A few brief thoughts on Poetry Reviewing

What constitutes a good poetry review? Are many reviews simply uncritical PR exercises and if so, are they bad for poets and for poetry?

I’m very new to writing poetry reviews myself, but I’ve written some a couple for Sphinx, which I found both challenging and enjoyable, and one or two for this blog. I’m writing some for a print magazine at the moment, so I’ve been thinking about how to be a good reviewer. Looking around on-line I found this interview with poet-critic Joan Houllihan in Contemporary Poetry Review. I was interested in Houllihan’s comments which I found  expressed my own feelings on the subject.
So  I’ve paraphrased and set out some of her statements in a sort of list of criteria for looking at and evaluating poems. Interestingly Houllihan also considers the qualities of the ideal reader. I hope to add to this list in time and would welcome any thoughts at all on the subject of reviewing poetry.

  1. Is the poem interesting?  If so, I’ll keep reading, and in that reading I’ll make other evaluative judgments; for example
    a) a poem can’t be interesting if it’s confusing (though it can be interesting if it’s mysterious)
    b) can’t be interesting if it’s pedantic (but can be if it’s intellectually challenging)
    c) can’t be interesting if it’s sentimental (but can be if it evokes emotion)
    d)  can’t be if it’s merely clever (can be if it’s original)
    e) can’t be if it’s predictable (can be if it’s surprising)So that one question: Is it interesting? Carries with it a lot of evaluative possibilities.
  2. What qualities should the ideal reader (me) have?a) Loves the art of poetry itself, not just individual poems.
    b) Is well-read, and not just in poetry (I’m working on this one).
    c) Meets the poem on its own terms, that is, without prejudice as to its form, content, style   and unfolding.
    d)  Enjoys being intellectually and emotionally challenged.
    e)  Is drawn to mystery but put off by obscurity.
    f)  Is thrilled by masterful writing of any kind, that is, by the way a line is constructed, how it  moves, word choice, syntactical grace.
    g) Likes to learn something new (in craft or content)
    h) Wants to be at least as engaged in a poem as in a successful magic act.Going back to the question of ‘Is the poem confusing?’ This is a big one for me. I’ve stopped short of hurling books at the wall, but I dislike being confused by poems.  As stated in 1a), mystery is a different thing.

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