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The Round Lovely Ones

Honesty and poetry reviewing

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Much poetry reviewing these days is blandly laudatory, concerned not to give offence and, generally, not very engaging. Much of it reads like an extended blurb or as if – and sometimes this is the case – the reviewer is a friend or acquaintance of the poet reviewed. Periodically, a poetry magazine will run a feature bemoaning the state of contemporary poetry reviewing. Where are the reviewers, not only of honesty and integrity, it typically complains, but who can write as if poetry, this supposed pinnacle of the literary arts, is important? Sometimes it will hold up, as the gold standard, poet-critics such as the American Randall Jarrell (1914–1965), whose lively, wonderfully idiosyncratic Poetry and the Age is considered an opinionated classic of the ‘critical honesty’ genre; a more modern version would be Dana Gioia’s superb volume of evaluatory essays and reviews, Can Poetry Matter? (1992). On this side of the Atlantic we had Ian Hamilton (1938–2001), also a founder of two famous magazines of the sixties and seventies, The Review and The New Review; the gentlemanly but critically stringent Irishman Dennis O’Driscoll (1954–2012); and Michael Hofmann, who is also a translator. But these are exceptions, and for historical reasons – perhaps partly to do with gender imbalance in poetry publishing – and despite occasional outliers such as the American poet-critic Louise Bogan (1897–1970), they have tended to be men.

There are several reasons for the largely toothless nature of the contemporary poetry review. One is that most reviewers are also poets. Many have something to lose in a febrile, reactive poetry world where popularity and likeableness can seem to count for more than literary quality. Awards, prizes, festival appearances and reading opportunities are far more prevalent than they used to be; and who knows who, among the reviewed, may, one day, be in a position to grant such? Far better to not write critically at all or to write the kind of bland pabulum that generally passes for reviewing these days. Also, few are keen to be regarded as what George Steiner once called ‘the thin grey ones, the steely trimmers’ as opposed to ‘the round lovely ones.’ A round lovely one sounds far more fun. Contemporary poetry culture accordingly has swung away from the discriminating and judicious towards a sort of feelgood party, fomented by immediately responsive fora like Twitter where, on threadbare evidence, poets are commonly called ‘stellar’, ‘wondrous’ and ‘sublime’. In this environment, in which ‘words are literal violence’ is a common mantra, a mild qualification may be responded to as if it were a slap.

About twenty years ago a woman reviewer began publishing omnibus reviews in one of the little poetry magazines. Ishbell O’Sullivan was bold. She seemed – in a field dominated by the yawningly routine pat on the head – seriously engaged. She set a context for the reader. She plainly knew what she was talking about. She did the books reviewed the honour of engaging with them wholeheartedly, to the extent of criticising (and having fun with it). A major poet who had written a comically logrolling, ill-advised introduction to a younger poet’s first book, making claims she felt did not bear up under scrutiny, Ishbell demolished lightly with judicious quotation. Her praise, too, felt genuine — not least because much of what she wrote otherwise felt humanly complicated. A brief biographical note said simply that she was in her late twenties, lived abroad, and had a longtime interest in contemporary poetry. I found her writing forthright and curiously cathartic. At one level, perhaps, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I knew something already of Ishbell O’Sullivan. She was, after all, me.

The poetry magazine’s editor had been in touch fretting, in a way amusingly common to such villainous gatekeepers of literature. Some variation of this dialogue ensued: ‘I really need,’ he said, ‘a strong reviewer for some books. My next issue’s reviews are all by men. So, it has to be a woman, for balance. Any ideas?’

At the time, I hadn’t. It was only my impression, of course, but female reviewers back then I thought were even less inclined to review with a purgative honesty than men. ‘No one’, I said, ‘comes to mind immediately. But you could just…invent a reviewer.’

‘A pseudonym you mean?’

‘Yeah. Why not? Hugh MacDiarmid used one to review his own books outrageously to drum up interest in them.’

‘Yes, but someone still needs to write the review.’

‘Well, I guess I could. Only if you’re really stuck.’

‘I’m really stuck.’

And that was how, from a combination of, I suppose, youthful playfulness and a desire to help out an editor, Ishbell was born.

A strange thing then happened. Ishbell was me, but also not me. She stood up in the darkness and stepped out, apparently fully formed. It wasn’t that the pseudonym turned me into some sort of rabid critical Orc slaughtering poets left and right. It simply removed the complication of my own biography and connections. (Ian Hamilton said once that he had stopped reviewing poetry when he ‘began to know too many people’.) I knew, even then in my relative obscurity, too many people. Ishbell was direct but she was never malicious. ‘She’ didn’t know anyone; no one knew her (of course). She was ‘pure’, uncompromised reader — the type I had been, once, in my caravan days in Ayrshire, in my fifteen years out in the literary wilderness.

Ishbell’s reviewing ‘career’ was relatively short-lived. The quality of her writing, flatteringly, had begun to be noticed. I had thought a little, though vaguely, of possible eventualities in advance. (This was meant to be a playful mystery, after all.) As a precautionary measure, the editor and I had decided she would not be contactable by email. Apart from the fact neither I, nor the editor, in those early days of the internet, had the technical skill to produce an email address unconnected to either of us, it was still just about possible to unsuspiciously not have an email contact. At the time I had a close friend from Europe, not far from where Ishbell was – vaguely – based. I thought, without really thinking it through at all, and vastly overcomplicating matters, that my friend’s parents’ address could serve as a home address in extremis for the new contrarian reviewer. Then one of the poets reviewed happened to have a summer residency in that country. He contacted the editor asking if he could have her contact details; he had appreciated her review and would like to meet her in person.

‘Er, what now?’ the editor asked me.

‘Tell the poet she recently moved to another country.’

Another poet, known for his robustness under criticism and purist views, emailed the editor and asked that, if his new book were reviewed in an issue of the magazine (it never was), it be given to Ishbell O’Sullivan. The poet told the editor he disagreed with almost everything she said, but he liked her opinionated stance. But by the time his book appeared, Ishbell had, quietly, faded from the scene.

There is of course a long tradition of pseudonyms, literary hoaxes and anonymous reviewing, sometimes with commendable, sometimes less commendable motives. The infamous Ern Malley hoax of the early forties in Australia involved not only the invention of two new people, a poet and his sister, but the hoodwinking of the modernist magazine Angry Penguins by two disgruntled poet-enemies of the journal. (Google it.) The great twentieth-century modernist, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, wrote under dozens of pseudonyms, some of which evolved into ‘heteronyms’, new poets complete with biographies who wrote their poems via, as it were, Pessoa’s pen — three of them, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, lasting and major figures in Portuguese poetry, as famous as Pessoa himself. Such scenarios call intriguingly into question the notion of the fixed biographical self and in some instances lead researchers into investigative labyrinths as fascinating as a good detective story.

At the time, being relatively young, I didn’t properly consider my pseudonymous role in Ishbell’s brief appearance in the light. I do, however, enjoy the playfulness of it. Contemporary poetry has grown far too po-faced, solemn and performative and overly linked, perhaps, to personality — including that of those involved in its critical reception. While my motive was mainly to help an editor, I was also intrigued by what Ishbell would sound like. Would anyone guess ‘she’ was a man? (No one did.) Another corollary was, paradoxically, critical honesty — especially in situations where that might have been otherwise difficult, as when reviewing friends or people I knew. ‘Man is least himself,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.’

Sometimes I think, if whimsically, of bringing Ishbell back from where she is lost among the forests of little magazine print as, finally, almost all poets and reviewers are. It feels strange to have such power, but also peculiarly moving. I think I fell in love with her a little (she was based on someone I knew, once, long before), this young critic passionate enough about poetry to value it above its creators. ‘This is a poem? Really? You’re kidding me on,’ she says, holding up a sample between finger and thumb in a world in which there really are such things as peaks in a magnificent art and, as Douglas Dunn once wrote, ‘singing of morals in Latin and Greek’; and Ishbell and I laugh, not unkindly, together.

Ishbell O’Sullivan, of course, is not her ‘real’ – that is, published – name.

Gerry Cambridge’s sixth collection, The Light Acknowledgers & Other Poems, was published by HappenStance Press in 2019. In 1995 he founded The Dark Horse, internationally known and Scotland’s leading journal of poetry and criticism, which he still edits today.

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