Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kevin Kiely, Literary Assassin

Reviewing and being reviewed sometimes gets hilarious for the third-hand bystander; not is it always so amusing for those in the thick of it. A reviewer can’t like every book presented to them and often needs to let it be known. Dennis O’Driscoll, poet, critic and frequent book reviewer stopped reviewing Irish poetry books decades ago after one of the nation’s senior poets took him aside on a social occasion and queried: “What did I ever do to you?” O’Driscoll mused “It never occurred to him that I simply didn’t like his book.”

Two great literary spats are raging this week. Eileen Battersby’s Irish Times review of Dermot Healy’s latest novel has drawn fire from novelist Eugene McCabe in a letter to the editor which in turn has attracted the censure of another letter by John Banville. On the web a self-published English woman has amused the world through what is being described as a “meltdown” in reaction to a review she received online. David Barnett touches on them both in his Guardian blog here

Therefore, in the week that’s in it, I think it is time for Book Ireland’s occasional poetry reviewer, Kevin Kiely to receive some of the fame and attention he clearly deserves. One doesn’t need to visit Kevin Kiely’s website to learn he has never been published by either Bloodaxe or the Gallery Press, his gratuitous sideswipe at those presses’ commissioning editors/poets in his latest Books Ireland article is evidence enough for that.

In discussing the Salmon anthology Dogs Singing he writes: “Every poet here is brought to their knees hugging their doggies in a verse anthology as infectious as your dog(s). Despite weak efforts from Neil Astley and Peter Fallon you get a kennel full.” I’ll pass quietly over the crimes against grammar here. Doubtless Mr. Kiely discovered other efforts he deemed weak in this 300 page tome, but his singling out Mr. Astley and Mr. Fallon like this succinctly bewrays Mr. Kiely’s usual blatant motivation for writing a book review: sticking the knife in.

His reviews are so infamously negative and gratuitously abusive that they really deserve to be better known. Mr Kiely’s reviews of poetry books are to reviewing what William McMonagal’s dirges on the Tay Bridge are to epic poetry.

In reviewing Tom Matthews’, witty, amusing collection The Owl and the Pussycat Kiely says: “However, these collected beer-mat jottings are ideal reading in the pub but perhaps should end up on the floor with the night’s sweepings?” (Is there another person alive with four university degrees associated with the English language capable of writing such a travesty of a sentence?)

Kiely not only doesn’t know the difference between good poetry and bad, he doesn’t know the difference between a literary critic and a hack reviewer. He describes himself as a poet, novelist, playwright and literary critic on his website, yet there is no evidence whatsoever to back up his claim to be a literary critic. Certainly the kind of blather he writes would never grace the pages of the LRB or the TLS. Can you imagine Anne Carson or even Charles Simic lowering themselves to this level of schoolboy diatribe?

In his round-up of poetry collections in the current Books Ireland debutants Paul Jeffcut and Orfhlaith Foyle get savaged along with Irish luminaries such as Rita Ann Higgins and Kerry Hardie. In the interest of disclosure I should say that Kiely was unimpressed with my last book Making Music in what was the first review in his current Books Ireland stint. Initially upset, by the time I had read the put-downs he had prepared for the other books in the same article, including one by a heroine of mine, Paula Meehan, I was breaking my sides laughing. Any excerpts I could quote here simply could not do Kiely justice; his diatribes need to be read whole to appreciate their full, egregious badness.

Kiely does not savage everyone; last year, in a particular round-up, his juvenile embitterment was put on hold when reviewing Gerald Dawe (instrumental in Kiely receiving one or more of his many writing degrees), Eilean NĂ­ ChuilleanĂ¡in (whom Kiely quotes saying something favourable about his own poetry on his own website) and Chris Agee (who is the influential editor of Irish Pages and the new Salt Irish poetry list).

The locution glass houses comes to mind when reading the sample of verse Kiely puts up on his web to represent himself: (scroll to end of page, as you scroll take note of the book title Plainchant for a Sundering – good enough for a Tony Hancock sketch)

Kiely seems so determined here to avoid what he sees as the verbal excesses of others that his own language is totally devoid of colour and if his articles are juvenile, this poem’s thought process displays his jejune cast of mind.

Every now and again an outstanding reviewer deserves to have his reviews reviewed, especially when they’re outstandingly bad. I’m only surprised that in this instance I appear to be the first to treat Kevin Kiely.