Poetry reviews written by poets are the worst. Of course, not ALL of them are the worst. But many of them are.
I’ve read plenty of poetry reviews, whether in-hand when picking up a new book or online when considering a purchase from a new author or the latest release of one whose work I admire. They are laudatory, very often contain sweeping flourishes of language, and may attempt serious contemplation and honest appraisal of the work inside. Some are as insightful and illuminating as a buyer would hope, but to me the body of them feels esoteric, exaggerated and, at their worst, repetitive.
To illustrate, I pulled eight books of poetry off my living room shelves. These are actual rear-cover reviews of published books of poems written by other poets (titles and author names are redacted). The first three fall into the all-too-common category of “poetry about poetry”:
- In (this book), we’re banging along the Baja of our little American lives, spritzing truth from our lapels, elbowing our compadres, the Seven Deadly Sins. Maybe we’re unhappy in a less tragic way, but our ruin requires of us a love and understanding and loyalty just as deep and sweet as any tragic hero’s.
- (She) isn’t afraid to write metaphor to test the voice – that poor arrow – or to try to write beautiful lines…A reader will be reminded of the beautiful motions of the mind
- …what a flawless understanding of gravity…this is a work of profound daring, written by a spirit deeply aware of the ultimate cost of beauty, and the endless human thirst for, and dependence upon, surfaces…
Of course a book of true poetry cannot be complete until a few additional poems are appended to its back in the form of reviews. Here’s a book of poems…since you may have some trouble understanding at first, the publishers have helped by attaching 2-4 meta-poems to explain what’s inside.
Next, when surveying the reviews I found that several writers were unparalleled and quite necessary:
- His achievement, above all, is to make something precious out of the sad jetsam of experience…No one conjures the holy ghosts of the commonplace like (him).
- One of the finest poets of this century, his work will in due course be widely recognized for its excellence.
- (this book) is the achievement of a young poet writing in the full measure of her powers.
- He is one of our premier anatomists of contemporary American life, a wildly refreshing, necessary poet.
- This is our beautiful glimpse of forever. (Her) (book) is a harrowing, necessary work.
Whoah. Better get started. Lots of required reading.
Finally, I came upon a review where the poet writes the poet-y-est thing ever:
- (This book) is an unignorable book…The feeling behind it is painful, but exquisitely so. Pain made into art or what, in another time, people called ”‘beauty”
In case you missed it, that was pain, art AND beauty. A poet’s trifecta.
Much of what you see above is just empty accolades for the writer. It’s certainly a big deal to finish a book and have it published – no dispute there. All active writers understand this challenge. But praise for the writer – dealt in spades by peers – says nothing of the content. And far too often, as we have seen, attempts at the content result in a poeticized review.
It could be the form of the review tempting poets into such impregnable, overwrought summations. A typical review is short in length and aims to address a broad body of content. Though epic strokes aren’t required, the review writer does have to deduce and distill, and in those few words represent in some way an entire work. This task is not unlike that of writing a poem – a genre set apart by focus, by its economical and muscular employment of comparative device in capturing our experiences.
The problem here of course is that a review is supposed to help someone decide to read the book. It’s a sales tactic, but a worthwhile one if executed with the reader in mind. It should supplement the impression of a work the reader gets if he or she decides to peek inside the pages for a few minutes. If the review of a professional poet is more beautiful and intricate than the work inside it purports to sponsor, the curious reader is done a disservice. How the hell could they decide in a few minutes if this book is worth their sixteen bucks?
And I am not arguing for accessibility. Though great writing is often great for the lucid simplicity of plain language (I think of James Wright), folks in the trade of language appreciate its entire spectrum. Art that confronts with mystery, curiosity and confusion mimics the experience of everyday life. Art’s logic is not that of science or philosophy or mathematics. If you’ve ever felt your gently startled body shake and settle in exhale at the end of a poem or story (or movie) that struck you, you’ve experienced this sense-making. If you want to talk accessibility, send Billy Collins a tweet.
The conventions I observed in poetry reviews affirm two things: 1) reactions captured in a particular review are often less sincere for their facile deployment of tic tacks from the toolbox of review writing, and 2) the review as a form is a mechanism not to deliver the insight and persuasion it promises a potential reader, but to document the professional connections among writers. It’s the original LinkedIn for poets. Congrats! T.S. has endorsed you for synecdoche!
Here’s the thing: that network of poets and poetry is small. Its practitioners are few, and by and large, its readers are also the practitioners. To praise poetry with poetry, I believe, is to close the circle even tighter. So that’s why I propose that eighth grade students write all reviews of published poetry. Talk about an outsider’s lens! Students at that level are equipped to elevate a sense of narrative from publishable poetry, and have a burgeoning eye for metaphor as well. They’ll skip over the parlor games and inside jokes (we all do them), and take the writing seriously so long as it can be believed. That is the best test. And the early, deliberate (paid hourly? ☺) exposure will at minimum stretch that circle of poetry a little bit wider, and get kids along with the rest of us making connections we never would have before.