The Problem of Reviewing Poetry

reviewing poetry - notebook

Someone asked me the other day how long it takes to write a review, and it occurred to me that the amount of time and effort spent on reviewing a poetry collection goes far beyond common sense. Fiction is easy in comparison. A novel feeds slowly into your mind in plot form, with characters and subplots, ideas and comparisons already made and constructed in such a way that your subconscious does most of the work behind the scenes. You read, and then you write about what you’ve read. Simple.

Not so with poetry. I find myself taking a deep breath, and setting aside a period of uninterrupted time as I open up a new poetry collection, ready for an adventure as yet entirely unknown. It is better, often, to just delve in and begin to read, without glancing through the carefully crafted quotes on the back, or reading the blurb. Poetry is best taken neat – without any pre-conceptions. I look at the quotes later on, to see if they match up with what I’ve discovered. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

It is like putting together a 3D jigsaw in your mind, admiring each piece individually, yet constantly searching for the best way to fit them together. It makes you wonder what the editor’s thought processes were, why certain poems were included, and what they wanted you, as a reader, to see. It is a slow, looping process, as your brain makes connections one by one, building up a plot of sorts, with its own internal subplots and characters.

So why put in so much effort for something so subjective, so insubstantial? In some ways this is like the ultimate game for poetry lovers – a bit like a murder investigation, but with poems rather than suspects and an idea instead of a murderer. You get an adrenaline rush, as you dive into the poems one by one, pushing towards something that may be entirely subjective and unique, or exactly in line with what other reviewers have said – you never know which way it will go.

Not only that, it’s also the perfect way to hone your craft as a poet, as you begin to see patterns and traces, training your mind to seek out intentions and assess their success. Did that poem shock you? Why? Did that one pull you in and spit you out again?

It could well be no more than a coincidence, a passing phase, but since I have begun to review poetry collections I have had my own poems published. I have also become more confident in my own poetic judgements. If I don’t like something, I can say so. If I don’t think something works, then perhaps it doesn’t work. I’ve begun not only to listen to my inner muse, but also to agree with it, and to stop arguing back.

So I urge poets everywhere to challenge themselves. Take a brand new poetry collection, with its intriguing cover and title, try not to look at the quotes on the back, set aside at least an hour of uninterrupted time, away from distractions, imagine you are the first person to read this book, make notes as you go, and turn your musings and wonderings into a review. It doesn’t matter whether you are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It doesn’t matter if you have to stop and look up a word in the dictionary or google an obscure reference to an ancient myth. And it doesn’t matter if it takes you days or even weeks, to transform your thoughts into something cohesive and readable. It will become a process, an exploration into the unknown, and you will come out of it a better poet than when you began.