I’ve been diligently (intermittently) writing three poetry book reviews.
Fortunately, all three collections contain some very fine poetry, and I’ll be glad to have them on my shelf to return to when the reviews are finished. When I write a review I jump straight in, reading through each poem and jotting notes by hand. Then I’ll open a word document and begin the long process of refining my notes, hammering away until sentences flow, checking that meaning is clear, that repetition of certain phrases or words is avoided .
Very often I’ll read over what I’ve written only to get a nagging feeling that what I want to say has not been said well enough, that the essence of how I feel about a poem or the book as a whole has not been captured. I feel a duty to do justice to the poet’s work, to try to get to the heart of what they are saying, to do my best to capture and express what is unique about each.
In the process I try to avoid phrases that might be becoming meaningless with overuse, phrases that are difficult to substitute, such as ‘Tour de force’. I’ve noticed, reading over one unfinished piece, that I’ve used ‘delicate’ to describe a poem. But turning to the Thesaurus I can see that along with ‘exquisite’ , are ‘fragile,’ ‘flimsy,’ ‘silky’ ‘gossamer’, ‘wispy’ and so on. My brain is hurting a little this morning, but I realise I’m going to have to escape any temptation to lazily apply ‘delicate’ and decide exactly what quality I’m suggesting the poem has and why. I’ve written reviews in the past that I’ve been dissatisfied with, and I now understand it’s because I settled too easily for words which I could have interrogated more fully until I was absolutely sure that they were conveying what I meant.
So I’m learning. This is hard work, and, just as one should read contemporary poetry if one is writing poetry, I know I should read more reviews in order to get a sense of what is currently being done and what is not, what phrases are being overused and what it is possible to achieve.
I do read reviews, and have found some to be beautifully crafted and insightful. There are may ways of approaching reviewing, and I admire writers who leave space between the lines, who, rather than bludgeoning a book with statements about it’s perceived lack of skill or politically (at least to that particular reviewer) unpalatable themes, hint at these things or ask questions.
I suppose I find it harder to write about books I don’t like. If I’ve read several pages and the work seems flat or uninspiring, if the language torpid, or perhaps worse, overwrought and confusing, I really won’t want to write a review. If a book makes me wonder why I thought I liked poetry, I’d rather not go there, and since my reviewing is for pleasure, not profit, I don’t have to.
My current problem, and it’s a nice one to have, is that I admire some of the work I am writing about so much that I’m in danger of sounding gushing in my enthusiasm. Maybe this isn’t a problem at all. I’m a fan of brilliant poetry, and luckily for me, some brilliant poetry has dropped through my letter box. It only remains for me to try to explain why I think it’s brilliant, which, when things are going well and the right words are forming up on the page, I will regard as a privilege. Back to work.