Posted by: noelwilliams | January 19, 2013

What’s the point of reviews?

What are they for? Why read them? Why write them?

These questions interest some poets and leave others cold. Generally, the shivering poets are those who don’t read or write reviews, and find those reviews they do come across largely irrelevant in their own poetic lives. Some poets simply prefer to get on and write, ignoring reviews and criticism. But most of us like to know what others think.

A couple of detailed, erudite and interesting posts on such poetry reviewing have appeared on Sidekick (here  and here ). Whenever I write “interesting” this usually means “I disagree with much of it”, and that’s true here. But I urge you to read these posts, because they’ll stimulate your thinking about what poetry criticism is, what reviews are for, and how they are written.

I think there are several assertions in these posts which are wrong, and elements of the argument, though persuasive are flawed. But I’m pretty sure they’re informed by wide reading and particular experiences which simply do not coincide with mine. And, in a way, that’s the point, because poetry criticism, like poetry itself, is a pluralism, very much grounded in the particular reading and experiences of different writers.

The Sidekick observations are posted by “The Judge”. One post claims that “it becomes exceptionally hard to assemble a group of reviewers working together for the same platform”. Well, I think it might be. But in my experience almost the opposite is true: you can find more willing and capable reviewers than you have room to publish. The Judge is right that, if you’re an editor looking for a uniform platform of critical review, expressed through an set of reviewers of unified perspective – that’s difficult. But I don’t think it’s necessary and perhaps not desirable, either. Much better to gather a pool of trusted and sensitive individuals with their different scopes and visions. Much better to let the range of their many perspectives jostle against each other, reflecting collectively something of the many poetry communities we belong to, sparkling with the many different delights that are to be found in the contemporary scenes.

The Judge claims we can’t provide a consumer review of poetry, trustworthy recommendations on poetry best buys. I agree.  For this we’d want a credible and regulated source, and maybe such things as ratings against a standard scale of “good and bad poetry”. This isn’t what most of us expect or get from poetry reviews. It might be impossible to achieve and it might well be horribly reductive.

But I think we can often take what is said in a review as guidance on whether we’d enjoy a particular volume or not. If I’m told, for example, that a new collection is full of musicality, mixes form and free verse, offers imaginative insights exploring unusual subjects or any other things that I typically admire and enjoy in poems, I’m likely to give the book a look. Conversely, if it is described as full of cliché or largely cut-up prose or dialect poetry or any of the things I would aim to avoid, I’m much less likely to seek it out.

There are review sites which aim to assemble a holistic judgement of through a sort of star system. Happenstance’s Sphinx site (which I sometimes review for) publishes three reviewers’ observations for each pamphlet reviewed, and uses a quirky “stripe” system to summarise scores from those reviewers (here ).

You may think this is no better than the Amazon  star system which (I’d say) is not very useful for poetry books (or, indeed, a fair number of other things) because it is an aggregate of the views of those who simply fancy writing about what they’ve read, with no editorial control and a wide range of motivations. Amazon reviewers often have no relevant experience, no sense of the context or audience for whom they write, and may make their judgements on almost arbitrary grounds.

What we expect of reviews in a poetry magazine or a trusted poetry website is an account from someone who has read poetry, probably written poetry, knows something of what poets do and what the readers of poetry look for, has perhaps experienced workshopping, knows some contemporary poetry contexts and literary traditions, has read other reviews, and is writing in order to interest and engage their readers. And whilst many reviewers – in my experience – write from love of a particular kind of work, or a particular individual perspective, that’s surely what we want from them. Good reviewers are happy to make it clear where they are coming from. So if the perspective is merely personal liking, they’ll say so. But if it comes from expert knowledge or wide experience – of the author’s other work, of the tradition they’re working from, of the techniques they use, of the subject area they’re working in – they’ll make that clear, too, in the way they write.

Whilst I don’t think anyone can claim “complete objectivity” in reviewing poetry, I also don’t think that it boils down simply to one individual liking another individual’s self-expression. We can also say why we like it, what we like about it, what features of the poem lead us to that pleasure, where those pleasures link to other poetries, perceptions or ideas. A good reading, a good critical review of a set of poems, recognises what those poems offer, and so has a sense of what pleasures others might get from them. It does not take a huge amount of skill or experience to see that a collection is largely confessional personal lyric, or a sustained sequence of narrative political polemics, or an exploration of white space in organising and breaking lines (and so on). These things can be reported, and reviewers can both place such things in a wider context whilst offering their own views on such impacts and successes.

Reviewers mightn’t be able to conform to a prescribed set of rules for objective classification of poetry in order to recommend purchase. I doubt most poets would want that. But we can create honest, sensitive and informed reviews that might be useful to some readers in deciding whether or not there might be something worth reading in a new collection.



  1. The claim that printed reviews sell books would be challenged by some publishers (a surprize to me – my guess is that poetry reviews do work even if novel reviews don’t). Some big publishers say they only push hardbacks for review because they want quotes to print on the paperback cover. Steve Wasserman says that “their own marketing surveys consistently show that most people who buy books do so not on the basis of any review they read, nor ad they’ve seen, but upon word of mouth. What’s worse is that most people who buy books, like most people who watch movies, don’t read reviews at all.”

    • Thanks, Tim. Useful comments.

      I think most reviews of poetry are sought at the time of publication, with “private” endorsements canvassed by a press for the blurb beforehand. If presses don’t believe reviews affect sales, I’m not sure why they are so anxious to have their books reviewed. I always receive many more books for review than there’s room to review.

      I’m not sure whether poetry reviews do increase sales, but they do act as “free advertising”, with copy that can (potentially) be believed because independent and, largely, personal perspectives. So reviews are somewhere between word of mouth and formal marketing. My belief is that reviews encourage people to seek out and sample particular poets and volumes – but that would not necessarily lead to buying them.

      As a researcher, I’m always a little suspicious of marketing surveys – there are many ways they can be flawed – but I’ve heard versions of Steve Wasserman’s observation before. The question, though, if most readers of poetry don’t read reviews (is that true?) and reviews don’t affect sales (is that true?) is why do we have poetry reviews at all?

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