So, Lytton Smith wrote an interesting post about negative reviews and the purpose of criticism, centered around a particular very negative review by Michael Schiavo that is maybe getting discussed a bit in the blogs. So maybe, go read it, or read them all; I pick more nits in the comments of that last link. I want to jump on one particular bit that bugged me about it, but I still think it's worth reading. It's actually from the original review, but he quotes it approvingly:
"Name-checking the states of the Republic does not make your poetry Whitmanic. Shoveling pop culture references into sloppy lines does not transform your poems into Frank O’Hara’s."But, doesn't it? Of course it does. These are specific features that the poetry in question shares with Whitman's and O'Hara's poetry. Because they share features, we can talk about the one in terms of the other. That is how such comparisons work.
So, what's the problem? Well -- and yes, I suspect this is all fantastically obvious -- Whitman's poetry and O'Hara's poetry and the poetry under question all have all these other features. And these other features don't match up. So a reviewer can say "this poetry is Whitmanic" without articulating in what way it's Whitmanic -- which of Whitman's poetry's various features it shares. Because Whitman's poetry has so many various features, saying another poetry is Whitmanic doesn't let you know which features are shared. It becomes an inane comparison.
But, of course, that isn't what Schiavo is complaining about. Schiavo is complaining that for a poem to "be Whitmanic" it must share more than this one feature of Whitman's poetry. It has to share in a significant number of features of Whitman's poetry. Or, what I think is really going on: It has to share in all (or a significant majority) of the features of Whitman's poetry that Schiavo finds salient. I suspect that Schiavo that if he found a poem that shared in a majority of the features of Whitman's poetry that he finds salient, then he could call the poem "Whitmanic" without qualification -- but I might be putting ideas into his head there.
I worry that Schiavo is upset that these reviewers are thinking of Whitman in terms of specific features, rather than appreciating him as a complex whole. But this might be my own resistence and discomfort with the idea of Whitman-as-a-whole. I think Whitman's symptoms are stable enough to merit discussing, but the holistic Whitman is a kairotic assemblage constantly being reformed and discarded. Or, I'd rather push for that, for us to not "decide" upon Whitman-as-a-whole, but to keep him (such as there is a him; to keep the "totality" of his poetry, anyways) as potential, as occasional, as tentative.
Which is to say, I'd prefer for "Whitmanic" to mean "name-dropping American geography" or "writing slobbery poems about young soldiers" or "using a whole lot of exclamation points", rather than trying to point to some totality about Whitman or Leaves of Grass.
And this is what I want from my poetry reviews, as well. I don't want them to try to lay out the totality of a poem, or of a book, or of a poetics. I want them to open a few doors into the tangle, so I can wander indecisively. And I worry that Schiavo's use of "Whitmanic" (which, to be fair, he only sorta uses in that review) is, in fact, more closed than the obviously facile uses found in the reviewers he rants against. After all, the next time they talk about a "Whitmanic poet", they'll probably be referring to something like the length of his beard.