Friday 12 January 2024

How to review poetry

A while ago Charles Boyle (CBeditions) noticed that a book he published which the TLS described as "an astonishing achievement" and the Literary Review described as "a masterpiece" sold fewer than 100 copies in its first year.

In ‘Next time you dive’ (or How to play a poem) from "The Friday Poem" Jon Stone "illustrate[s] what he thinks we need to do to broaden the readership of poetry"

Helena Nelson has a piece in the same issue. In "Are poetry reviews pointless?" she writes "First, I want to test out Stone’s theory that I can profitably respond to a set of poems as “toys”. Second, I want to review a book in a non-typical way, avoiding “florid” terms and a standard evaluative stance."

When I read a book, I write it up online. I used to try the odd review-style write-up - I keep a list of longer poetry reviews online. Nowadays my write-ups are mostly jottings. I posted a write-up each Wednesday and Saturday, which used to match my reading speed. Now that I'm reading (and listening to) more books, I'm filling up future Wed/Sat slots so fast that I'm up to April 2025. So to slow myself down I think I'll try to write some reviews again.

Rather than toys, I think I react to poems as if they were disposable alien technology - if I don't understand what a part does, I remove it to see what happens, or re-assemble the pieces. Biologists try to understand DNA that way sometimes. However, I have a feeling that I might end up writing similar reviews to before, "fun to play with" becoming a substitute for "good" when describing a poem.

When a new art form (e.g. Cubism) emerges, at first people don't know how to react. There are many individualistic responses. Many will be resistant to change, pointing out how the new work lacks what old, familiar works have. Before too long, collective experience will come to a broad consensus about an interpretative framework. That framework can become too rigid though - a new orthodoxy that fails to keep up with new ways of looking. So let's see what happens if things are shaken up.

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