Guest Post, Andrew Galligan: A Job Program for Eighth Graders

“poem” by Pankaj Kaushal is licensed under CC by 2.0

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.

Andrew Galligan

9 thoughts on “Guest Post, Andrew Galligan: A Job Program for Eighth Graders

  • October 19, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    I appreciate that this article makes us wonder what exactly the point of a review is. They can tell us a bit about the author and subject matter and make us want to buy the book, or, in the case of the reviews cited in this article, they can make it seem like the work within is only accessible to other artists and drive other people away.

  • October 19, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve never really considered that there could be “bad” reviews. Of course, poorly written reviews and reviews that are disrespectful towards the author do exist, but your post gave me a different perspective on what a good review should do for prospect readers. I’ll definitely be paying more attention now, to see if I can catch any of the patterns you mentioned or other ones. Thanks for sharing!

  • October 19, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I can not understand the essence and the reasons of making poetry reviews. It’s too personal. The author as well as readers accept it in different ways but here comes someone who is sure to make one decision for everyone and is sure to know the truth from the roots. How is it possible?

  • October 19, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    I definitely agree with the statement, “poetry reviews written by poets are the worst,” because I took a poetry class, and it seemed that no matter how our poems were, the constructive criticism was nothing upbuilding. It was just criticism here, criticism there, and just made us feel like we had no idea that we were doing.

  • October 19, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    I found this post really amusing and refreshing! I haven’t any poetry books (yet), and now I can’t wait so I can read the reviews by other poets. Your examples made me laugh. It’s almost like the reviewers are trying to advertise themselves as poets while writing a review for someone. Also I feel like poetry is way too personal to be reviewed. What someone could consider touching and take really personal, someone might find odd and turn their noses on the idea of what a poet was writing. Yes, I understand that is how it is for books as well, but I feel like poetry is more intimate between writer and reader.

  • October 19, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    I honestly saw this headline pop up on my feedly and was wondering what it meant. I am so glad I read this piece! It was very informative and hilarious, and I love the wit. The wit always gets me.

    But in a personal stance, I took a poetry workshop class last year and we had to review everyone’s poetry week by week. I remember some of the students took it too seriously to the point where I felt that we were critiquing too much. Sometimes, poets are good at reviewing poetry – but more than 98% I’d say are horrible at it and nobody gets anywhere.

  • October 19, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    Now that I think about it, this is why I generally do not like reading reviews. I don’t understand half of what is really being said. Book jacket reviews seem to follow a guideline, making a blanket statement that really means nothing to the reader. It’s really just a platform for the who’s who in the literary world. I love the humor, but honestly, I think eighth graders could do a better job at providing the substance to persuade me to read certain poetry.

  • October 19, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head. I might add to your Linkedin analogy that a professional endorsement often tells you (the reader) that the work you are about to read is similar in style to that of the reviewing poet. For example, I read a novel for my YA lit class the other week that had an endorsement from Sarah Dessen. Sure enough, it turned out to be a very Dessenesque novel (*eyeroll*). Bad example because it’s fiction, but you get the idea.

    I’ll have to keep my eye out for poetry reviews that are concrete and substantive. I think you’re right–review writing is an art in itself.

  • October 20, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Reviews are a perplexing animal, to be sure.

    I remember when I was a child, my mother was watching the President address the public on television. I don’t recall what the purpose of the address was, and it’s not important. What I do recall is that immediately after the address, the news anchors came on and began to discuss it. My mother rose and switched the television off in disgust. When I asked her why she did that, she said, “I just listened to the man talk myself, I don’t need a group of morons to now tell me what it is that I just heard.”

    Not to say that people who write reviews are “morons” or akin to news anchor personnel, but… the idea that someone outside us can begin to tell us what we may glean from the works or speaking of another individual, is to somehow say that our own understanding lacks value. At least, this is clearly how my mother feels about it.

    I don’t generally read reviews, or pay much mind to what critics have to say. There are too many factors that muddy up the motivation and intention of any thing along those lines.

    The idea of an eighth grade review might warrant some exploration… however… having raised a few kids, and been an eighth grader myself once upon a time, while I’m sure the read would be at least entertaining, I’m not sure how useful they would be!

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