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What Kind Of Poetry Reviews Do You Want?

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.

Mayday contains 32 responses to the issues raised in Johnson’s article, nearly all of which are worth reading. Daisy Fried’s comments are particularly well thought out.

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:

Nic Sebastian

Aditi Machado

Lytton Smith

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This Post Has 55 Comments

  1. Might I suggest the eschewing of reviews altogether, of really poor poetry, (rather than writing negative or destructive reviews), not giving it the light of day, but, on the other hand writing positive and constructive reviews of good work that deserves such (with the given, of course, that any such reviews are ultimately subjective in nature). The power of positive thinking and all that, positives generally lead to positives, and so generate energy rather than sapping it through negativity. Negativity in this realm can often be the result of ego-tripping. I look forward to being shot down in flames for this so I can rise from the ashes!

  2. There is an obvious dichotomy between objective and subjective reviews, just as there is between positive and negative reviews. Many of us have probably been teachers or lecturers and know the difficulty of marking and commenting on something as subjective as a poem. It is far easier to mark a computing program, a problem in predicate logic or a maths paper, yet all these share some of the same attributes; there is a tension between syntax and semantics, form and content, originality and communication, pragmatism and elegance that transcends the different objectives. Of course, the main difference is in the emotional content in poetry that is not posiible in the others. Poetry also relies on the reader/listener to input more of their own intelligence and background. Picking up metaphors, connotations, references to other works and responding to imagery is an integral part of reading poetry. It uses both multiple feedback loops and feedforward ones, the poet is playing a game with the reader.

    Many of us were taught to deconstruct these ‘tricks of the trade’ in literary criticism classes and to be totally objective in our appraisal. Yet, in the wider world, there is a discussion taking place about the relevance of poetry to the present day. Children’s books such as those by Dr Seuss and others who use rhyme and metre are not considered poetry yet all children that I know love these from an early age, even the ones with poor rhyme schemes and scansion that is ragged. Rap poetry and open mic events seem very popular, especially in America, and even figure on radio shows.

    I fail to see why poetry cannot be inclusive enough to include all genres, but is the problem really with the types of poetry on offer or with us; the people who read and write for magazines like Magma? Can anyone define what makes a poem good and another bad? The use of cliche, poor scansion, unoriginal imagery, predictable metaphors? I suspect that if you deconstructed ‘The Iliad’ or any other classical work you would find many of these faults.

    To return to the original question ‘what kind of review do we want?’: really we want one that is original and witty. It may offend some writers, it may please others, but it should both be honest and amusing. Perhaps the question is do we want all poetry to be judged as ‘High Culture’ or is there room for ‘Popular Culture’ too without us judging it from an elevated aesthetic and academic position. Make fun of everyone by all means but keep an open mind about the ‘worth’ of the piece.

    I can illustrate this with a review that I found as apossible paradigm:

  3. Poetry tends to subjective determination of expression, and, deserves some criticism as a product of related intelligence. While the perspective is clouded with obscurity it is may as well be discarded. Reviews should be commentary and critical so the reader can base an opinion.

  4. False dichotomy if the choice is between negative or fawning. False comparison if a review which chimes is a “blurb”.

    A good review established a resonance with the work. The social experience of reading is illuminated. The reviewer must reveal his or her shared but inner moment with the poetry, not be an authority on what is good or bad.

    I want reviews that are themselves art. I want reviews cause me to feel without bamboozling me.

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