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Saturday, 30 November 2013

THE PROBLEM WITH MOST BRITISH POETRY REVIEWS

When you read a film review in a newspaper or magazine, from The Guardian to Sight & Sound, a few things are assumed: one, the reader and the critic are both concerned with the same issue - is it a good film the reader may enjoy - should she go see it?  Two, they both generally agree on how to evaluate that key question of going to see the film.  The film will be discussed in terms of story, plot, acting, directing, and, if it is a more intellectual review, the camerawork and mise-en-scene; perhaps theme or genre will also be discussed.  The movie may be put into the broad context of other similar films (as in, the new Carrie film compared to the first adaptation by Brian de Palma).

The reader may then decide to go see the film, and they may either feel that the critic's three stars were too few, or too many.  But they will understand, broadly, that the critic did a fair job, and was acting, as one person communicating clearly to another.  Now, whenever someone reviews a poetry book in Britain, there is no such understanding between the reader and the critic.  Firstly, the issue of whether it is a good book the reader may enjoy may not even be broached, for reasons to be mentioned in a moment; and, secondly, the language used to discuss the poetry in the book, and the terms and elements focused on, may not be ones shared between critic and reader.  This is not the fault of any one person, but there is no agreed general critical spectrum or apparatus for even a popular mainstream poetry review anymore in the UK, perhaps anywhere.  Instead, every time a critic reviews a poetry book, they must build from scratch, their own jerry-rigged critical structure, for they cannot assume the reader will share any common ground.

This leads to a vicious circle of confusion.  Readers who are more interested in experimental, post-structuralist poetry and poetics may not pay attention to the lyric voice or narrative enjoyments of a poet; and, a reader who enjoys light, rhyming verse may simply not be able, or willing, to celebrate complex modernist, and late modernist, styles and strategies in other books.  More vitally, there is no agreed canon of new books and poems to easily refer to.  A film reviewer can cite any of a thousand films made since the 1920s and most people will know something about them, from Scarface to Jaws, Vertigo to Citizen Kane.  Few if any readers of poetry reviews will know any poems beyond the GCSE/A levels required figures - Heaney, Hughes, Larkin, Armitage, Duffy, Auden, Eliot, and perhaps Yeats, Plath, and Tennyson.

Maybe a few more. Because there is no academic, critical, or public, agreement on either the best critical terms and tools to use to evaluate a poem, or which poets should be read, still, or for the first time, each review becomes its own act of special pleading. Reviews of poetry, then, have become a special sort of rhetorical act, a bit like preaching to mute, invisible strangers on a desert island.  One cannot imagine them, but must somehow sell them some good soul potion they may not want or comprehend; reviews therefore are often entertaining, feisty, contentious, and even overly informative (going over old ground to establish some that is common); but too often they end up being cosy, uncritical, and even vague.

Sometimes, the poet under review gets either the blame or the praise for techniques and effects they are hardly responsible for.  Some poets are praised for their rhyme, form, or their metaphor, with little explanation that poetic language often has such things built into it.  What is to be done?  I don't know.  But until we establish a common language for critical popular discussion of poetry, we won't be able to do much more each time we begin a review than reinvent the wheel; the question remains - should critics encourage readers to "go see" the good poetry, or not?
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