Sunday, February 12, 2012

Far too many poetry books in this country get far too little ink, but what can you legitimately expect of someone who reviews your book? A broad understanding of your past work or the tradition out of which you write? Rigorous, uncompromising standards minus the critical take down? And how technical should a review be? This week I talked to six editors from St. John's to Victoria about what they’re looking for in a poetry reviewer. Their answers might surprise you.

It’s unquestionably the most exciting moment of a poet’s life: tearing open the package or box from the publisher and glimpsing for the first time the cover of their latest collection of poems. A close second is opening up the literary journal that has set space aside for a careful evaluation of that collection, after which that mild trembling in your hands as you begin to read transforms into quiet, satisfied calm or white knuckled fury. How could the reviewer get it so wrong? you ask yourself. Or what a wonderfully smart and insightful human being.

“I really enjoy a reviewer who’s intelligently engaged,” says Arc editor Shane Rhodes, "even if they’re not agreeing with what you’re doing.” “I expect a reviewer to read a book with an open mind,” says The Malahat Review’s John Barton, “using all their experiences as readers to engage with the book and in a sense give a transcription of their impressions.” Clarise Foster at CV2 looks for “something that opens the work up. If it shuts down a less experienced reader then I’m not necessarily interested in it.” The poet’s sensitivities, adds Barton, are not the first consideration.

“My first job is to serve the needs of the reader before anything else. (The reviewer) should give a fair impression of what the book is about and how well the author has achieved his or her objectives in writing the book.”

All of which presupposes a fair attempt by the reviewer to understand what those objectives are. It means reading all the poems in a book, not just the few carefully positioned blockbusters at the front, and asking if the poems are of a consistent quality. It also means asking if the book has an overarching thrust or perspective? Does it gain steam and generate interest as you move from poem to poem or do awkward shifts in tone or point of view slow its momentum and deflate your interest?


British critic Ian Hamilton once wrote that reviews are “mostly written by people who think they are easy to do.” Plainly they’re not and not just because converting one’s subjective responses into readable prose can be a strain on heart and brain. Sometimes sheer labour is required as one trundles off to the library to read the poet’s past work or provide context for the book by re-visiting the tradition out of which that poet writes. Reading the book under scrutiny is not always enough for the reviewer who wants to do a good job.

“More and more I’m gravitating towards reviews that are actually idea-engaged or looking more broadly at a poet’s production or something a little bit larger than an individual book,” says Rhodes.

Heidi Harms
at Prairie Fire says seasoned writers often help readers understand the history and poetics underpinning a new book of poems, but reminds us context is good “only as long as it doesn’t take up half the review. If that takes up a quarter of the review then I’ll really pare that back.” Adds Clarise Foster “Sometimes you get people who are all about context because it shows how smart they are. You have people who provide so much context that there’s no review,” she chuckles. Sometimes there’s not enough room to discuss the context, but Arc’s Katia Grubisic says even this needn’t be an issue. She cites one reviewer who in 500 words did “a tremendous job” on a book by John Steffler “providing background and explaining Steffler’s approach by citing a few poems.”

“And so you read something like that and you lose patience with the rest of the crap. You think `This can be done, it should be done, what is wrong with the rest of you?”

The central challenge, says Mark Callanan at Canadian Notes & Queries, is to find reviewers knowledgeable about the various traditions of poetry and who bring a broad cultural perspective to the book at hand.

“Poetry doesn’t just draw on poetry, it draws on the entire realm of human experience, including philosophy and history and science. And so your ideal critic is someone who is insanely intelligent and also indiscriminately interested in not even just reading but popular culture. Their frame of reference has to be as wide as you can imagine.”


“Stylistically speaking, reviewing is not just an exercise in spewing facts or disjointed observations,” says Callanan. “It’s an exercise in writing. I don’t know that I’d call it an art form, but it is certainly artful.”

We all can remember a favourite teacher at school, but some of us will recall a critic who opened us up to the brilliance of other writers and did it while writing extraordinary well themselves, with dash and colour, unfolding idea after idea despite the sometimes limited space available. Good writers hold up great writers as models for their own style, occasionally heart broken knowing that something more than endless hours spent in the library is necessary before it can be acquired. And so it is with reviewing.

Developing a style all one’s own sometimes runs up against an opposite impulse, to borrow from another’s style, or worse, fall back on culturally sanctioned tropes or clich├ęs that are seldom more than vague approximations of the truth about a book of poems. In a recent issue of a Canadian literary magazine, for example, three successive poetry reviews used “meditative” to describe the poem or poet. And while we can only hope this particular word is soon consigned to the literary dustbin, editors routinely encounter their own cringe inducing “mal mots”. For Katia Grubisic it’s “readable”, a word she suspects is code for “accessible”, (a perfectly good word that has fallen on hard times recently). “For a while `nuanced’ or `edgy’ seemed to be everywhere,” says Heidi Harms. Ditto the word “accomplished”, says John Barton.

“I’m not too fond of qualifying adjectives. I want the proof. Sometime I think people write reviews almost as if they’re anticipating them as pull quotes.”


Some of the most memorable styles are synonymous with extraordinary negativity. Dorothy Parker’s dismissal of a young Kate Hepburn performance as “running the gamut of emotions from A to B” stands out for both its concision and flourish. Francis Jeffrey’s response to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads “This will never do” and Martin Amis’s skewering of Robert Bly’s Iron John (“in he comes, preceded by a gust of testosterone and a few tumbleweeds of pubic hair”) are great examples of condensed hostility and derision enlisted in the service of the reading public. Selling the negative requires that the reviewer or critic do so with both panache and unerring accuracy. Even a negative review of a book or poet you love can be rescued through force of style and an unflinching regard for the truth.

But a full force critical take down - executed to salve a personal wound or to burnish one’s own reputation at the expense of an icon – is just not on for most editors, including Heidi Harms. “Certainly not. Certainly not…critical yes, but not a trashing.” “Not at Event,” says Sue Wasserman. ““I say to reviewers if there isn’t something about it that you want to say that would be positive and nurturing then let’s give you a different book.” These editors argue that by going too negative you draw attention away from the work under review and risk losing your readers’ attention for future reviews. Simply put, you’re no longer taken seriously.

But are there no circumstances under which a thoroughly bad book of poems calls out for a thorough thrashing? Mark Callanan and John Barton believe there are, but even these come with caveats. “If someone wants to take issue with an author’s skills and they can do it in a plausible way I’m fine with it," says Barton. "But I don’t want them mixing in word flourishes to somehow underscore their point or come up with some dry witticism that has a little extra sting in it, I don’t believe in that.” Callanan is more open to the critical take down of poetic reputations inflated beyond their merits.

“There are poets who have enjoyed great success critically; they’ve been widely acclaimed for little or no reason. Canada and Canadian poetry have progressed to a point that we can take a long sober look at ourselves and say `You know what? We don’t have to applaud every little effort that’s made on behalf of poetry. We can actually be selective.’”

Such selectivity might extend to reviews, particularly those written by the reviewer who never met a book of poetry he didn’t like. A more immediate question facing editors is how to address these kinds of reviews when they cross their desks. How do you say “This will never do.” Because between the time you’ve allocated space for the review and have it in hand it may be too late to ask for significant changes - or find another reviewer. Barton’s hope is that “some of that can be removed at the outset in how we match reviewers with books or how books are passed on to reviewers.”

A sure sign that a reviewer really doesn’t like a book of poetry – despite their protestations to the contrary – is their refusal to discuss it. The poet being reviewed may settle for the broadest generalities about their work but the reader shouldn’t. Instead we look for a generous sampling from the poems themselves and some effort to unpack the effect which these have on the reader. If the poem leaves the reader cold then the reviewer should try to explain why this might be the case - by closely examining the thematic shape of the poem, the juxtaposition of images, how rhythm and line endings support or fail to support a poem's meaning. Understanding how these work helps us to better understand and appreciate others poems we come across.

Of course there’s always a chance reviewers will demonstrate their ignorance outright by discussing a book too closely, but that’s their problem, not ours. At some point the veracity of the review rises or falls on the evidence it supplies. Susan Wasserman says we’re not about to return to the close read which characterized the New Criticism of the 50s and 60s. We are, however, obliged to attend to things like end-rhyme and image, parsing syntax and rhythm a little to show why something works or does not work. “I don’t think the whole review should do that, but absolutely, look at the language and the way things are laid out on the page.”

Shane Rhodes says a close read is useful if it supports a larger argument about the poet’s style “giving some good examples of that or looking at something that seems to be tearing a book apart.” But problems also occur when a review is too focused on the technical.

“It can get a little too detailed, whereas a review often requires much broader strokes and a reviewer who looks at some of the general ideas that the book might be investigating.”


Foresta Gump said...

I enjoyed reading Speaking of Poems, it was interesting, informative, insightful and just a good read--Thank you.

David Godkin said...

You're welcome, Foresta. Love the name!


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