Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why Write Reviews?

As you can see, the title of this blogpost asks a straightforward question. Sadly, the answer may not be so straightforward.

The question arises, however, from a recent review of my own pamphlet Gaud, where the very thoughtful and often sharp-eyed reviewer finds himself puzzled by a poem called 'Serial Killer Review'. This is actually a found poem of sorts, which does not name its various sources - primarily in order to save their blushes. Among other things, it's a parody of poetry reviews, or rather of the kind I saw a lot of when I first started reading poetry magazines: all vague benevolence, no intellectual clout. I wrote that poem quite a while ago, and I have to say that the reviewing I have been encountering recently, especially from young poets and on-line, has much more interesting things to say. That goes for Paul McMenemy's review of Gaud as well, I should add.

Writing for Sabotage, where I also publish reviews, McMenemy wonders if this poem is making an argument 'for the redundancy of all criticism: poems – works of art in general, perhaps – are too personal, perhaps too irrational to be subject to criticism at all, and to attempt to do so is as nonsensical as to attempt to review an act of violence.' My initial reaction to this would be to say that the poem isn't making an argument at all, but is rather being a poem. Unpopular though it is, I believe very strongly that art does not take positions, make arguments, or propose a thesis. This may sound disingenuous from someone who is often told his work is 'political' in some way. But if I wanted to do make an argument, I'd write an essay or a blogpost (like this one) and tell you what I thought.

My preferred way of looking at poetry (and all art) owes much to what Niklas Luhmann had to say on the subject. Namely, that art is not the world, but that it implies the world; it lives from that tension between being something other than reality and at the same time forcing us to see reality in relation to it. So, a poem like 'Serial Killer Review', which is really more of an extended joke, if I'm honest, does at least have the virtue (I hope) of making us ask the question about the value of poetry reviews. It doesn't offer an answer to that question, or even formulate the question in any direct way, but it does attempt to open a space where a number of ideas are in play. The poem itself doesn't really have anything definitive to say on the matter in hand, has no message or judgement to impart.

However, I do have something to say about reviews and the purpose of writing them (this is me speaking now, not my poem). And, it goes like this.

There are five reasons, for me, to spend time writing reviews:

1. To get free books.

Okay, the amount of time and effort you put into a review more or less cancels that argument out, especially when you are doing it for the love. Still, free stuff is still (on some level) free stuff.

2. To shape taste.

This is not a strong point for me, as my taste is pretty omnivorous and I have no doctrinaire commitment to a vision of what 'real' poetry should be or is. Still, if you feel strongly about what is good and want to encourage those poets who share that feeling, and want to encourage readers to share it too, reviewing is one way to try to do that.

3. To be in the right.

We all like to be in the right, I suppose, and reviewing does bestow on the writer a certain position of authority. It's their place to judge, after all - their opinion is what counts. If only until the end of the review.

4. To be part of the scene.

In the increasingly inter-connected world of Twitter, Facebook and so on, reviewing can also be a great way of getting to know people. You review their book, they get in touch and say thank you. That's a nice feeling, too. Although, the awkwardness of encountering someone whose work you've been unpleasant about in the relatively small scene of poetry would be considerable. There is a solution to this, however. I think that there's something interesting to say about most books, even if they are not to my taste. So, the reviewer can talk about those interesting things, even while being critical of other aspects. If that criticism is precise and well-founded, no offence need be taken. Really, it's about meeting the book on its own terms.

5. To be a better reader.

There is a lot to read, let's face it, and not so much time to read it in. Because the books a reviewer receives are generally not ones s/he has chosen, the process forces you to engage with material that can sometimes be quite far from what you would normally buy yourself. If you are taking into account some of what I said in point 4 above, then you will be trying to meet the book on its own terms, trying to see where it is coming from, trying to see whether it lives up to its own ambition (it surely must have some). This means reading, re-reading, a fair amount of travelling around with the book in your bag or walking about the house with it under your arm. The reviewer is trying to make sense of an experience, the experience of reading, which in other circumstances is easy to pass over. We read one book, open another, often we don't give ourselves time to think. Reviewing makes you give yourself that time, and that is a pleasure. As for the audience, the best you can hope is that a person who reads the review seeks out the book and develops their own relationship with it, perhaps even informed by your own experience, and that this relationship will go beyond the superficial as well.

Frankly, what counts for me is point 5 in the list. Maybe that doesn't justify reviewing as a practice, since this only makes it a public service to a limited extent. Still, in a world where so many good books have few readers, the fact that they get a few really attentive ones - the reviewers - seems valuable enough in itself.


  1. I’ve never had a review reviewed before, as far as I know. I agree with your reasons for reviewing, and the relative importance you place upon them. I suppose a sixth reason might be to have the writer you are reviewing read the review and hopefully find it in some way useful.

    One of the difficulties in reviewing is that one can never be certain that one’s interpretation of a poem coincides with the poet’s intention; this does not necessarily matter – especially if the poet is content to have a poem simply “be a poem”. I did say that the “argument” you quote was only one of a number of ways in which one might interpret the poem, and presumably not the intended one; nonetheless it immediately suggested itself to me on reading.

    I do wonder about the “poem being a poem” line of thought. It seemed to me that some of your other poems had fairly specific points of view – for instance, have I completely misread ‘Sword Swallowing for Beginners’? True, this is not necessarily the same thing as an “argument”, but the term is often used when describing the general point of view expressed in an artwork without implying a step by step rhetorical strategy. I also described this issue of the value of criticism as “one of the questions raised” by your work; you say something very similar yourself, above. Raising a question implies an argument (not necessarily the endorsement of that argument, but certainly the argument's existence). I agree that one writes a poem for very different reasons than one writes an essay, and to say to oneself “I am going to write a poem on Subject A, in which I make points 1, 2 and 3” is not the best way to go about things. On the other hand, to see a poem as an inscrutable artefact, the motivations behind the creation of which are unknowable, and the interpretation of which is moot, is not helpful either. And it makes criticism, upon the value of which we agree, impossible.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Paul. I found your review immensely useful on a number of levels. Primarily because it made me think about my stance on the relationship between poetry and its interpretation, and about the review process in light of that relationship. I wouldn't say I was really trying to review your review, and I hope you don't feel that I mis-represented you. As I said, I felt you had written a considered and interesting piece.
    One thing that does fascinate me about the experience of my poems being out there in the world is that readers (okay, such readers as I have) are always telling me what my poems mean. That is to say, they want to share with me what the poems mean to them, which is a humbling and also sometimes perplexing experience. I tend to agree with them that they have understood it correctly, although sometimes the writing of the poem lies years in the past and I've not especially thought about it for a long while. I've had similar experiences myself with authors I've met in my line of work - I find that it's especially novelists who quite often forget the detail of what they have written! I guess this doesn't mean there was never any authorial 'intention', but I think that is a fairly nebulous thing and can only ever be constructed after the fact even by the author themselves. A good portion of it may even unconscious, of course. At least since Freud we have known that we don't always mean precisely what we think we mean.
    So, I suppose I would disagree with you that the motivation for creation can be 'knowable'. Also, I think that to make the link between interpretation and 'knowing' the motivation is problematic. In the above you seem to imply that we need to 'know' what the author meant in order to arrive at an interpretation of the poem which is not 'moot', and which we can all agree on. Poems can be inscrutable, but they don't have to be. Hopefully, they allow the reader to make meaning with them, but I don't think we need to know what the poet wanted the poem to mean for that to happen. In my own reviewing, I'm most interested in how that process of meaning-making happened in my own experience. Read in conjunction with the text, this can perhaps allow other readers an enriched experience on making their own meanings.

  3. Thank you very much for the reply, David. It has, with your original post, made me think about how I read poetry. I suppose the basic point I was making was that, although we agree that a reader’s interpretation of a poem is something outside the poet’s control (to some extent), your response was prompted by what you felt to be my misinterpretation – or overinterpretation – of one of your poems. In my comment I did not mean to imply that it is essential to know exactly what made a poet write a poem, or to have a definitive author’s reading of it. However, through the act of interpretation we as readers cannot help but ascribe an intention to the poet or poem, otherwise we are not really engaging with it critically. We participate in a process of reconstruction, without necessarily being conscious of the fact. Perhaps this is a problem with how I understand poetry, or at least, perhaps other people understand it differently, but it seems to me to be difficult to describe a poem critically whilst using entirely passive language. Perhaps one should not say, “The poet/poem is trying to.../is arguing.../means..., etc.”, but to simply say “The poem contains these elements...” and confine oneself to talking about technical qualities does not seem very useful. I realise that other readers will read your poems differently from me, and some might entirely disagree with my interpretations; nonetheless, if I do not record these interpretations, which are the justifications for the position I take as a reviewer (i.e. whether I like the collection or not) I would end up writing the sort of bland, useless criticism you satirise in the poem.