Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Art of the Poetry Book Review

“Musings” for December 17
The Art of the Poetry Book Review

Over the past nine months or so, I’ve written somewhere around 50 reviews of new books of poetry for Outlook and for journals like Main Street Rag and Wild Goose Poetry Review. I’d like to think that the reviews are a sort of public service, that they bring a bit more attention to good books of poetry that they help poets and bookstores sell those books, and that they help buyers of poetry know more of what to expect from a book than they would know by simply looking at the cover or reading the blurbs on the back of the book.

Those, of course, are all good things. I enjoy doing community service, and I like feeling like I’m helping others. The truth is, however, I would still write book reviews even if I didn’t believe they served any purpose for others. That might sound self-serving, but it is nonetheless true. Writing book reviews achieves four vital purposes for me as a writer: it keeps me reading; it forces me to engage meaningfully with what I’m reading; it shapes my own writing; and it gives me the opportunity to say something about poetry.

I believe it is vital, if you want to do something well, to immerse yourself in it. Thus, I try to read at least one new book of poems every week. But, as with anything that isn’t in front of my face all the time, it is easy to de-prioritize or put off that commitment in favor of mowing the grass, watching the new episode of The Amazing Race, or any of the other innumerable requests upon my time. Knowing that I’m expected to write reviews and getting requests for reviews from publishers and authors goes a long way towards keeping me reading, which is in essence the equivalent of “practice” for a writer.

Writing reviews not only keeps me reading, but keeps me reading on a deeper level than I might otherwise achieve. To write a decent review, I have to go beyond simply reading the poems. I also have to strive to understand what they say and how they say it. The task of the reviewer, I think, is not just to tell a reader whether a book of poems is good or not, but to help them understand it, or even better, to help them know how to understand it.

To do that, I have to delve into what the poet is doing and possibly even consider what I think they should be doing. I have to examine the effectiveness of the choices they’ve made in language, structure, theme, imagery, purpose, etc., and the impact those choices could have upon the reader and the world at large. In the process of evaluating their practice of poetry, I also unavoidably evaluate my own, which inevitably hones my own aesthetic, my own concepts of craft and function.

Finally, as I reflect upon what other poets do and why they do it, I participate in critical activity, that wonderful habit of asking questions and attempting answers in the light of reason and experience. The reviewer, perhaps every bit as much as the poet, makes meaning, makes, in fact, meaning-ful certain poems, certain poets, certain practices or purposes in poetry. Thus, writing reviews gives me the opportunity to say something about poetry, to exert perhaps a little bit of influence over what readers expect of poetry, to help readers read well, and maybe to even help writers write better, at least according to my own standards of quality. In other words, writing reviews might be seen ultimately as an existential act, bringing into or helping keep in existence those poems, poets, practices, and purposes I think should be pursued and preserved by clarifying, proclaiming and adding to their value.

1 comment:

  1. i strive to write book reviews that come to the level of the work you do. you are an excellent reviewer because you don't just say this is good or bad you engage with at least some aspect of the book and tell why it should be read :)