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WHAT’S THE POINT OF POETRY REVIEWS?
I must think there is one, because I’ve been writing them for well over two decades.
Many writers and many (but not all) publishers are keen to get work reviewed, and as widely as possible, often on the principle (apparently) that all publicity is good publicity.
Certainly when a book is widely reviewed, one has the impression the work is being read and talked about. That can encourage people to join the conversation (which entails reading the book—hurrah!).
Poetry books are meant to be read, are they not? What else are they for? And having been read, there is necessarily a response.
There are many ways of communicating that response, though. The friends and acquaintances of the poet can talk to the author, send her charming letters, post appreciative notes on her FaceBook wall.
Those who don’t know the poet personally can talk to each other, mutter at reading groups, confer in conferences, natter at chatterfests.
But poetry is a difficult art. It demands (and often rewards) close reading and re-reading. It is literature. It requires a response in kind.
A poetry review offers that response, in writing, and does this artfully. A well-written response to a book of poems can be, in itself, a minor art form. It is not an easy thing to write, not easy to articulate the effect some poems have had. Countless factors come into it, not least a haunting feeling of inadequacy—perhaps because of not understanding the poems, or not picking up the references, or not knowing how to make sense of the levels of form and meaning. Sometimes a reviewer has to put the need to 'make sense' to one side, to read in ways she has never previously considered. As I said, poetry is a difficult art.
Nevertheless, some collections of poems stimulate wonderful responses. I have ordered many a book after reading a review—not because the review was strongly approving but because I wanted to see for myself what the poems were doing.
Most reviews of poetry are written by poets. I don’t believe only poets can write poetry reviews but I do think anyone practising this strange art (poetry, no less) should be thinking intelligently not only about what they themselves are doing in the small hours but also what their peers are up to—and I think they should attempt to articulate some of that.
Ah but . . . reviews can lead to clashes and consternation, especially in the age of instant online interaction. In terms of roles, the reviewer, inside her small review page, can say precisely what she wants. The poet cannot answer back. The reviewer is, therefore, in a position of apparent power.
If it is a position of power, it is a vulnerable one. Once a review is published, the author of that review really has stuck her neck out. She has put her mouth where the melée is. No worries if the response to the poems is broadly consistent with what others are saying (there is strength in numbers, and this may help explain the consistency often established in reviews of prize-winning volumes). If, however, the response in the review is radically different from the common crowd, it can be the reviewer who looks silly. Or foolishly brave.
Sometimes poets are upset by reviews. Critical comments about their work feel personal—of course they do. Sometimes they sound personal too (I said reviews can be a minor art form, but they can also be a minor disaster) and once published, it is too late. The neck is out there. The poet is upset. The tweets are twittering.
Many actors choose not to read reviews of plays. Poets can do the same. Or—they can inhabit the attire they have chosen for themselves—words. Words are a means of communication. Communication invites a response. Indeed, without that response, the communication hasn’t occurred.
So writing reviews, organizing reviews, publishing reviews—this is the other side of the process—a necessary and under-appreciated side. It could do with a bit more nurturing (who would pay for an Arvon course on review writing?) but perhaps the dedication creates its own school of honour.
Reviewer wanted. No remuneration (for the most part), no kudos, no ‘how to’ books, no tuition, no annual dinner. Opportunities to misquote, misread, make mistakes and enemies. Apply in writing, enclosing CV, to. . . .
Applicants are still far more likely to be male than female, though (in my Sphinx experience) female reviewers are more likely to return reviews on time and far less likely to abscond. What does that say about us?
[More female reviewers are needed for the next Sphinx review round, which is about to commence. High-risk sports, they say, are increasingly popular. Contact email@example.com if you feel like sticking your neck out.]