There’s been a bit of chat recently on Twitter about critical review culture in poetry. Ben Wilkinson says “Too many poet-critics are afraid to offer honest assessments for career reasons … the Booster Club might serve ‘careers’ in an insular sort of way, but it does the art no favours.” He asks for reviewers who “recognise and enact the difference between a review and a piece of literary criticism, writing with flair, wit and, dare I say it, not afraid to occasionally ruffle a few feathers”.
In response we thought we’d publish part of the guidelines we send to prospective reviewers. It’s early days but we hope that The Friday Poem offers an alternative to what Ben calls “blurbese”.
The Friday Poem Reviewer Guidelines
As a reviewer you have a responsibility to approach the poet and the poetry with respect. The poet has worked hard to produce this poetry and it deserves a fair hearing. Praise the good. Respond constructively. The poet also needs to hear what you don’t like, what you think doesn’t work, where you think they have failed in their project. Write what you would say directly to the poet. Be honest. Be compassionate. Don’t be sarky, clever clever, or dismissive.
You also have a responsibility to your readers. Write clearly. Don’t use jargon or clichéd language. Don’t write puff. Remember, you are giving your personal opinion, not writing blurb, not writing (primarily) to show off your own skills, and definitely not handing down a verdict.
If you really don’t like the book, knock it back. If you are good mates with the poet, or the poet is currently writing a review of your book, knock it back. If you have a longstanding feud with the poet, knock it back. If you become really pressed for time and feel you won’t do the book justice, knock it back.
(TLDR: don’t be a bitch, don’t be a pushover).
American poet and essayist Alfred Corn says: Reviewers … must do two things: they have to quote generously from the text being reviewed and they have to construct arguments that are plausible, based on common sense and fresh insights into the nature of verbal communication … What’s thoroughly lame is a bald, “I love this” or “I hate this.” Opinion divorced from demonstration is nearly useless, even when stated with vehemence.
Literary critic, poet and professor of English at Harvard Stephanie (formerly Stephen) Burt says: Bad poetry, praised in high places, really distorts the sense of the art the younger generation gets; such praise, un-countered, makes it harder for new readers to like the good stuff.
The Friday Poem has an excellent team of reviewers — see our contributors section here — but we are always looking for others who will write honestly, knowledgeably, and with flair and wit about contemporary poetry. We’re not afraid of ruffling feathers, but they have got to deserve the ruffling. Contact us here if you’d like to be part of the team. And, yes, we’ve suggested to Ben that he review for us, and ruffle feathers, where appropriate — watch this space!