Poetry reviewing is a controversial topic. Few publications review it at all, and with continually shrinking space for book reviews in general, poetry gets fewer column inches than ever, at least in print. And yet, there exists a long tradition of careful prose considerations of poetry. Just in the 20th century, there’s everything from important books of criticism by the likes of T.S. Eliot to entertaining and penetrating reviews by mid-century poet Randall Jarrell, reviews by major contemporary critics like Helen Vendler, who often writes about poetry for magazines like the Nation and the New Yorker, and essays by prolific young critics like Stephen Burt. And there is one place that poetry does get a lot of coverage—the dozens of literary magazines published in the U.S. by universities and small presses, in which young writers weigh in on all kinds of obscure new poetry titles.
Often, poetry reviewers—and publishers—are also poets, which may be because, for the most part, practitioners are the ones interested in poetry. It may also be true that writing about poetry requires a certain esoteric expertise that few have. And while you may not see tons of poetry reviews in glossy magazines, there’s an unbelievable amount of poetry criticism being written in small publications, on blogs, and elsewhere online, the subculture around poetry is thriving right now, with M.F.A. programs churning out new young poets—and new reviewers.
But 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?
I’ve been reviewing poetry for a number of years and I’m constantly asking myself these questions. As PW’s poetry reviews editor for the past four years, I’ve mostly seen my job as an ambassadorial one: I want to help bookstore buyers and interested readers figure out which poetry books to stock or buy. But I’m also a freelance reviewer for many publications, from general interest magazines like Time Out New York, where I can’t count on a poetry savvy audience, to journals like Boston Review, where I expect a highly literate reader who knows a bit about poetry. When I write for the former, I tend to explain what’s going on in a book of poems, in hopes that a reader skeptical of poetry might be swayed to buy it. I tend not to write about books I don’t think well of for general interest magazines. But when I write for the poetry-literate reader, I know I can dig a bit deeper and feel free to make the kinds of criticisms that poets will take seriously.
I’m also on the board of the NBCC, where I help judge the annual awards. For a poet, winning an NBCC award can bring a kind of attention poets rarely get. My work with the board has renewed my interest in this question about the point of poetry reviewing. For this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, the annual convention for creative-writing types, I have organized a panel on behalf of the NBCC called “The Practice and Purpose of Poetry Reviewing.” I’ve a poetry publicist (Nickole Brown of Arktoi books, formerly of Sarabande Books); a poetry book editor (Matthew Zapruder of Wave Books); an editor of a university-based literary magazine (Kevin Prufer of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing); and a poetry and reviews editor of a political and scholarly publication (Timothy Donnelly of Boston Review).
Before the panel convenes on April 7, I asked all of the panelists to share their thoughts on poetry reviews.
Poetry Reviewing: What’s the Point?
“The purpose of poetry reviewing is to keep the art of poetry alive,” says Kevin Prufer, an editor, poet, and prolific reviewer for various literary magazines. “It’s vital for our culture that we not only publish good poetry, but that we continue to sort out for ourselves what exactly good poetry is. Much of this sorting out should take place in reviews of poetry books.” According to Prufer, reviews help keep the art form healthy.
Matthew Zapruder, who selects and edits much of the poetry published by Seattle’s Wave Books, and who is also a poet, sees reviewing as a way of helping readers better understand poetry. “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,” he says. “The thoughts and insights of a perceptive, educated, interested writer who has spent a significant amount of time with the poetry can be of great help to someone who is new to the poems.”
Nickole Brown, who has worked as a publicist for poetry books for almost a decade, has a more practical take, but acknowledges that when it comes to poetry, practicality is not the top priority. “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, meaning that the reader then writes and publishes another review, a letter to the editor, or does something on a smaller scale, like mentioning the book in a status update or blog,” she says.
Do Reviews Sell Poetry Books?
In the world of prose fiction and nonfiction, one of the primary purposes of reviews is to sell books: a review in the New York Times Book Review can send people rushing into bookstores on a Sunday to grab copies of the books covered that week. But it’s not such a linear process for poetry—even when a poetry book gets covered in the NYTBR, those same book shoppers may not buy it, simply because they don’t read poetry.
Brown says, “The important thing to remember is patience—it takes time to see those results, and it’s a mistake to look at the numbers from a distributor a week after a big review comes out and think that it doesn’t make a difference.” She also points out that there are many financial benefits other than book sales that poets count on, and that reviews can help with those, too: “Sometimes a solid number of reviews may have unexpected results, such as the poet garnering good venues in which to read or teach, and it’s also helpful for the poet in acquiring more time to write better poems—those reviews can do quite a lot for fellowship and grant applications.”
Zapruder, who as an editor is highly invested in books from his house finding readers, doesn’t count on book reviews for that purpose. “The importance of reviews for book sales is overrated,” he says. “I don’t think reviews are particularly necessary to help people decide if they want to buy the book or not, since anyone who has access to the Web can Google an author and find a pretty good sampling of someone’s poems on on-line literary magazines, especially from recently published books.” Prose publishers might keep Zapruder’s words in mind when arguing over the importance of releasing free samples of books online to entice readers.
'Your Book Sucks’: Negative Reviews
Auden used to tell his protégés never to condemn a book in print. Contemporary poet and reviewer William Logan, on the other hand, relishes the chance. Some reviewers believe it’s the critic’s job to aggressively sort the good books from the clunkers. Others simply choose not to write about the bad books and to praise the good ones. Our panelists are on both sides of this fence.
Negative reviews, according to Prufer, are very important. “Negative reviews help poetry. We articulate our values about any art as strongly by saying why an example might fail as we do by praising successes,” he says. But he also points out that negative reviews are uncommon: “I conducted an informal poll of poetry reviews and found that 92% of them were entirely positive, with not one note of criticism. Yet I know that 92% of poetry books published today are not masterpieces.”
Zapruder is vehemently against negative reviews, and, in fact, is essentially against the reviewer expressing an opinion: “I’m not interested in the reviewer’s opinion about the work, especially if it comes from some unspoken locus of aesthetic authority. The point of view of one critic is particularly important to maintaining aesthetic standards and getting poets to write better. Reviews aren’t for writers, but for readers.”
“I’m of the school that no publicity is bad publicity,” says Brown. “If a book is worth its salt, it’s going to attract attention, good and bad. A scathing review might temporarily wound the writer’s ego, but if it’s bad enough, it might incite readers to pick up the book and judge for themselves.”
Donnelly, who edits in-depth, multipage considerations of poetry collections for Boston Review, pointed out that for negative reviews to work, they need to be smart: “When I read a scathing, thinly veiled ad hominem attack, or a prolonged act of self-aggrandizing cleverness at another’s expense, or a condemnation of a single book for the bigger tendency—or tradition—that it would seem to represent, I tend to think negative reviews are ultimately embarrassing and ruinous for everyone, no matter how exciting they might be to read or gossip about. But when a reviewer manages to point out a book’s shortcomings evenhandedly, with care and dignity, and with an eye to raising the bar a little higher for readers and for writers, too—that’s another story. I’d love to see more reviews like that,” he says.
Where to Find Good Poetry Reviews
Though there’s lots of disagreement on the purpose of poetry reviews—and on the purpose of poetry—there’s no shortage of poetry coverage, if you know where to look. Our panelists cite publications that range from this magazine and Library Journal to indie book reviewers like Rain Taxi and American Book Review or blogs like Beatrice. You might also Google Ron Silliman’s blog (ronsilliman.blogspot.com) and the Constant Critic (constantcritic.com). You’ll find reviews that keep poetry vital, as well as reviews that enrich the reader’s experience of poetry—often doing both at the same time.