree with your approach entirely, but if you must peddle it, at least do so with some presentation. Thanks.

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