Poetry reviewing and the art of dullness
Reviewing poetry is hard, harder probably than any other kind of reviewing. With fiction, there are (usually) characters and a plot to provide a starting point. With history, ecology, or economics, there are versions and theories to question and critique. Poetry, more concentrated, more opaque, tends to present problems for even seasoned reviewers. As a result, a new collection of poems is quite likely to receive a “Clayton’s” review, the review you get when you’re not getting a review – the kind of criticism Osbert Sitwell used to describe as “hedging” (as opposed to “ditching”).
A rough checklist of dos and don’ts for the “Clayton’s” poetry reviewer might run something like this:
- Omit any introductory and concluding frame.
- Quote the poetry extensively but provide minimal context.
- Avoid coming to grips with a particular poem or poems.
- Mention famous (preferably famously obscure) contemporary poets, gesturing vaguely towards the poet or poets under review.
- Don’t attempt any “sample analysis” of the poetry.
- Don’t risk a judgement on the quality of the work.
- Whatever you do, never mention the “T” word; discussion of poetic technique makes everyone uncomfortable.
Reviewers who follow these instructions can be sure of filling the required space without informing, challenging, or offending anyone. They can also be sure that few readers will finish the review – except of course for the poet or poets in question.
The dull poetry review is by no means an exclusively local problem. In his recent memoir, My Life, the doyen of German literary critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, describes poetry reviewing in German newspapers. It is, he claims, “often thorough and scholarly” but contains “a fatal flaw”: the reviews are “rather boring”. And the main reason for this, he concludes, is that “without text examples (and indeed many of these) poetry criticism has no point. Yet frequently it is precisely the quotations that impair the readability of the reviews.”
Is there a cure? Not an infallible one, but looking over pieces by some of our own liveliest and most thoughtful poetry reviewers – such as Emma Neale, Heather Murray, James Brown, and Hugh Roberts – a few safeguards against cagey blandness and dull evasiveness do suggest themselves.
- Quote pertinently and discriminatingly.
- Provide a focus, particularly if it is an omnibus review about a number of poetry collections.
- Use a general proposition or an ongoing metaphor to set up a sharp frame for the review.
- Be bold in approaching the poems; pussyfooting around is a waste of space.
There is no reason why reviews of poetry should be boring. We expect our poetry to be interesting; we should expect the same of our poetry reviewing.
Harry Ricketts & Bill Sewell
A farewell – and a thank you
Bill Sewell and I sketched out this editorial together last December. As many readers will already know, Bill, who was suffering from cancer, died on 29 January. Before he died, he asked me to include the following “footnote” to the editorial; I have left it exactly as Bill wrote it. There will be an obituary of Bill in our June issue. An appreciation of his poetry by Brian Turner appears on p3.
As some of our readers will already know, I have had to resign as co-editor of New Zealand Books, for health reasons. This is a decision I have come to with enormous regret, but I was becoming unreliable and tardy in my work, and it was time to depart.
New Zealand Books has been a major and fulfilling part of my existence for exactly five years now, as it has of my co-editor, Harry Ricketts. During that time, Harry and I have benefited from support in many quarters – but one thing we have not done publicly, and which I at least can do now – is thank each other.
Without Harry, I would never have become co-editor, since it was he, who on being invited to be editor in late 1997, suggested that we work together. It was a suggestion that I readily accepted, since I had worked happily with Harry before, and, with our previous experience in different kinds of publishing, I believed we were well placed to take the baton from our predecessor, Colin James.
It has proved to be a most successful collaboration – helping to turn New Zealand Books into an attractive, rigorous, eclectic, non-ideological (as far as that is possible), professional journal, devoted above all to excellence in review and essay writing. This would not have been possible without Harry’s flair, industry, rigour, sense of humour, his love of good cricket and poetry, and of bad puns, and his uncommon good sense. Thank you, Harry, for the last five years. I know that New Zealand Books remains in the very best of hands.