The Perils of Poetry Reviewing

There shouldn’t be any. You receive a poetry book or pamphlet for review, you read it and write your opinion which is backed up with quotes and examples and the review reader is given enough information as to whether they’d like to buy the book or not. The poet, whose book is being reviewed, understands the reviewer is simply expressing their opinion and, especially if the reviewer is not part of the target market, a negative opinion is not necessarily a negative reflection on the book.

When New Walk magazine asked several reviewers to comment on the perils of reviewing, several common themes emerged:

Misunderstanding of what a Review is

  • A review is not an in-depth critical essay.
  • A review is not unconditional praise.
  • A review is not an essay summarising the poet’s ‘career’ to date and placing the latest book in context.
  • A reviewer has an opinion: it may or may not concur with the poet’s opinion.
  • A review is not an important factor in a reader’s buying decisions.
  • Most reviews have to be written to s specified word limit.
  • Most reviews have to be written to a deadline
  • Reviewers cannot be told what to write or which poems to write about.

Reacting to a Review

  • If the poet comments on review before the reviewer knows the review has been published, how thoroughly and carefully has the poet read the review?
  • If the reviewer didn’t comment on the poems or poem that the poet particularly wanted the reviewer to comment on then the poet needs to be reminded they are not writing the review.
  • If the poet complains the reviewer didn’t comment on every poem in the collection, that’s not the reviewer’s job.
  • If a reviewer has not interpreted the poet’s work the way the poet intended it to be interpreted, that’s the poet’s problem: they failed to communicate.
  • Do not expect a reviewer to respond to comments on their review.
  • Do not expect a reviewer to apologise for their review.

I’ve received more thank yous than negative comments. I’ve had far more positive comments about my reviews than negative comments. Every single negative comment has shown the poet failed to understand the purpose of the review and reinforced the opinion I’d expressed in my review. The negatives include:

  • The poet who thought irony was a good idea: Many thanks for your thoughts on the three poems you mention[ed in your review]. I’m sorry you found the collection as a whole under-edited, but shall live in hope that there was at least one image amongst the other thirty-nine poems you were able to enjoy. If I had found one poem amongst the other thirty-nine I enjoyed, I’d have mentioned it. It’s highly unlikely I’d only find one poem in a collection that I enjoyed (there might be one that I enjoyed more than the others, but I’ve yet to read a collection where I only enjoyed one poem.)
  • The poet who told me I should not have commented on her usage of a particular word because, although it was spelt the English way, I should have known she’d meant it in the way that the French use the word even though she had not used the French spelling.
  • The poet who sent me a copy of a 2500 word critical essay as an example of the approach I should have taken in reviewing his collection. I had a limit of 50 words and so only had space to give an impression of what the collection was like, not provide an in-depth critique.
  • The poet who complained he didn’t recognise his poems from the quotes I’d used. The quotes came directly from the poems, included all the line breaks, punctuation and layout of the originals; how familiar was the poet with his own work?
  • The poet who commented on social media (he may have believed the comment was on a private thread, unaware that I could see it) that I must be a right-wing city dweller who didn’t understand country ways. As soon as you comment on the reviewer rather than the review, you’ve lost the argument and if you’re going to suggest that the reviewer holds certain views and lives in a city, you might want to do your research first.
  • The poet who complained and threatened to sue me for libel because my review wasn’t unconditional praise. I found the self-published collection (none of the poems within had been previously published in magazines and none had been placed in any poetry competitions) clichéd and sentimental: there is nothing libellous about having an opinion.
  • The poet who told me that because her pamphlet had been placed in a competition and praised by judges, I should not have written a negative opinion of it.

None of these have or will stop me writing reviews. The most memorable response to one of my reviews was from the late poet Anne Born. She commented that the opening sequence in a pamphlet I’d reviewed was one she’d kept coming back to over a period of twenty years before seeking to publish it so was very grateful for the “considerate, close and careful reading” I’d given it in my review. None of the negative comments I had can touch that.





4 Responses to “The Perils of Poetry Reviewing”

  1. Rennie Parker Says:

    Enjoyed your comments! I’m one of those who doesn’t mind whatever people might put in a review. But I’ve had some unexpected opinionating in the past, such as reviewers/critics assuming from my work that I’m a right-wing Tory wife type, when I’ve always been a singleton left winger….. Just goes to show…..

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    Hi Rennie

    Thanks for your comment. I figured if he had to resort to personal insult, I must have got it right otherwise he’d have been able to argue with my review. I wouldn’t assume that the poem’s narrator is also the poet unless I’m presented with evidence that that is the case.

  3. Edward Ferrari Says:

    Thought this piece was grand, and I’ll be coming back to this blog often.

  4. emmalee1 Says:

    Hi Edward

    Thanks for dropping by. Good to know you’ll be returning.

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