Why aren’t poetry reviews more critical?

An article in a US poetry magazine triggered a debate about why movie or music critics can pan movies or music but poetry critics rarely pan poets, resulting in timidity and obsequiousness dominating poetry criticism.  The study’s not been done, but there was a suggestion that a study of all poetry reviews written by poets under the age of 50 would reveal that over 90% would be laden with praise.  Reasons offered include:

  • Reviewing tends to be done by poets whereas movie or music critics aren’t always directors or musicians.
  • US poetry is tethered to academic careerism so reviewers are writing with one eye on furthering their career instead of being fully focused on the review.
  • The boundary between reviews (commentary on the book) and blurbs (short pieces of praise used to promote the book) is blurring.
  • Poetry reviewers don’t act like consumer report writers so movie and music critics will give negative comments to poor products but poetry reviewers don’t because they come from the same circle as the producers of the poor products.
  • Negative reviewing is a hazard to the position and advancement of the poet writing reviews.

Suggestions to counter this:

  • Establishing an independent field of poetry criticism.
  • Consider publishing reviews anonymously with editors filtering out anonymous reviews driven by superficial, vindictive agendas or cronyism.

I’m not convinced.  Here in the UK poets aren’t as tied to academia as in the US so it’s not such a problem.  However, it is still true that overwhelming poetry critics and reviewers are also poets so will but careful of writing negative reviews.  It’s more comfortable damning with faint praise than giving a negative review to a collection by a publisher you may submit to one day.  Poet reviewers are also going to be wary of negative comments on a collection by a poet seen as a gatekeeper to greater recognition of the reviewer’s own work.

I’m not a fan of anonymous reviews.  Yes, they give the reviewer more freedom to say exactly what they think but that’s not always a good thing.  A named review means the reviewer has to take care about how they say what they want to say but doesn’t stop the reviewer saying what they think.  It also gives the poet chance to read the review knowing that the reviewer is not their target audience so a negative review from that reviewer is not a negative for the collection, it just confirms that the collection doesn’t appeal to someone who is not in the target audience.  If, however, the reviewer was part of the target audience, then it highlights a problem with the poetry.  If the reviewer is anonymous, the poet has no idea whether they fit the target audience or not so can’t decide whether the negative review is a problem or not.  So anonymous reviews aren’t the answer.

Establishing an independent field of poetry criticism is problematic too.  An established literary editor once asked a prize-winning poet when she was going to write a “proper book” (meaning a novel), then relying on newspaper critics to re-establish poetry criticism isn’t going to happen.  Poetry magazines can’t afford to pay reviewers and rely on poets willing to give their time to review in return for keeping the book under review.  No independent reviewer is going to accept those “wages”.

Therefore the current system of relying on poets to review other poets will continue.  That will mean that poet reviewers will be wary of negative comments.  But it also means that readers of those reviews know that they have been written by poets wary of damaging their own future chances of publication.  Therefore readers can apply their own filters to the reviews and see them for what they are.

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One Response to “Why aren’t poetry reviews more critical?”

  1. johnfield1 Says:

    This is a provoking article. One of the first problems with poetry is that poetry teaching in schools wrongly suggests that poems are dissected rather than read. I suspect that after a final brush with poetry at GCSE (examinations sat at aged 16 in the UK) most students would still be happy to read a novel but would be unlikely to buy a collection of poems. So, once the casual reader has been scared off, the poetry reviewer is free to write in an academic style, offering deep close reading. You wouldn’t see that happening in a glossy magazine’s review of a coffee table book! I’d like to see more reviewers writing in a natural idiom and focusing on the reading experience, rather than on offering an academic response.


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