I must think there is one, because I’ve been writing them for well over two decades.

I must think there is one, because I’ve been writing them for well over two decades.

Many writers and many (but not all) publishers are keen to get work reviewed, and as widely as possible, often on the principle (apparently) that all publicity is good publicity.

Certainly when a book is widely reviewed, one has the impression the work is being read and talked about. That can encourage people to join the conversation (which entails reading the book—hurrah!).

Poetry books are meant to be read, are they not? What else are they for? And having been read, there is necessarily a response.

There are many ways of communicating that response, though. The friends and acquaintances of the poet can talk to the author, send her charming letters, post appreciative notes on her FaceBook wall.

Those who don’t know the poet personally can talk to each other, mutter at reading groups, confer in conferences, natter at chatterfests.

But poetry is a difficult art. It demands (and often rewards) close reading and re-reading. It is literature. It requires a response in kind.

A poetry review offers that response, in writing, and does this artfully. A well-written response to a book of poems can be, in itself, a minor art form. It is not an easy thing to write, not easy to articulate the effect some poems have had. Countless factors come into it, not least a haunting feeling of inadequacy—perhaps because of not understanding the poems, or not picking up the references, or not knowing how to make sense of the levels of form and meaning. Sometimes a reviewer has to put the need to ‘make sense’ to one side, to read in ways she has never previously considered. As I said, poetry is a difficult art.

Nevertheless, some collections of poems stimulate wonderful responses. I have ordered many a book after reading a review—not because the review was strongly approving but because I wanted to see for myself what the poems were doing.

Most reviews of poetry are written by poets. I don’t believe only poets can write poetry reviews but I do think anyone practising this strange art (poetry, no less) should be thinking intelligently not only about what they themselves are doing in the small hours but also what their peers are up to—and I think they should attempt to articulate some of that.

Ah but . . . reviews can lead to clashes and consternation, especially in the age of instant online interaction. In terms of roles, the reviewer, inside her small review page, can say precisely what she wants. The poet cannot answer back. The reviewer is, therefore, in a position of apparent power.

If it is a position of power, it is a vulnerable one. Once a review is published, the author of that review really has stuck her neck out. She has put her mouth where the melée is. No worries if the response to the poems is broadly consistent with what others are saying (there is strength in numbers, and this may help explain the consistency often established in reviews of prize-winning volumes). If, however, the response in the review is radically different from the common crowd, it can be the reviewer who looks silly. Or foolishly brave.

Sometimes poets are upset by reviews. Critical comments about their work feel personal—of course they do. Sometimes they sound personal too (I said reviews can be a minor art form, but they can also be a minor disaster) and once published, it is too late. The neck is out there. The poet is upset. The tweets are twittering.

Many actors choose not to read reviews of plays. Poets can do the same. Or—they can inhabit the attire they have chosen for themselves—words. Words are a means of communication. Communication invites a response. Indeed, without that response, the communication hasn’t occurred.

So writing reviews, organizing reviews, publishing reviews—this is the other side of the process—a necessary and under-appreciated side. It could do with a bit more nurturing (who would pay for an Arvon course on review writing?) but perhaps the dedication creates its own school of honour.

Reviewer wanted. No remuneration (for the most part), no kudos, no ‘how to’ books, no tuition, no annual dinner. Opportunities to misquote, misread, make mistakes and enemies. Apply in writing, enclosing CV, to. . . .

Applicants are still far more likely to be male than female, though (in my Sphinx experience) female reviewers are more likely to return reviews on time and far less likely to abscond. What does that say about us?

[More female reviewers are needed for the next Sphinx review round, which is about to commence. High-risk sports, they say, are increasingly popular. Contact nell@happenstancepress.com if you feel like sticking your neck out.]


  1. “The poet cannot answer back” – unless the review’s on a blog like “Ink Sweat & Tears” for example.

    For a short while Acumen ran competitions for reviews. I think the National Book Critics Circle still does. The writers group I go to had a session about writing reviews – notes are online at http://litrefsarticles.blogspot.com/2010/08/writing-book-reviews.html . It says there that Byron became obsessed by the idea that Keats died from a burst blood vessel after receiving a savage review in “The Quarterly”. No pressure then.

    “Critics, Ratings and Society : The Sociology of Reviews”, Grant Blank, 2007 is a “full-length study of reviews”. I’ve only seen reviews of it.

    On http://www.a-l-kennedy.co.uk/index.php/author-reviews AL Kennedy reviews the reviews she’s received.

  2. I didn’t mention some poets reviewing their own books either….

    And despite Ink etc, I’m inclined to believe the default position of not answering back is the wisest one. Answering questions is maybe another matter. I’m sorry this comment thingy doesn’t allow you to leave a name. I can’t remember why it doesn’t — something to do with the fact the blog is hosted inside the HappenStance site, so for your name to appear (which I think it technically possible) you have to log in. I must do something about this….

  3. Nell, I am currently reading ‘ Now All Roads Lead to France’ by Matthew Hollis, which compellingly explores the last years of the poet and critic Edward Thomas. It seems from this account that for Thomas reviewing was an art in which’…the true cause, he believed, is better served by an uncompromising ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ than by an amiable ‘All are welcome’. Hollis understands trespassers to be ‘the pompous, the incompetent, the insincere, the unskilled, the tone deaf’ and believes that Thomas was qualified to pursue such failings in others because he despised them in his own work. By writing uncompromising and skill-full articles it seems that Thomas brought integrity and weight to the art of reviewing.
    Good poets do not necessarily make good reviewers and those motivated by anything other than an interest in the words in-front of them will not write good reviews. It seems to me that the art of reviewing may require a combination of talent, craft, bravery, and not least a desire to do justice to poetry itself.

  4. Nell,
    I think we should organize a Salon, some sort of annual dinner for reviewers, why the hell not? And we can wear silly made up badges and make outrageous toasts. I’m up for it if you are!

  5. Poets have always been able to answer back by writing a letter. In the few years I reviewed I received only one such and luckily the poet was very kind. He thanked me for letting the poems speak for themselves, something I did by quoting extensively. This has two advantages: it helps the reader decide whether the selections put before him are worth following up by reading the whole book and it cuts down the number of words the reviewer needs to write. Too many reviewers quote next to nothing, sometimes nothing, from the poems themselves.

  6. Well, writing a letter is something the poet does sometimes (from my own experience) when pleased with the review. When vastly un-pleased, it tends to be the editor who gets the letter (I’ve had a number of these). And these days, the un-pleased have other places they can also post their displeasure. But I think writing to thank someone, or even to explain something, is not the same as ‘answering back’, which I think I meant in connection with critical (rather than appreciative) comment.

    And though I said the poet doesn’t get to answer back, that of course is not entirely true. I have seen extended interactions in the letters pages of magazines, many of which would have been better never undertaken. The wise poet, in my view, keeps stumm.

    I suppose I think once poems are released into the wild (which is what happens when they are published) they are grown-up and must be allowed to fend for themselves. If someone misinterprets them radically, or finds something ill-judged or distasteful or superficial or obscure, that must be their privilege. With a bit of luck, someone else will correct the balance (another reason why Sphinx does three reviews).

    Regarding the issue of quoting — I have mixed feelings. I am not keen on reviews that are more full of quotation than reviewer. I do want to know what the reviewer thinks and how he or she has reacted. And sometimes there isn’t enough space to do that and quote substantially. More than once, I have found myself particularly enjoying a review that has very few (if any) quotations. So I think it’s hard to generalise about this — and different reviewers also have different styles.

    But there are no absolutes in these things, and I go back to the idea that writing the review at all is a matter of dedication and honour, and at its best a minor art form.

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