WHILE I AM on the subject of reviews in the NYTBR this year that made me wonder about the mysteries of literary reputation, what about Craig Morgan Teicher's review of the recent collected poems of Jorie Graham (March 1)?
The most obvious thing for a reviewer to do in such circumstances would have been simply to emphasize how strong a poet Graham is and how noteworthy such a publication therefore is; the second most obvious thing would have been to make the case for the prosecution. Instead, Teicher spent a few column inches on the Graham-haters out there before tacking into his compliments (e.g., "something real glows in each of her poems").
"Why, I keep asking myself, do I, too, feel the need to defend Graham's writing?" Teicher writes. "Why does this so obviously luminous, essential body of poetry still seem to need defending?"
Were I Teicher, I would have asked myself a different question: why do I want to start off my review by mentioning there is a lot of anti-Graham sentiment out there?
A possible answer: well, there is a lot of anti-Graham sentiment out there, so we might as well acknowledge it. True enough. It did seem, in the run from Swarm to Never to Overlord, that one kept bumping into people who didn't like the most recent volume, whatever it happened to be at the moment, and there was all that Foetry business.
So did Teicher just wish not to appear ignorant? Does he want us to know he's been paying attention? Did he need to bring up the case for the prosecution in order to rebut it? "This is why Graham's poems can sometimes be long and exhausting [...] Of course, Graham risks alienating her readers by going above their heads or too far into her own."
Well... I suppose he had his reasons, and in acknowledging Graham's detractors, he is only being truthful, but I didn't like it. The review boils down to "don't believe all those awful things people say about Jorie Graham's poetry." It's a bit like "don't think of an elephant," no? Those detractors Teicher urges us to dismiss as envious end up leaving a deeper trace in the memory than all the nice things he gets around to saying. The review, in its peculiar way, is more damaging than an outright attack would have been.