Craig Teicher posted an interesting article “What Poetry Reviews Are For (and Up Against)” on Publisher’s Weekly a couple of days ago. As he points out (as have others before him) most poetry reviews are done by poets to be read by other poets. And almost all are positive. Spotting the Snow Leopard in Central Park Zoo is statistically more likely than finding a negative review of a poetry book. So then, as Teicher goes on:
In almost any conversation on the topic of poetry reviews, one question comes up: what’s the point? This question isn’t always asked with the flippant air that actually means “who cares?” Often, people really want to know: what is accomplished by poetry reviews? Do they help sell books? Do they keep the art form in line? Do they spur writers into creating better poetry or kick bad writers out of the halls of Parnassus? Do poetry reviews help readers?
Teicher’s article includes input of three other poet/reviewers—Kevin Prufer, Matthew Zapruder, and Nikole Brown. Prufer says, “The purpose of poetry reviewing is to keep the art of poetry alive.” Zapruder adds, “The most valuable thing about a review of a book of poetry is its potential to deepen the reader’s experience of the work under consideration.” Brown goes on, “The sale of a book, while the obvious goal, isn’t the ultimate aim” of a poetry review, she says, “It’s healthier for a title when that review stimulates public conversation.”
I agree that poetry reviews are part of the conversation about poetry. For many readers, they may be the ONLY part of that conversation and their only exposure to a particular book. I do a few reviews and I read a lot of poetry reviews. Why? For me, reviews help me not only understand what a particular poet is doing, but what poetry is. This is true when I’m reading a review, and even more so when I’m trying to do one.
Another similarly interesting panel/discussion took place in 2000 and was published in Jacket Magazine. Participating this time were critics Stephen Burt, Marjorie Perloff, Michael Scharf and Helen Vendler. I posted a few of their comments below but the discussion in its entirety is worth a read.
Stephen Burt: Poetry criticism might be defined as all the kinds of writing whose immediate effect is to help people read poems—poems that help us, as Samuel Johnson put it, "better to enjoy life or else better to endure it." Though the poems become part of life, as well—"part of the res itself and not about it" (Stevens). Valid tasks for criticism can include line-by-line exegeses; general introductions to formal and intellectual tools; explanations of how poems interact with other parts of culture; refutations of common fallacies or bad arguments; and even jokes. As Randall Jarrell had it, "The best critic who ever lived could not prove that the Iliad is better than 'Trees': the critic can only state his belief persuasively, and hope that the reader of the poem will agree—but persuasively covers everything from a sneer to statistics."
Helen Vendler: I think there's room for many kinds of criticism. There's room for criticism engaged in my circuit with the author, and there's room for criticism that says what the role of poetry is in the larger culture. "The most marvelous bishops of heaven," says Stevens, "are those that made it seem like heaven." And the most marvelous bishops of poetry are those that made it seem so. It's rare to find that volatility and power on the page, as we all know, and we're all looking for it all the time. The fact that there are people who are recognizing poetry, whether east-coast, west-coast, south, or north, seems to me a wonderful thing. It's very nice to be handing over one's own function as a talent scout to the next generation.
Marjorie Perloff: And now I think we've become much too polite in a certain way, and so I'll go back to what Steve said and start a little argument (we might as well, right?). Steve said in his talk, "I like Rae Armantrout, I like Frank Bidart, I like so-and-so." I find myself asking, "Why?" I don't know what that means to like some of those people you listed. I think it's too tolerant. Great art and great criticism have never been tolerant. Was Milton tolerant? Was Goethe tolerant? It's not up to artists and in that case their critics to say "Gee, everything, is great. I like this, and I also like that. And how wonderful that is."
Helen Vendler: I'm often asked why I don't often do negative reviews. Sometimes I've promised to write something and it turns out to be a negative review, but basically I don't want to write about that which doesn't attract me on the page—it's very much like being asked to talk about an incompetent singer. All you can say is the voice has no carrying power, there's no interpretative ability, there's no resonance or timbre, no dramatic excitement. All you can say is things that you miss; that doesn't seem to me an interesting kind of writing to do, I mean life is too short. It's like doing a multiple choice test: timbre, NO; carrying power, NO; interpretative talent, NO; this is just a boring kind of writing to do, whereas when something seems to be succeeding on the page, it's thrilling—and especially when it's something new and you don't know how the poet is making it happen.