When David Foster Wallace Reviewed My Professor
The Spring 2001 issue of Rain Taxi features a review by David Foster Wallace of a volume of poems entitled The Best of "The Prose Poem" edited by Peter Johnson. The review is a rather minor piece of Wallaciania; but it nevertheless manages to be fascinating at a number of levels (one of which, for me, is purely personal and idiosyncratic). The review takes the form of a bulleted list of descriptions of the volume under review, beginning with its most basic physical consitution.
- Physical dimensions of The Best of The Prose Poem: An International Journal anthology in cm: 15 X 22.5 X 2.
The format recalls, and shares the sort of hyper-descriptive humor, of the "Ithaca" episode of Ulysses where the novel's narrator describes Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus conversation at Bloom's home after they return to Bloom's home after a night of hard drinking. (There is a commonplace, for which I have no ready citation and about whose truth I am uncertain, that this episode was Joyce's favorite). To a certain sense of humor, it is a brilliantly funny stretch. Here is the description of Bloom making tea:
What did Bloom see on the range?
On the right (smaller) hob a blue enamelled saucepan: on the left (larger) hob a black iron kettle.
What did Bloom do at the range?
He removed the saucepan to the left hob, rose and carried the iron kettle to the sink in order to tap the current by turning the faucet to let it flow.
Did it flow?
Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of £5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle...
And so on. (Compare the section in Infinite Jest, around page 500, where J.O. Incandenza describes moving a mattress with his father; the same brilliant, even excruciating, sense of attention to detailing the particulars of the material world).
The form also implicitly offers a light satire on the genre of the book review and the poetry review in particular. In place of the abstractions and platitudes into which any review threatens to descend, Wallace is rigorous in his quantifications, noting the "Total # of prose poems in anthology: 204." I like the Joyce comparison—that in adopting this style Wallace adopts a narrative position that is distanced and aloof (a persona that seems to motivate so many of Wallace's footnotes as well); but the joke could just as easily be summarized as offering in place of a "review" a sort of nutrtional information or ingredient list: "Within pages of Best of P.P., total number of ads for, references to, and lists of other journals/collections/articles/anthologies/presses devoted to the Prose Poem: 78." The minds boggles at how Wallace computed the following: "Average number of words in a constituent p.p.: 342.3 (mean), 309 (median)" (did he have access to an electronic version of the text perhaps?)
As a critique of the sort of posturing and enclosedness which surrounds academic discussions of poetry, Wallace's review is clever, funny, and engaging. (Indeed, one of the things which makes this review particularly interestingis to see Wallace engage with poetry at all; his own chief interest is so clearly the novel). But the Best of the P.P. anthology itself becomes a cipher for the world of academic poetry.
Wallace's specific comments about the anthology select out a relatively slim number of poems for praise. He cooly notes that of the total number of poems in the anthology (204) the number that are "good/alive/powerful/interesting enough to persist in reader's mind more than 60 second after completion: 31" (Ouch). He singles out for specific praise Jon Davis "a poet whom this reviewer'd never heard of before but whose pieces in this anthology are so off-the-charts terrific that the reviewer has actually gone out and bought the one Jon Davis book mentioned in his bio-note and may very well decide to try to advertise it in this magazine, at reviewer's own expense if necessary—that's how good this guy is." That is some serious praise. The tone here wonderfully works against itself; even as it maintains the third person ("reviewer's own expense") it lapses into colloquial speech, "that's how good this guy is." A footnote directs us to page 3, where one finds the ad at the top of this post. (Is that ad copy: "Probably well worth checking out" Wallace's own? I suspect so...). "Paid for," the ad informs at the bottom, "by the reviewer of The Best of the Prose Poem: An International Journal."
There are some pretty standard Wallace preoccupations here—valuing emotion over cleverness and so on. The good poems may use surrealistic imagery, but "they end up making psychological or emotional sense"; "Any puns, entendres, metapoetic allusions, or other forms of jeu d'esprit come off as relevant/serious and never seem like their main purpose is to make the writer appear clever" (23).
Wallace also pokes fun at the "prose poem" on other grounds; as exemplifying the stultifying academic celebration of transgression and subversion. In a footnote he elaborates:
this sort of problem is endemic to many of the trendy literary forms that identify/congratulate themselves as transgressive. And it's easy to see why. In regarding formal conventions primarily as "rules" to rebel against, the Professional Transgressor fails to see that conventions often become conventions precisely because of their power and utility, i.e. because of the paradoxical freedoms they permit the artist who understands who to use [not merely "obey" them]
So much of Wallace seems to compressed here; the defense of cliche, the self-consuming attempt to write through "postmodern self-referentiality" (an ugly phrase; though I think not inaccurate) to something genuine that, at least for my reading, is a hallmark of Wallace's work.
Wallace closes his review by noting the calls for contributions which appear in the Best of the P.P.; for Wallace these exemplify the closed-off, navel-gazing nature of the prose poem as a genre—its tendency to perpetuate itself for no reason beyond sheer careerism. (This salvo is defused with a bathetic fall in one's gut by an editorial footnote informing the reader that "The Prose Poem: An International Journal has ceased publication" (24).)
But what made reading this review a little uncomfortable was that I feel like I know The Prose Poem: An International Journal pretty well. When I was a student at Providence College, I sat in Peter Johnson's office literally surrounded by it; copies from the printers were around his entire office in the basement of Philips Memorial Library. As editor and author of the volume, Johnson becomes the object of much of the review's critique. Consider this item from the review:
- Approximate % of Best of the P.P.'s 9-page Introduction that Peter Johnson spends talking about how fiendishly difficult he finds it to define "Prose Poem": 75+.
Ouch. (With less substance, but just as much verve, Wallace writes near the end of the review: "Probability that, if this reviewer were named Peter Johnson, he wold publish under either 'Pete' or his first two initials: 100%".)
I find much to admire in the review as a sort of performance statement about reviewing and about poetry generally. Indeed, returning to the review I was fascinated by it (by the the advertisement for Jon Davis's book above all). But almost none of what Wallace imputes to Johnson, as personification of the prose poem, jibes with the Peter Johnson whom I knew (and took two classes with—one of which was, in fact, focused on the prose poem). He gets set up in Wallace's review as the most frequently named "Professional Transgressor." Peter Johnson was as generous as anyone else I learned from as an undergraduate (and I benefited from the generosity of a number of my professors). But, more than that, he was the least self-interested, transgressing poseur of any academic I've known. I can think of no one who kept such a healthy skepticism towards academia and his role in it. Committed to his job completely (his punctuality and generosity of comments on papers has been a model for me), he was always careful to keep a healthy sense of perspective.
One lesson you might draw is: "Remember that on the other side of the page (or screen) is just someone doing their best." A more heinous cliche it is hard to imagine. And yet if Wallace seems to teach anything, it is to be suspicious of the tendency to simply dismiss a cliche just because it happens to be a cliche. Another lesson might very well be: "So what? That's what reviewing is all about." From what I recall of him, that sounds quite a bit like the response I like to imagine Peter Johnson must have had.
(The review was published while I was a student at PC—very likely while I was taking a class with Prof. Johnson; I'm sorry to have missed the opportunity to talk about this review with him...)