Writing Advice: Poetry Reviews
by Stella Backhouse
Ever thought of reviewing a poetry collection? If you haven’t, why not give it a go? It’s a really interesting intellectual exercise, it develops your analytical and writing skills and the results will be welcomed by Here Comes Everyone (or any other website) and by the poets whose work you’re helping to promote. But what makes a good review? I’ve been asked to put together some tips, which I’ve listed below. In writing them, I’ve made the assumption that if you’re sufficiently interested in poetry to be thinking of writing a review, you’ll already know what kinds of things you need to include in terms of a collection’s themes, style, structure, inspirations and language. What I’ve tried to do is show you how to organise all that into something that readers will actually read. Because a review that gets read is, in my opinion, the best review of all.
1. What’s the point?
Reviewing is a uniquely parasitic art form. Put bluntly, it’s writing about someone else’s writing. So what’s the point? Why doesn’t the reviewer simply let the source material speak for itself and then bog off and write their own damn poetry? In fact, most poets welcome reviews because they raise awareness, and may lead to increased book sales and performance opportunities. The reviewer’s role is to act as a bridge between poet and public, explaining what the poetry is about and how best to appreciate it. There is, of course, always a risk that you’ll misinterpret the poet’s intentions – but reading poetry is a subjective experience and poets know that. If you remain respectful and support your views with evidence, they are still valid.
2. What style should I aim for?
Basically, the choice is between essay and journalism. I would strongly advocate the latter. This is because writing an essay may lead you to adopt an overly-academic style – and that’s not a reader-friendly style. Journalism, on the other hand, is all about immediacy, entertainment, everyday language and addressing the reader directly. All these tend to promote reader engagement, and reader engagement is what you want. You won’t be helping the poet whose work you’re reviewing if you can’t keep readers reading.
3. How do I start?
Before you can keep readers reading, you’ve got to get readers reading. Your opening line is your best chance to pull them in, so you’d better be sure it’s got impact. Tantalise them with the promise of secret knowledge; reel them in with an anecdote; intrigue them with an opinion that challenges received wisdom. All these are good starts, but don’t over-egg them. Move swiftly on to show how they relate to the collection under review.
4. How do I maintain momentum?
By thinking of your readers. Lead them through your work. Anticipate the questions that what you’ve already said might have raised in their minds. Use those questions to end your paragraphs, then go on to answer or develop them in the next paragraph. Don’t distract readers from your core argument with irrelevances, unnecessary digressions of unclear destination, or questions you forget to answer. Readers will look for your answer. And while they’re scouring the text for something they think they’ve missed, they’re not concentrating on your core argument.
5. This collection is a work of genius!
Super! But the reviewer’s job is not to tell readers what to think. Instead, a good reviewer credits their audience with enough intelligence to make up their own minds. My own preference is to give a flavour of what the collection is about, suggest interpretations and highlight the methods the poet uses to achieve their objectives. Readers can then decide for themselves whether this is a poet whose work they’d like to investigate further.
6. Can I write about myself?
Absolutely – as long as what you say relates to what you’re reviewing. It’s fine to talk about your reactions to the poems, both emotionally and intellectually, or to relate (briefly) a relevant personal experience. I’d even go as far as to say it’s desirable: it humanises and demythologises both the poetry and the review and brings them closer to the reader. And the poet will be interested to learn how their work affected you. However…
7. The poet remains the star.
The review is about the poet and their work, not an opportunity for you to further your own poetic ambitions. Don’t upstage the poet with non-standard adjectives or unusual stylistic flourishes. Plain language and straightforward construction keep the focus where it should be: on the poetry.
8. What if I don’t like the collection?
The power of artistic discrimination is an asset to a reviewer. On the other hand, most review sites exist to promote poetry as an art form and individual poets as exponents of that art form. They also want to maintain good relationships with poets and publishers – so for all these reasons, they prefer positive reviews. (The situation is different for national media outlets, who are large enough to withstand a possible backlash over unsympathetic reviews.) It shouldn’t be a problem; even if you don’t love a collection, you can still respect the work that went into it, and you can still write objectively on its themes and ambitions. If you’re really struggling to find positives, it’s probably best to hand over to someone else.
Having said that, there are times when reviewers need to speak up. If, for example, you believe a collection is unfair or unbalanced in its treatment of disempowered groups, it’s your duty to warn potential readers and challenge it on their behalf. I also think it’s acceptable to disagree with a poet in areas such as politics, where a plurality of views is the norm and the poet cannot reasonably expect everyone to think as they do. Don’t rule out either that the poet is being deliberately provocative and actually inviting debate.
But if you do voice disagreement, please do it respectfully. A collection of poetry is that rarest and most awe-inspiring of things: a glimpse into someone else’s soul. The poet has taken an enormous risk by letting you in. So be gentle. Be kind.
Editor’s note: If you have a specific publication in mind it is probably best, before you invest time in writing your review piece, to make contact and pitch the idea to them first. If you’re less bothered about the review finding a particular home, then dive into the writing – you can figure out where it’s going afterwards! HCE magazine is interested in content from talented reviewers – primarily focused on independent publishers/lesser-known authors and artists, but we’re willing to consider reviews that tackle the ‘bigger names’ too. (Sadly, we are currently unable to offer payment to anyone in our team. If you’re looking to earn, we recommend you shop around for other places to send your work.)