American writer, Kent Johnson, sounds off on the thorny subject of poetry reviewing. He suggests that reviews and blurbs have ‘begun to blur in purpose and effect’:
Fawning, toadyish criticism, then, is likely to remain the default setting so long as “negative” reviewing constitutes a potential hazard to the position and advancement of the poet-reviewer. (Interestingly, by the way, it’s in top-tier journals like Poetry where negative reviews are most likely to appear, since the capital accruing to the poet-reviewer compensates for the risk.) Given this, maybe it’s time that magazines, of all aesthetic shapes and circulation sizes, resurrect the venerable practice of “unsigned” reviews. There’s no question readers, in the main, would be tickled and intrigued.
On the other hand, anonymous reviewing presents another problem. Reviewers might use the cloak of anonymity as a means to trash a poet who had previously commented negatively on their own books or, alternatively, to praise a book written by best friends or family members without the connection being obvious. Kent Johnson says that editors have a key role in ensuring this doesn’t happen.
I was taken aback by this part of Stephen Burt’s response:
And here’s one more reason so little poetry attracts negative reviews: it’s not worth writing a negative review of a book that will sink without a trace, which most poetry books do. Negative reviews in poetry these days only seem worth while when they attack (a) examples of bad trends or (b) people who are very famous and don’t deserve it . In both of these cases, a bad poet (a poet I consider bad) is worth “taking down” (seems to me worth a negative review) because bad poetry, praised in high places, really distorts the sense of the art the younger generation gets; such praise, uncountered, makes it harder for new readers to like the good stuff. Under the right circumstances I would write a blistering attack on any of about eight very famous or widely respected poets, with my name attached (you get a cookie if you can guess which poets). I write negative reviews when editors ask me to review poetry I don’t like and when it falls into one of the categories above. But I almost never solicit work for review that I know I won’t like, and I certainly won’t write really negative reviews of poets who aren’t already well-known. It doesn’t seem worth my time, or theirs.
What kind of reviews do readers want in a magazine like Magma? Have reviews in the UK become akin to blurbs? Are anonymous reviews a good or bad idea? Do you agree with Stephen Burt that it’s OK to write negatively of well known poets, but not of books ‘that will sink without a trace, which most poetry books do?’
A few other recent contributions to the debate which may be of interest:
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