skip to Main Content

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

If you enjoyed this article you can have every new article from the Magma Blog delivered to you for free.

This Post Has 55 Comments

  1. I do agree generally with Stephen Burt although not exactly in the terms you suggest.

    It is ‘ok’ – as in not morally wrong – to write negatively about books that will sink without a trace. It’s just not an activity I’d give high priority to unless an editor wants to pay me to do it.

    If I write reviews for free, in my spare time, they’re mostly going to be of things that I’m interested in and would like other people to be interested in.

  2. I agree with David here:

    “If I write reviews for free, in my spare time, they’re mostly going to be of things that I’m interested in and would like other people to be interested in.”

  3. There’s one line of thought which could argue that there is a lot of strategic reviewing goes on, in both print and web mediums. The proposition that online reviewing is less strategic in its intent, with more honesty because the poets are doing it for free – perhaps there is some truth to the claim, but the obvious rubuttal is that people reviewing online are doing so because the paid jobs at the dried up well in, what Poetry Review editor Fiona Sampson calls – the Poetry Village, are few and far between, jealously guarded by poet-jackals who’ve secured these numbers by a combination of talent luck, nepotism, who one sleeps with (according to Fiona Sampson, only half tongue in cheek at her Horizon podacast interview) and secret handshakes.

    At least, that’s one line advocated by the paranoid whose genius, they argue, is excluded by the Poetry powers-that-be conspiring in the shadows at the dried up well, on the basis of begrudgery and philisophical differences, to devote a substantial portion of their professional lives to the activity of actively elbowing aside the garret dwelling Rimbauds and Verlaines of the village.

    Builder’s labourer turned playwright Sean O’Casey, bette noir of many an English literature critic during his time in the critical ring of pre- and post-world war 2 Britian and Ireland, summed up a defining psychological aspect and stumbling block prevalent still among the higher grade of commenters proffering forth opinions in contemporary Criticism:

    So many have been conscripted for the battle of the books, each equally armed and afraid of each other, that the business – for it is a business – has become a hollow game of you touch me gently and I’ll do the same…Many critics have a tendency, if one ventures to reply to them, of falling down in a dead faint, evidently thinking that their criticisms are written not on desks or tables, but on the tops of holy altars.

    ~

    My own thinking on the matter of British poetry criticism, is that a review ultimately stands or falls on its own two feet. Any intelligent reader, as Chris Hamilton Emery states in: Twenty things I didn’t know before becoming a poetry publisher (2010 Writer’s Handbook):

    Everything is about first lines, the first verse, the first poem. I desperately want to reject you and you have to convince me in the first piece of writing that I shouldn’t…good writing is easy to spot; it takes 4.2 seconds to discover you want to read something. You can certainly spot good writing (it’s what you buy).

    And this I think is self-evident and the only ingrediant a review needs to contribute to the positve side of Poetry generally, is simple plain straightforward honesty? Sure, we want elegance and eloquence and insight by the reviewer, and if that is ourselves, somewhere to show off our language – dance in the Szirtesean skating rink and bust some shapes which surprise the Reader and brings to the author, two of the four writerly joys described by Amergin, the Homer of Irish poetry, in a primary bardic text outlining general poetic principles:

    the joy of fitting poetic frenzy (and)…joy of the the binding principle of wisdom after good (poetic) construction…

    ~

    The American debate on poetry reviewing instigated by Johnson and which MacKenzie uses as the spur for this article, has recently been raging at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. The most interesting take i have read there, comes from Thomas Brady, who argues:

    …the problem with the workshop (swing to poetry occuring primarily in a university context) is not in the writing, but in the criticism. The issue is exemplified in the founding text of the workshop: “Criticism, Inc” by John Crowe Ransom, who wrote that poetry criticism needed to become a university-based science, and that’s what happened.

    Every crucial university post was filled by Ransom’s Fugitive/New Critical friends and associates: Paul Engle, a Rhodes Scholar like Ransom, who was picked for the Yale Younger by a Fugitive poet, aided by Wilbur Schramm, actual founder of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who ended up at the propaganda division at the Office of War Information, (Engle received one of the first Master’s degrees for a piece of creative writing) Yvor Winters at Stanford, Tate at Princeton, Warren & Brooks as college poetry textbook authors…

    What happened here, essentially, was the transformation of the university as a place where the history of poetry was studied to a place where contemporary poet-professor-critics studied themselves–a heresy rife with self-interest, and which soon became commonplace. It was a top-down revolution and initially provided opportunity for students to learn to write poetry, but the top-down, ‘fox-in-the-chicken-coop’ nature of the whole process was bound to lead to trouble. It’s not the workshop students who are to blame; the problem is that the ones who succeed are the ones who flatter their professors and insinuate themselves into the university circuit–the survival mechanism which replaces actual poetry sales.

    Which brings me to your quote here, “the process produces such a humungous pile of unreadable work that still has to be published,” which, of course, is spot on correct.

    But the problem isn’t in the writing, it’s in the blurbing and the lack of true criticism, the lack of ‘weeding out’–and by ‘true criticism,’ I don’t mean absolute truth, but honest wit which doesn’t flatter.

    Criticism cannot compete against the secret handshake between professor and student, the secret handshake of self-interest whose whole point is to be ‘critic-proof,’ safe from the critics, safe from the public, praised in the press by well-placed friends who have ‘university authority.’

    As for your Merwin poem: Merwin has published so many books, has seen so much, has lived so long, that I tremble at the task of making a personal comment on one of his poems. Merwin studied with New Critic R.P. Blackmur at Princeton (with Galway Kinnell) in the writing department Allen Tate founded and he also knew Robert Graves, who was in Ransom’s Fugitive circle briefly along with Laura Riding, and Merwin also later moved in Robert Lowell’s circle: Lowell studied with Ransom; so, you see, the poetry world is extremely small and well-connected and very much university-based. That tired cliche is true: it’s who you know…

  4. It all depends on the quality of the magazine. A good poetry magazine will give a fair and (as far as possible) unbiased review. They will not review “bad” poetry, since they have so much to choose from, from the avalanche of poetry books hitting their desks. So their reviews will be positive on the whole. I have been on the receiving end of good and bad reviews for the same book, and the bad review was from someone I have never heard of who didn’t seem to understand the poems. I wouldn’t mind, but now the review is there on the web for all time. It has the unexpected benefit of stopping me from googling myself – a really shocking habit which can lead to insanity and even death.
    It’s not really that important, in the end – is it?

  5. I’m surprised he thinks poetry reviews are toadyish and fawning. I got fed up reading reviews as they all seemed to belong to the ‘kill kill kill’ school of criticism, where the reviewer takes the superior approach of sounding clever by being negative. Critics didn’t seem to want to sound naively appreciative of poetry in case they were praising writers others may find fault with. The only way I could decide if I wanted to read poetry by looking at a review was to ignore what the critic said and just look at the lines they quoted.

    One author can review another in a way that’s constructive, praising the good points and still pointing out weaknesses or questionable parts. Surely our critics can be incredibly harsh and often are? I think so. I also think critics should have their name on what they write and that a good review includes both the good and bad about a collection – readers want to see if it’s a book they’re interested in. They don’t just want to hear critics enjoying their own ability to sound clever and dismissive.

  6. Unsigned reviews are a very bad idea. Remember what happened with Oxford’s Tower Poetry which was initially posting unsigned reviews, a number of which were negative, including one in particular which was highly personal in its references to the poet whose collection was the subject of the review. Following certain legal difficulties (on which I am not permitted to comment), the University decided that all reviews on the Tower website had to be signed. Signing reviews should guarantee that while the opinions expressed may be personal, they are not personal in nature or connected with personal disagreements or dislikes. Another example which shows the dangers of unsigned reviews is the use of pseudonyms for so-called “reader reviews” on Amazon, which has led to a number of writers publicly trashing the work of writers they dislike or have some personal vendetta against under the guise of being disinterested “readers”. We have had difficulties persuading Amazon.com to remove such posts (Amazon.co.uk have been more helpful, once the background was explained to them). Poets have also used pseudonyms to slag off other poets on various well-known poetry websites. So let us keep signed reviews: and if there are hidden connections between reviewer and poet, they will be much easier to spot.

  7. A side point: I would like to see more of the poetry from the book in question in the review, as I read them to determine whether or not I want to buy the book. Nothing is more frustrating than a glowing review but little in the way to substantiate it — and vice versa. I like to see for myself. (Though of course if someone is trying to pull down the poet, then they may pull poor quotes…..).

  8. I do agree with Burt. He’s saying essentially what O W Holmes said over a century ago –

    ” Before you write that brilliant notice of some alliterative
    Angelina’s book of verses, I wish you would try this experiment.
    Take half a sheet of paper and copy upon it any of Angelina’s
    stanzas,–the ones you were going to make fun of, if you will. Now
    go to your window, if it is a still day, open it, and let the half-
    sheet of paper drop on the outside. How gently it falls through the
    soft air, always tending downwards, but sliding softly, from side to
    side, wavering, hesitating, balancing, until it settles as
    noiselessly as a snow-flake upon the all-receiving bosom of the
    earth! Just such would have been the fate of poor Angelina’s
    fluttering effort, if you had left it to itself.”

    I also agree with Burt that this doesn’t apply to poets who are being overhyped. They need writing about more honestly. But I also agree with Adele, above, that very few people want to read critics showing off. She is right to stress that reviews are, or should be, for the benefit of readers – they aren’t a form of free assessment for writers, nor a platform for critics to showcase how clever they are. They should inform and, if possible, entertain, the reader.

    I used to write reviews for POetry Review and was almost always given female writers. When I asked the then editor, Peter Forbes, why, he said many of his male reviewers refused to review books by women. Why do you suppose that was? I’ve always wondered!

  9. I think that reviews have to be honest. I do write reviews and try to be as honest as I can, I think you have a responsability here. I do feel strongly that you shouldn’t review a book if you are mates with the author concerned – there’s enough ego on display as it is. Equally, I can’t see the point of laying into someone else’s book, if you really hate it as a reviewer, probably better to review something else (although I do have some sympathy with the idea that if the author is incredibly famous and it’s pretty crap, then fair to say so, but not if someone’s starting out) and I’m not just trying to cover my back here!

  10. I’m with Michelle McGrane. The answer would seem to be to only review books that the you are ‘interested’ in. THe test then becomes if the book gets reviewed at all. Of course a certain amount of ‘who you know’ will come into play perhaps, but I can’t think of any better solutions. Some reviewers will,still give negative reviews still and this is fine, but surely they must be signed. If you can’t face the consequence of that, then don’t do it.

  11. Katrina, one problem with “you shouldn’t review a book if you are mates with the author concerned” is that poetry in the UK at least is such a small pond, and not many people in it actually want to do reviews. I don’t myself any more, but I used to, and I think I’d probably at least met most of the poets I reviewed. Some I knew very well. If I’d been sent a book by a friend and didn’t like it, I would have refused to review it – I wouldn’t have written a dishonest review but I wouldn’t have wanted to lose the friendship either.

  12. Two questions here: what sort of poetry should we bother to review?
    what sort of reviews should we write?
    Two answers: Certainly don’t review stuff you consider to be rubbish. The oxygen of publicity comes to mind.But once you clear that level of distraction, there’s a lot of ‘good enough’ poetry that you might look at, obviously starting with the ‘you should read this, it’s great’. I like to hear about books I wouldn’t find on my own. Then there’s the stuff that shows promise, that moves us in a new direction, even if it isn’t yet what it might be. Then there’s the stuff that has to be reviewed because it’s getting a lot of publicity in other places – it would help to have this put back into a proper context.

    But what sort of review? I guess there’s a place for those things that serve as readers’ opinion polls, so long as you don’t take them any more seriously that music charts, but if we’re going to take reviewing seriously, what I’d really like to see is a review which is
    a)readable in it’s own right (I used to read Clive James’ reviews of the Eurovision Contest)
    b) understands what the poet is about (especially if he’s doing something that I don’t actually like myself) so it helps me to get something more out of reading than I’m likely to get on my own.
    c) has some frame of reference for the judgements it makes, so we understand where the reviewer is coming from. It’s not enough to describe poetry as ‘fresh’ or ‘original’. I never knew anyone who thought their poetry wasn’t. By the time I finish a review I’d like to know not only if this poet is any good, but what the reviewer thought good poetry might be like. Then I’d know whether I was likely to agree with his/her judgement.

  13. A good review should be about the book, what it says, how it says it. I’m not sure it’s always easy, but as far as possible, what the reviewer THINKS of the book should be a background concern, otherwise we’re essentially reading a comment section; the reviewer becomes, like all journalists these days, a columnist, a voiced persona who the reader is supposed to buy into or not. The problem then is that the book becomes mere fodder for the personality of the critic, an index of the reviewer’s excellent taste. As a reader I’d like a sensitive, intelligent description of what the book is up to. If there are questions to be asked about what the book is up to, then these should be asked, but not always answered for us.

    Reading poetry is largely a private, personal experience and the idea of someone mouthing off about it is just ugly. If you need proof that reviews are more about reviewers, look at how many are boring because they only make sense to someone who has read the bloody book! And it’s understandable; as reviewers it is flattering to think that our opinion counts. This I’d say is an error. It doesn’t count. Please could we have reviews which extend an invitation into a book’s world and concerns, not ones which are about trumpeting the reviewer’s expert taste. Or perhaps we should have reviews of poetry reviewers?

  14. By the way, like some contributors above, I review new poetry collections on my blog at http://sheenagh.livejournal.com/ , just because I enjoy doing so. Obviously I’m not going to waste space on anything I don’t like; the idea is to introduce books I like to people who might not come across them, since the broadsheets review so few collections and specialist mags are so slow to. Normally it’s just poetry, but I’ll be reviewing Trevor Byrne’s new novel “Ghosts and Lightning” as soon as Amazon put it through my door.

  15. I agree that reviews should always be signed. One reason I insist on ‘real names’ at the Poets on Fire forum is that people love to be beastly to other people but fear doing so in public, so anonymity only gives them carte blanche to be so vile as possible without being found out. Real names make people more inclined to be civilised. Just about.

    Reviewing seems to have shrivelled and died in the UK over the past decade. I do agree that reviewing is more about providing puff pieces for the back of someone’s book than seriously engaging with a text. Part of the problem is the shrinking column inches allowed for reviews, and hand-in-hand with that is an apparently shrinking readership.

    Who wants to read a serious, critically engaged review of poetry these days, outside a few wizened academics and the odd poetry enthusiastic? We’re in a hurry. We want sound-bites and thirty second tasters. We want the gist of it, not the pith. Or do we?

    I agree with Clive James (for I think it was he) who said recently that poetry should be banned, and that way we might actually generate a little interest in it again. Sounds like an excellent idea to me. Bang up a few high-profile poets – starting with CAD – and start confiscating poetry anthologies and raiding illegal open mic venues. We’ll never look back.

  16. “If a review is going to be wholly negative, why give it the journal space? Why not use it for a book that deserves recognition?”

    I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree. This is like saying that doctors should only see healthy patients, and not waste time on sick people. I think that the well-being of poetry, in a larger and very general sense, depends on a critical comprehension of pathology, and not just good health: each state is a function of the other.

    Maybe the distinction here is really between “reviewing” and “criticism;” in the roundtable, I argue that ours is an age of blogs, reviews, interviews, chatter, publicity and social networking, but not criticism. Nothing wrong with these various other modes except that it crowds out critical thinking, which is more demanding as well as less rewarding.

    Jo’s point is a very good one: quotations from the books under review are very valuable, though I know of editors who try to cut them back or discourage them.

  17. A little off-topic, but…

    Problem with an edit function in blogs is that someone might reply to a comment. The person who made the comment then edits it so that the reply looks pointless or silly. That’s why there’s usually no blog comment edit feature.

  18. A few stray thoughts on this.

    It is relatively easy and cheap today to produce a book as object. The chief problems are distribution and notice. On most occasions I have been asked to review specific books, on some rarer occasions I have asked to do a book because I feared it would be overlooked otherwise and that it deserved serious attention. Very occasionally it may be worth doing a book that seems to the reviewer to be grotesquely overrated elsewhere.

    What I want from a poetry review is intelligence and an attempt on the reviewer’s part to understand the work discussed, sympathetically if possible, but critically too. I want the review to be honest, to declare its hand if it has a hand to declare. Quotation is vital, if always inadequate, but it should illustrate some point being made. I want the review to be good, informed personal but considered writing, a literate serious conversation of which the reviewed book and the questions it raises is the subject. I want to take pleasure in the reading of it but not at the expense of honesty, generosity and intelligence.

    I don’t want to be talked down to by a review. I don’t want cosy chat. I don’t want sheer territorialism and bullying. The occasional dash of fury is fine providing it is understood why there is fury. Passion can be honest even when wrong.

    And in the end, a review is not the be all and end all. Byron thought Keats had been killed by a bad review. Later he found out he was wrong.

  19. I have just written my first review of a collection for a magazine and was fascinated by the whole dialogue that kept going on in my head. Who am I writing this review for I asked myself; people who have a huge academic grasp of poetry in all its forms, other poets, avid readers of poetry, Jo Public who might be persuaded to give poetry a go if tempted enough. Although I am aware that none of the above groups are mutually exclusive and their is much overlap I decided that on the whole the readers of the magazine would primarily be poets themselves and would perhaps judge my opinion on the basis of what they felt to be my ‘standing’ in the poetry world. As a poet with her first collection just out I tended to think that my standing would therefore be pretty low and therefore the only way forward was to ensure I wrote with total honestyand like of artifice.Not being a person that wants to be negative for the sake of appearing different or controvertial l chose to review a book I had enjoyed and been engaged by. Here’s a new poetry collection I like, this is why, this is what might be enjoyed or found interesting by others apart from me. Read it and see for yourself. This does not turn a review into a mere sales pitch but allows a reader to be given enough information and honest opinion to decide whether or not they might like to read this book themselves. If you hate the reviewers style it may be that you are put off a book that you might actually have enjoyed, but in reading a review you are given something of the reviewers personality and foibles, this is what makes the difference between a review and a brief synopsis of what you might find between the front and back cover. In the end the review I would want to read would avoid being bland and neutral, I prefer enthusiasm as the backdrop to a piece as mere vitriol, however brilliantly and amusingly written can only serve to say more about the reviewer than the reviewed. Although I have to admit there is a small part of me that like a good verbal punch up between a reviewer and a poet who is not afraid to fight back ( which presumes that the poet does have a public right of reply to such a review, which is often not the case).

  20. Rob, if not an edit function how about a preview function? Most blogs do have that and it saves a lot of typos!

    It is also possible to have an edit function for posts that haven’t yet been replied to.

  21. Sheenagh – there’s an edit plugin, I’ll install it when I get a minute.

  22. Andrea said “Although I have to admit there is a small part of me that like a good verbal punch up between a reviewer and a poet who is not afraid to fight back ( which presumes that the poet does have a public right of reply to such a review, which is often not the case).”

    There’s usually a letters column, but I think most poets, me included, feel it’s a terrible mistake to reply to a review, even if the reviewer is plainly an idle idiot who has neither read nor understood the work. Writing in to argue about it still looks undignified, whiny and distinctly unclassy (as my granny would have said, it just puts you on his level). The only times a poet can argue with a reviewer and maintain some dignity are (a) if you’re doing it on behalf of someone else who’s been savaged (great fun) and (b) if the reviewer has made some genuine howler you can politely point out (even more fun). I once got that chance with a clever-clogs in the TLS who’d complained about a poem set in the Arctic in which the explorer Elisha Kent Kane looks at an ice-sheet breaking and compares it to a carpet being shaken out. How ludicrous, sneered our critic, to suppose a man like that would use such a “domestic” comparison. Oh joy, thought I, for the metaphor came straight from Kane’s Arctic diaries…. that was fun. But normally I would never reply – after all, a review is a matter of opinion.

    Mark – am trying to improve my proof-reading!

  23. Very interested in what Don Share has to say re. an understanding of the ‘pathology’ of poetry. I agree; but it seems to me that just as for the professional diagnosis of diseases we have doctors, so for reviews of poetry we need professional reviewers – people who review because they are good at it.
    Moreover, there are, in my opinion, too many poets reviewing because they think it is their duty as poets. In actual fact, it is the reader’s judgment that we should be interested in rather than the writer’s. There are too many ‘writerly’ critiques masquerading as reviews.

  24. Mark, that is very interesting, but I’m not sure who you want the “professional reviewers” to be. If you mean academics, people who study and teach English Literature rather than writing it, I can see your point but can also guess at two possible objections:

    (a) their taste is liable to be even farther removed from the average reader’s than a writer’s would be; they do tend to think poetry is there to be dissected rather than enjoyed

    (b) – and this may be purely a UK problem – from my experience in UK academia, reviewing for magazines isn’t taken very seriously by those whose task it is to evaluate an academic’s research and publication activity, and that means that academics interested in furthering their careers spend a lot of time writing the all-important monographs and then getting them published by the university press at £45 a copy so that few will will ever be able to read them….

    Myself I love the idea of intelligent, informed general readers doing the reviews, but I think some magazine editors would baulk at that and demand big names.

  25. @Mark Yoxon: “Moreover, there are, in my opinion, too many poets reviewing because they think it is their duty as poets. In actual fact, it is the reader’s judgment that we should be interested in rather than the writer’s. There are too many ‘writerly’ critiques masquerading as reviews.”

    That’s an odd little dichotomy you’ve set up there, Mark. Surely a writer is also a reader, and in most cases an avid, engaged and critically appreciative one? I can see how being a writer skews your opinions of a another writer’s work, but surely readers are as susceptible to such predilections and biases too? And I’m tempted to say, more generally: what’s wrong with a review being a subjective, skewed piece of opinion, as long as it’s honest about it being so? It shouldn’t purport to be anything else, though for the record I personally prefer balanced and (as much as they can be) objective reviews in general.

    Also, there are plenty of poets out there who do a good job of reviewing, and not all because they feel it’s their “duty”, as you seem to somewhat snidely suggest, but because many of them enjoy reading poems and believe in poetry and so want to promote and appraise (as well as sometimes unpick and criticise) it as best they can. Michael Hofmann and Conor O’Callaghan spring to mind as poets who have written honest and accessible reviews for Chicago’s Poetry magazine and the TLS. And I can think of critics who aren’t poets who have torn into collections just because they’ve decided that a poet can be neatly pigeonholed within an academically constructed group they dislike (I recall, by way of example, April Warman’s review of Nick Laird’s On Purpose in the TLS). The other end is the likes of academic critic Helen Vendler’s endless praising of Seamus Heaney – yes, he’s a genuinely great and hugely talented poet but please, each book he publishes isn’t always better than his last!

    So if there is a problem with poetry reviews today, I’m afraid it’s not as easy as pointing the finger at poets who also happen to be avid readers (what a surprise) and therefore reviewers. To my mind, George Szirtes comments on this difficult matter (above) make a lot of sense.

    @Jack Underwood: “A good review should be about the book, what it says, how it says it. I’m not sure it’s always easy, but as far as possible, what the reviewer THINKS of the book should be a background concern […] Reading poetry is largely a private, personal experience”.

    Which is what makes what the book says and the reviewer’s opinion of it so inextricably linked, no? That is, since reading poetry is so private and personal an experience, it follows that what the book says and how it says it is to a great extent constructed by each reader’s experience of it (a dialogue between poem and reader). The ways in which people differently engage with a given poem are wildly varied. A book of poems – even more so. So while I agree with the ideal behind what your saying – to work towards fair, objective and ego-less appraisals of books of poems – I think “near impossible” is more accurate than “not always easy”. The reality is that even the most well-intentioned reviewer may think they’re writing something along those lines (thinking that their “objective overview” of the book is just that, and not their opinion), but someone reading the finished review may spot all sorts of biases and agendas within it.

    “Or perhaps we should have reviews of poetry reviewers?”

    Ha! That’s an idea with legs. Poetry Reviewers’ Review: a new pamphlet supplement free with Poetry Review.

  26. I never buy poetry books on the basis of a review, only from having read a poem/poems I like. I do read reviews but consider them more as a piece of entertainment in their own right – a critic’s view of a work of art can be as interesting as an artist’s view of the world for me. Occasionally, if a reviewer writes well about a book and it seems engaging, I’ll google the author and see if there are any poems I can read which will give me a lead on whether I want to buy the book.

    Does anyone here buy on the basis of reviews?

  27. Ian, do you find the poems you like in print magazines or only if they’re online? This is a matter of great interest to those of us who want to sell more books!

  28. Ian, I don’t buy collections on the basis of reviews. If, after reading a review, the book seems interesting, I then try to ascertain if there is any of the poet’s work on the internet. It’s only really when I have the opportunity of reading a few sample poems that I decide whether or not to buy the collection. Salt has sample poems in .pdfs on its website. I think it’s a great idea.

  29. Bit of both. I regularly read Magma, Fuselit, The Rialto, Poetry Review, Mimesis, and sometimes get Ambit and Poetry London. If I see someone’s work I like there I tend to make a mental note of it. Thus, for example (and as a nod to his initiation of this discussion), I first came across Rob Mackenzie’s work in Fuselit, and got his book on the strength of that. The fact that his publisher (Salt) includes pdfs with poetry extracts means I often visit their site to look for books. If a publisher doesn’t include extracts of work, I never visit their site. I also drift around the web, regularly visited Poetry Daily for a while to check out American poets, or might buy after hearing an excerpt on the tv/radio, most recently, say, something by George Mackay Brown, after enjoying Don Paterson’s recitation of Luing on Owen Sheers’ Poet’s Guide to Britain.

  30. Michelle, you commented while I was composing my second post – as you can see, I’ve mentioned Salt. As consumers, we seem to follow very similar behaviour patterns!

  31. Ian, the Owen Sheers programme had an effect all right – GMB’s Collected Poems were top of Amazon’s poetry, drama and crit list soon after.

    I always put sample poems on my personal website and I think a lot of poets do. I’m not sure I would have thought to look for samples on publishers’ websites.

  32. I’ve really enjoyed reading through the comments here. Great discussion! I have a few thoughts on what’s been said.

    I think reviewers have a responsibility to the art of poetry. I’ve been convinced at times that reviewers haven’t read the books they are sounding off about. Maybe they’ve skimmed a few poems and dashed off a few hundred words. I dislike that kind of thing more than any ‘blurb-type’ review.

    I like to read reviews, particularly those which really put a book under the microscope and examine its themes, subject-matter, style, and language and do so in a way that enriches my understanding both of poetry and of the book at hand. I like engagement, enthusiasm and opinion, as long as the opinions are backed up by evidence. One aspect I loved about Robert Hass’s book, ‘20th Century Pleasures’ (more a book of criticism than reviews, I suppose), was how enthusiastic he was and yet how ready to make honest, negative points about work he rated highly. I prefer this kind of writing to a neutral, unbiased review, as long as the biases are made as clear as possible. Alfred Corn’s article, which I linked to earlier in the comments, is very good on this.

    It’s tempting think that reviewing should be left to the ‘experts’ – either academics or others who prove themselves particularly good at it, but I’m not convinced that’s either desirable or possible. Some academics are good reviewers, but others are wedded to particular critical theories and may review on that basis. I wondered about Stephen Burt’s readiness to attack collections which were ‘examples of bad trends.’ Let’s say (purely as an example) you regard poetry written in ‘conversational’ language as a bad trend. Do you attack a book, even a decent example of the trend, just because it’s part of a trend you think is bad for poetry? Or do you review it on the basis of how good it is if you liked that kind of stuff? I’ve tended to ask the latter question when reviewing certain books, but have felt uncomfortable about doing so now and again. In one or two cases, I sometimes think I should have been more negative.

    I reckon it doesn’t matter whether reviewers are poets or not. What matters is how good they are at it. To become good at reviewing they need natural talent, they need to read loads of criticism and poetry, and they need to do it. Doing it is part of the learning process and they’re bound to make mistakes along the way.

    Feeling inadequate isn’t all a bad thing when confronted with a book a reviewer been asked to review. It might make the reviewer ask whether the book really is that bad, or if his/her ability to read it hasn’t been up to much. As long as asking those questions doesn’t cripple his/her ability then to decide that a book is awful…

    AB Jackson sent me this quote (not in connection with this post) from Randall Jarrell – “”When we read the criticism of any past age, we see immediately that the main thing wrong with it is an astonishing amount of what Eliot calls ‘fools’ approval’; most of the thousands of poets were bad, most of the thousands of critics were bad, and they loved each other.” That’s a sobering thought! But not one that should be lightly dismissed.

    I read a blog post a month or two ago in which the blogger related how he’d reviewed a book by a venerable writer about thirty years ago and had trashed it. He’d picked it up recently. It was a terrific book and his review at the time must have looked really stupid. So, on the one hand, you need to have real confidence that a negative review is fully justified. On the other hand, you can easily fall into a pit of your own making and look silly. It’s a tightrope.

    I have bought a few books on the basis of reviews. Sometimes I have made mistakes that way but mostly I’ve discovered some really interesting poets. I wouldn’t buy unless I felt I could trust the review.

  33. “I’ve been convinced at times that reviewers haven’t read the books they are sounding off about.”

    I’m sure of that too, Rob. I recall very well a review of the poet Jean Earle by the late William Scammell which analysed at some length the first (rather atypical) poem, drew conclusions about the book from it and completely ignored the rest. Nothing will convince me he read more than that one poem. There were several poets in that review and or all I know that’s how he reviewed them all. I think the moral for poets is: be very careful which poem you choose to open the collection.

  34. I’ve written lots of poetry reviews and I’m not a publishing poet, so maybe that gives me a different perspective.

    Firstly I don’t give a toss about any duty to Poetry, and secondly I don’t care what the poets themselves want, and thirdly I don’t have any views on negative vs positive, which I think is a misguided debate, and fourthly I don’t think it’s important to be “honest” because I’m not sure if that makes sense. I believe most of us have ambivalent feelings about most poetry. I’m often aware when I’m praising some feature of some poem that I could just as easily be ripping this very same feature to shreds. Things that have an up side also have a down side. So I think, ultimately, there aren’t even any good or bad poetry books. Good for what? Good for whom?

    Sometimes indeed my reviews do reflect these opinions, they slide from being nice to being a bit snidey and then go back to being nice again. But other times I might sing a pure hymn of praise to something good about the book. Other times I’m horrible to it from the off. Being consistent is different from being honest about how you feel, though both are admirable goals. But if you ask me, the most important thing that an unpaid reviewer can do is to revel in her/his freedom.

    Despite this irresponsibility I’ve never had a poet complain. That bothers me in a way. But I think poets like to know that their books are read. I try very hard not to write the review TO the poet. That’s actually harder than it seems, because often I’m perfectly aware that the poet is going to read my review with much greater attention than most other people, and though I try not to get to know any poets I do often get a pretty strong idea of them from the very book that I’m writing about.

    Anyway, that’s enough self-indulgent rambling! Fun though.

  35. Very interesting discussions which I’ll jump into with a big thumbs up to the Randall Jarrell quote. I’m going to use that… sobering, yes, and true in every age, I’d suggest.

    I read reviews of lots of things. Do I like reading reviews? Yes. Do I buy books based on reviews? No.

    I think a slight distintion should also be made between “reviewing” and “criticism”… to be flippant (am I ever anything but?): reviewing is saying if you like a book or not; criticising is coming up with reasons. Would I rather read a review or a criticism? Hmmm… depends on the mood I’m in.

    Anon. reviews? Bad thing – the poet could end up badly-reviewing their own book, and that’s a whole crazy situation.

    Reviewing friends? Bad thing – we’d sniff it out with a readerly nose and it would put me off the book.

    Now, I’m off to consider if I’ve ever written a criticism…

  36. I feel I’m intruding on a debate between members of a milieu so ,with some apprehension, I would like to post some questions but, to Hell with it! being human, can’t stop myself from tracing some observations as well.
    1. Is poetry reviewing undertaken almost exclusively by poets? (Get the impression it is);
    2. If yes, why? (Film, art, theatre, book reviewers are not necessarily practitioners);
    3. If yes, is it a good thing? (not sure for some of the reasons given by others but, also, because of speaking to the initiés in their language thus reinforcing, though not deliberately, the walls keeping out other visitors. Also, personally, I’m fed up with multiple definitions of what constitutes good/bad poetry-as if there’s nothing between!);
    4. Is a reader/reviewer who is not a published poet qualified to write reviews on poetry? (Yes, of course. And they don’t have to be University professors. Such reviewers will carry their own baggage like any other, but they may frame their discourse in a way that will provide crampons for (let’s admit it) a few who want to try and scale the wall).
    As a relatively recent visitor, not to poetry, but to reviews, I do agree there is rather too much back-slapping..or stabbing!
    Time for some fresh air?

  37. Desmond,

    Thanks for quoting me from Harriet. Isn’t anyone interested in giving an historical context to this issue?

    Critical intelligence is a key element in all kinds of pedagogy and invaluable in the Letters of a nation or a society, and simply cannot be separated from creative writing.

    This remark up-thread from Jack: “Reading poetry is largely a private, personal experience and the idea of someone mouthing off about it is just ugly” made me laugh. How jejune!

    Thomas

  38. @Sheenagh

    “Professional reviewers” is a clumsy phrase. I’m glad you picked up on it.

    I didn’t mean to imply that academics should be doing more reviewing. I think that reviewing loses its sting, and poetry its integrity, if the distinction between reader/writer isn’t upheld.

    @Ben

    The dichotomy is an important one, I think.

    There’s mystery in art. Most people just can’t do it. The fans in the terraces can’t play, but their opinion is what matters, applause or jeers. I don’t want to read reviews that fail to address, at a basic level, the poem as a ‘mystery’: something imparted, irrevocably whole, intransient, singular. I don’t want cool appraisal or critique, I want to know what it was like to receive the poem, how it felt to be subjected to the poem.

    I’ve been reading Alex Ross’ ‘The Rest is Noise’: he’s really excellent at marrying his knowledge of the technical intricacies of classical music with the incredulous reaction of a fan. He also writes beautifully evocative, revealing prose – I wish I read any poetry reviews like that.

    I’m not sure the I’ve made the distinction any clearer, and I accept that inevitably many readers of poetry are poets. Even so, the reviewer must approach a poet as a fan rather than a peer.

  39. In reply to Thomas Brady, “Critical intelligence is a key element in all kinds of pedagogy and invaluable in the Letters of a nation or a society, and simply cannot be separated from creative writing” – that may well be so, but it doesn’t follow, firstly, that those of us who “do” creative writing feel personally capable of engaging with critical thought, which is perhaps why your historical context hasn’t appeared – most of the people contributing so far seem to be writers rather than critics,and maybe some just don’t have the expertise to join in that discussion? (I know I don’t, not having read Eng Lit at uni).

    Secondly, it doesn’t follow that all intelligent readers want to engage with it, which is why your comment in reply to Jack is maybe a bit unkind. I have had many students who preferred to read that way, and didn’t want their personal reaction interfered with by critical discourse. Myself I thought they sometimes were missing out, but it didn’t always make them unintelligent readers by any means, and better any sort of reader than none at all.

  40. Richard Ward – good questions. I’ll try to get back to them later.

    I was struck by this from Michael Peverett – “I don’t think it’s important to be “honest” because I’m not sure if that makes sense. I believe most of us have ambivalent feelings about most poetry. I’m often aware when I’m praising some feature of some poem that I could just as easily be ripping this very same feature to shreds.”

    That’s strangely true. It feels as if it shouldn’t be though!

    Some books I immediately know I like. Others I know I dislike. However, there are many books which I can’t quite decide whether I like or not. I like some things about them but not other things. Or I might feel that I’ve previously disliked a book which did something similar, but maybe I like this new one better. Or maybe I don’t…

    What you say there definitely strikes a chord with me. I don’t know whether that points to a weakness in me as a critic or whether it’s a good thing.

  41. I also have felt what Peverett says, and concur with Rob, breaking the taboo of appearing that we have to be at all times, earnestly straight faced and serious about poetry.

    I remember reading an article in a Sunday glossy years ago, about successful salespeople at a double-window firm, in which the reporter went on a prize giving jolly to the Canaries at an end of year hurrah.

    S/he profiled the various successful salespeople, about eight of them, and the seven runners up all had different stories to tell about how they had become sellers of windows – and the one streak of sameness they all exhibited, was claiming that the most important ingrediant in their job was to believe in the Product.

    Seven people, all saying that if you don’t believe in what you’re trying to sell, forget trying to palm it off on others. And they waxed lyrical to varying degrees about how and why via the act of blathering, they could shift X Windows onto the market with a clear conscience. Like Jovo witnesses, all fully commited to a higher mono efficacy vis a vis the Excellence of UPVC and glass objects.

    Words like trust, responsibility, duty of care (well maybe not) peppered their Sales poetic and a right-on PC world-view, that there was far, far more to what they were doing – that one’s calling as a spieler had something far deeper and more going on with it than Josephine Soap unconnected personally to the trade, might first think. Basically, that there was some significant moral dimension to the whole gig of persuassion.

    And then, the top seller’s profile, who out-performed his nearest rival by an order of ten to one, or if not this ratio, certainly a figure which stopped the Reader in their tracks – went and proved an exception is the rule.

    His take was the polar opposite to that of his colleagues, because he said, that far from the job of Selling being akin to a religious vocation (almost), where one need have a fundamental commitment to the product on a personal level – he believed that what makes a succesful salesperson is the capacity to detach and keep emotion and morality out of it. Treat the job as a job – of acting, talking bullshit on anything at all, pretending for a career – as if what we tell porkies about, is the most important thing in our life.

    He viewed the colleagues he had sold five and ten times more windows than, as naive babes in arms, wet behind the ears and deluded, and that all the talk of having to believe in the product, rubbish. In short, he was refreshingly honest.

    *I could be from Mickey Mouse Windows, and still sell to people by the bucketload” – (or words to that effect), he said.

    He became incredulous when the journalist asked if he had the wiondows in his own Surrey detached, saying he wouldn’t have the rubbish he sold in his own house, because the quality is too poor and not value for money, manufactured for a mass market, stating that the middle-mass who all want to believe the tat they buy is – whilst not as expensive as the highest quality windows on the market – value for money, and his job was to sell the idea, appeal not to their common sense, but their vanity by flattering them.

    The dodge of a good salesperson he thought, is to come across as everyone’s mate: good old person X who we can trust because – listen to them, they know what they are talking about and there is a human connection, their words speak to us as human beings, even though they may believe in them as much as UFO’s on the White Hosue lawn.

    And like Peverett, i thought on reading: this is the undeniable, proven Reality of Sales success — as the man was selling far, far more than his nearest rival; was detached, didn’t fall for the blurb and publicity which is there, not to tell us the bare boned truth (in most cases) but to Sell us something. Anything, from washing powder to 500,000 acres of a far distant up and coming third world resort that’s gonna be the next garden of eden.

    ~

    I remember doing one day of teleselling newspaper ad-space, in a poky office in the midlands of England in the early-nineties, lasting one day in the job. I was handed a sheet of the local newspaper ad section, and informed my duties wee, to ring every number on it and use a script as a how-to guide for what, on that day, for all i knew, could have been a first step on the road to my first million. After all, i had read about the fella selling double glazing (i think, though the chronolgy may be incorrect) and all i needed was to act.

    Having played Hamlet at 16, Malvolio at 14 and being a drama queen at heart, this could have been my big break.

    But it wasn’t to be, the gods had decided my geniuis lay in doing something other than this, as i discovered during a long slow morning of no sales, no interest and zero enthusiasm from both myself and the people i phoned, at an intensive one day (workshop?) lesson in the reality of continual rejection. Ffiteen an hour.

    However, watching the boss at work, who was a few years older and obviously an old ham, i understand now what he was doing.

    He would sit in the seat, intently reading an ad, psyching himself up, going through his cerebral routine and covering all bases. Projecting the outcome, sussing out exactly who he was making contact with for the first time, going at it with a Belief (in the power of blather) and on ringing, would say *hello, John Smith here from* blah blah blah – in a very confident, normal way and either got off straight away when he knew their was no sale at the end of the exercise – or talked to (what souded like) old friends and made a sale after his chat.

    What he was actually doing of course, was becoming their bezzie new mate in ten seconds. Straight in: talking to business people and honed over many years of continual rejection, trial and error – like a gigilo at a casino in the South of France – the 35 year old Pierce Brosnan in his Taffin heyday (anyone else ever seen that movie?) – he just made it all seem like magic.

    As an untutored youth, listening in, to the (what was indistinguishable from) Humanity of the chat, laced with just the right gags and confidential bonhomie flowing forth from the salesperson who knew their craft – thought; gawd, how does he do it?

    For my faith at what is effectivley (and benign perhaps) conning people, (naturally) was zero, with the only sale a random idiot who i rang with a heavy heart four hours into the job, and didn’t even have to finish the spiel.

    Yes, i’ll have it, the person said, coming as a total surprise: my (non-existent) selling skills playing no part in the transaction. Here was proof, i thought, that the whole world is just an unknowable maze of sheer impenetrability, on my part at least.

    ~

    But that was long ago of yore when mullets where all the rage, and have been proven half right – the world then was a crazier place all round. I mean, who in their right minds would think a mullet rthe height of sophistication nowadays?

    However, what also caught my eye was Rob, saying there are:

    “..many books which I can’t quite decide whether I like or not..”

    In this position, the challenge is i think, to write about it by coming to the page, not knowing, not with a fixed idea but like a skater about to go on the rink for the first time, or a newspaper ad-space office jockey, to sell on her (or his) first day – where all is Yeatsean *soft wax* of unformed potential for going any direction.

    The excercise, to tease out some text and put a shape of something readable together.

    Viewing the task, not like the seven runners up in the sales competition, all earnestly believing they have a duty of care to the consumer – a Reader who our words may influence to make a decision in reality (not obviously on the Yeatsean scale of *did that play i wrote send out certain men the English shot?*) – ten quid out their life on our say so or (judging by the anecdotal evidence of few buying books on the strenght of reviews), possibly not.

    No, we should consider our role as Reviewer, as that of an actor, detached and with the mind-set of the top salesperson in the glossy did, playing a game-with-self, where we take (professional) pride over appearing the most involved, moved and engaged at a quantum emotional and intellectual level with the text. This is perhaps, because we need perspective, as at the end of the day, releasing a slim book of verse, as Ginsberg (i think) had it – is not unlike dropping a feather from the Empire State Building and waiting for the cops to come and arrest us for vandalism.

    The most important component and responsibilty (if you feel there has to be one) is to your Reader, (whoever that is), to keep them engaged and on your side, like a lawyer lying for a living. Sure, deliver an opinion on the book as a bible, life-changing text, (or not) but make sure we get to show off ourself. That’s the point, being in the spotlight whilst making it appear we are priveliging an *other* – the trick to sell any old tat, because it’s only a tenner anyway.

    At least, that’s one way to look at it.

    I think the challenge as a person delivering an opinion, or Criticism, when we are unsure about a book, is to use the book as a vehicle into learning by the practise of Writing, to further our own project of becoming a bore. To work out, clarfy see what we think by drawing out a swirl within, and as we write, the opinion firming up into Criticism – the right corners on it, the correct form, undeniably our own sound and din.

    Coax out an imaginary, unarticualted, indecisive pensato note and form it into an opera of opinion and show, show, show them the money. Make your Reader think, phwoar, this one knows the gig alright, seems to be an expert i can trust.

    Which we achieve by the simple act of practising in print, with the goal of beoming ourselves – because the plain fact is, we are all more or less the same in our minds, unless i suppose we are a hereditary monarch with a different slant and experience on the world, and even then we’re all formed by the same (non existent) God, who, in the famous words of Mister Bono, Sir Good – *doesn’t take cash, mister* – which most on the planet (at the concerts at least) on hearing this in the late nineties, thought, yeah, right on Bono, you tell ’em – even though Sir Good is worth a few hundred mill.

Comments are closed.

Back To Top