Reviewers must not have an Agenda

Most of us have been to that poetry workshop where someone wanted to re-write your sonnet the way they would have written it, bashing your poem into strict iambic pentameter with crashing end of line rhymes and somehow overlooking the need for a volta or straitjacketing your prose poem into couplets or spending the entire discussion time on the difference between a senryu and haiku and failing to explain how this is relevant to your tanka.

Each of these commentors have fallen into the same trap: expecting the poem under review to conform to their rules for what a poem looks like and failing to consider that a sonnet may not have a strict iambic pattern or that a poem about a messy breakup shouldn’t be in couplets or that a tanka is simply a tanka.

Worse still are those workshops where the dominant voice or voices have decided that poetry needs to be poetic and can’t possibly be in that dingy alleyway that collects windblown carrier bags or drunkenly swagger home after a hazy night out or lie in the spill of oil reflecting the moon. Their poetry lies in miraculously unindustrialised farmland, in the feminine voice of a torch song or looking up at the moon, in lyrics untainted by ugly crying, a hacking cough or even swearing.

All these commentors are falling into the same trap: they are imposing their own expectations and ideas onto a poem and making it conform to their rigid ideas of what a poem should be. Instead of engaging with the poem on its own terms, they have brought their own agendas to the poem and found it lacking.

It would never occur to them that their judgment might be lacking. That breakup poem doesn’t want to be tidied into a constrictive form, it wants to be ragged and breathless and spilling on the page. That tanka is never going to be compressed into a haiku. Sonnets need a volta, but even Shakespeare had to reinvent the rhyme scheme because English lacks the access to rhyming words that Italian has.

Reviewers can fall into this trap too. They’ll express disappointment that the butler wasn’t the killer or that the couple spent their honeymoon feeding the homeless instead of taking up the offer of a room in a castle overlooking Lake Como or that Neo fell the first time because if he really was The One, he wouldn’t fail. It won’t have occurred to them that against a weighty canon of literature, writers need to take risks to stand out, to surprise, to produce a different story that will be remembered after the book is finished.

Reviewers have to ditch their preconceptions, engage with the book under review on its own terms and establish whether it succeeds or fails. Sometimes, particularly for reviewers who don’t get a choice over what they review, that means being open to different approaches and accepting that literature is best written by non-conformists.


One Response to “Reviewers must not have an Agenda”

  1. Poetry Blog Digest 2022, Week 50 – Via Negativa Says:

    […] Emma Lee, Reviewers must not have an Agenda […]

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