I wonder if the real innovative action in poetry today isn’t so much in form, but in format: the blog, the listserv, Goodreads, the Amazon review. The way poets relate to each other through these templates, and the new expectations of response they create—less delivered faster, criticism morphed into “content” or “feedback”—may be transforming the idea of the literary more powerfully than anything that’s actually said on them.
Which is one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of Kevin Killian’s Amazon reviews, which turn the possibilities of the format into a funhouse of multiple subjectivities. Each review promises access to a whole person that the template can’t possibly deliver; you get a glimpse of an “I” assembled by the products it describes, but who dreams of reading all 2,131 casually diverse reviews to put together the self behind them?
In Killian’s hands, the assumptions at the bottom of the Amazon template seem to mimic the assumptions of the financial system as a whole. The value of each review stems from the reader’s sense of a real “Kevin Killian” somewhere in back of them, but the template makes it almost impossible to assess the author who (under)writes them all. You can’t evaluate Amazon Reviewer #75 in the way you evaluate the author of a conventional novel or book of poems over the course of his or her career, though the writing in Kevin’s reviews is every bit as literary. The existence of the writing subject as a consistent bundle of interests and discriminations is kind of taken on faith, with stars, rankings, and “Helpful Votes” as its derivatives.
Recently, I’ve discovered a new dimension to the Amazon review: as a forum for global political sniping. American scholar Clinton B. Seely drew fire for his A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das, 1899-1954, from “A Customer” who accused him of being “an Occidental explorer…taking Bengali to Bengal” and for writing about Das, “a Fundamentalist Bengali Hindu Cultural Nationalist with secular pretentions, as most of his fellow Bengal Hindus are.” “A Customer” then replied “on behalf of decent Bengalis, East, West, North or South,” extending “our heartfelt thanks to Professor Seely for his interest, compassion and love for Bengal and Bengali culture, and the fine work he and other ‘Occidentals’ are doing to rediscover different exemplars of that culture through a variety of outlets.” “A Customer” then riposted with a blast at “the illegitimate Anglo-American Hindu love affair whose illegitimate literary off-spring is the inquiry of an Occidental in the Bengali Hindu’s Kama Sutra,” backed up by “A Customer”, who complains that “such Bengali-Hindu literary taste only reminds the people of Babington Macaulay’s Intellectual-Poison-Tree carried along by the Bengali Hindus all the way from Calcutta, India to Dallas, Texas.” Reviewer “R Endow” then takes things home with a swipe at Bengali-speaking Muslims: “You things are things of the past. Wake up and smell the reality.”
I’m less impressed with the exchange than with the occasion provided for it by Amazon’s craven marketing tool. The jostle of anonymous voices boxed within the format of a simple 5-star customer rating template is more instructive for me than a lot of what I read in contemporary U.S. poetry right now, with its focus on lineage, formal innovation, and guild consensus. I guess what I value in these reviews is increasingly what I look for in poetry: the feeling the machine is doing something it was never designed for, like one of those cartoon contraptions that threaten to blow because someone stuck a carrot in the nozzle where a widget should have been. I like innovative widgets, but I like the bulge in the pressurizer better. For better or (probably) worse, it looks to me more like the world outside our poetry.
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