Searching for the ‘right’ word

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.


  1. This post reminded me of my father to whom the right word mattered a great deal. He would spend hours poring over the Oxford, Webster and Larousse dictionaries and Roget’s Thesaurus. It was from him I learned how much pleasure could be found in words and the importance of saying what you really mean, rather than something in the region of what you mean.


  2. Thanks Lesley, what a gift you inherited. I was fortunate to be brought up in a house where the dictionary would be consulted regularly. Writing poetry for the last ten years or so has expanded my vocabulary and educated me in other ways. I do find reviewing a particular challenge, since it seems so easy to slip into vague platitudes and cliché.


  3. I found this fascinating. It would seem that writing a review demands the same degree of precision as what you’re hoping for in the work you’re reviewing. Unfortunately writing a review in the form of a poem might be going too far.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this post, Roy. I’d like to write reviews but my fear of failing to get it right deters me. It might be a case of the more you write, the better you’ll get at it and it’s something I’m going to try to do more of next year. Looking forward to reading yours! 🙂


  5. Thanks Josephine. Fear of failure stops me doing quite a few things but reviewing isn’t one of them. My confidence does falter occasionally, as when I received these three books and thought ‘how on earth am I going to do this.’ But of course you are right , practice does help and I’ve written for Sphinx, Hinterland, Critical Survey and The Interpreter’s House and elsewhere. I’m learning as I go, and I’ve found the process very interesting and think I’m beginning to develop a style. I’ve also turned down a few opportunities to review due to lack of time, and once, because I could find absolutely nothing positive to say about a book and didn’t think it would be constructive for me to write about it. All being well the reviews I’m working on now should be in the next edition of the excellent new on-line magazine The Compass.


  6. You’ve reminded me why I’ve written the few reviews I have: to share an enthusiasm; to say: look, look, you must read this. I don’t have to be doing with that academic business of league tables of the damned and the beatified. As to the business of not saying what you thought you meant to mean…..well, yes. Every time. Every time. But if you come to recognise your own voice, the one that sounds right, and isn’t pompous or pretentious or put-on,ike one of my aunties on the phone in the 50s, you’re blessed.


  7. Enjoyed your post very much, Roy. I’ve done a few reviews and find them a struggle and they take me a long time to do … but the challenge is satisfying, in the end 🙂 I like what you say about preciseness … finding the right word… that’s helpful.


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