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Aspects of the Poetry Review (On Criticism #1)

written by the Judge

Attempts at describing any mode of criticism must account for the fact that said criticism will always be shaped by the object which it describes. Thus the critical industries behind film, music, literature and gaming are shaped in a way that reflects the industries of those same media and art-forms. It is exceptionally hard to speak of such a thing as ‘general criticism’; the review of a concert will of course differ from the review of an art exhibition in a way which reflects the (potentially incompatible) differences between the two arts.

Accounting for poetry criticism must therefore take into account the particular aspects that distinguish poetry from other arts – and there is probably no better point to start from than the fact that, as we all know (and at times lament), there is no money in poetry. There are what one may call superstars in the subculture, but their status is more likely to be measured by the number of times their names are mentioned in articles rather than by the number of cars in their garage.

The fact that there is no money in poetry comes with several important consequences; for one thing, it has an enormous effect on the form of poetry criticism. Lacking the sponsorship to make a living out of reviews and articles, critics can only operate out of passion and personal interest, balancing these activities with their everyday needs. This poses a number of challenges for any would-be editor: it becomes exceptionally hard to assemble a group of reviewers working together for the same platform – their specific interests and desires being driven by personal curiosity, they are less willing to conform to editorial rules and standards than someone who is paid to do so. Even harder than setting up such a hypothetical platform is the task of sustaining it for an extended period of time; any event in the personal and professional life of a critic could potentially draw him / her away from this type of voluntary work. Many would-be critics in fact start out writing enthusiastically, only to find after two or three of these unrewarded reviews that they do not have as much time as they expected to keep doing this on the long run. Even assuming a stable critical platform can be set up, it is hard to endow it with a stable critical voice – too often its members will simply come and go, meaning that the opinions and ideas held therein will change very quickly. Needless to say, the inherent instability of any critical platform means that communication between different platforms will be even more volatile.

In brief, the primary challenge posed to those who would approach poetry criticism, either as writers or as simple readers, is the lack of a cohesive, unitary critical voice or referent. Instead, the newcomer is faced with a variety of sources, each operating according to its own terms and by its own standards (and often unstable enough that even its own internal standards will demonstrate inconsistencies and variations).

This is a direct reflection of the status of poetry itself, at least as opposed to other arts. There are no stable critical platforms because the artistic platforms themselves are considerably weaker and disjointed. There is no such thing as an MTV, in poetry – a centralised space that distributes poetry according to a democratic sweep of the consumer base. Instead, there is a kaleidoscope of small and smaller independent presses, almost unfailingly run by poets, working in a very intimate relationship with their main artists. The world of poetry is fragmented into small social circles interacting with each other in a way that is unique to the art – and criticism is correspondingly fragmented into even smaller social circles, corollary to the ones above.

It is true that there are some presses which are larger and more powerful than the others (Faber and Picador stand out in the UK), and whose publications tend to make waves. But they too depend for their criteria on selected (if relatively wider and more prestigious) social circles, as opposed to consumer response in terms of what’s selling. It is very rare for a new collection published by Faber and Picador to earn a critical reception that is, on the whole, negative, and this for the simple reason that the press and the critical platforms are very closely interwoven (not, mind you, in the sense that the critics are ‘corrupted’, ‘bribed’ or dishonest in any way – only that they belong to the same social group as the editor and poet, and are thus more likely to share in the aesthetic taste). In addition, there is no such thing in poetry as that phenomenon we sometimes see in other arts, when a product sells enormously but gets bashed by the critics (or vice versa). The consumers and critics are pretty much the same, in poetry, so good sales (in relative terms) will correspond to good reviews.

One important piece of evidence demonstrating the lack of unity and agreement in the voice(s) of poetry criticism is the absence of such a thing as a ‘scoring system’. Though the notion of grading a poetry collection with numbers from one to ten or with percentile scores may appear ridiculous, there is a reason we don’t have it – and this is not that the critics have all looked at each other, shook their heads and said, ‘No, what a silly notion’. Bad ideas, however bad, tend to have at least one or two practitioners, especially in the universally democratic field that is represented by the internet. (That said, I would not be surprised were I now to receive an e-mail linking me to some fellow who reviews poems and gives them numerical scores; the internet is indeed a cavern measureless to man and I can only apologise for not having explored all of it).

No, the reason there is no such thing as a scoring system is simply that poetry criticism is unable to support it. The idea of quantifying merit is just as good or bad for any other art as it is for poetry; if you cannot do it for a pamphlet of verse, then you cannot do it for a movie either. But scoring systems abound in the world of film, even in some intellectual sites, simply because there is such a thing as a common language for criticism. This doesn’t mean that everyone speaks from the same voice; but it does mean that (almost) everyone understands where others are coming from. It is quite clear whether a site (or a writer) is dedicated to an intellectual analysis, a consumer guide, a casual blog or even that peculiar but surprisingly established genre of comedy criticism. These modes of criticism are all consolidated because the film industry is equally well-ordered, as movies are accurately divided by genre, target audience and production value. Imagine doing the same thing with poetry. Think of the last five poetry books you have read or purchased, and try placing them in a genre. Or, try defining the mainstream modes of criticism behind poetry. (The challenge is rhetorical, but if you can indeed do that – then we want to hear from you!)

A scoring system would in fact be practical in many ways – its purpose, after all, is never to evaluate a work of art, but simply to provide common terms of discussion across critical platforms. But if the whole thing is to have any meaning at all, you need to get your critics to all agree on the criteria for the scoring rates, and give them the time to refine their judgment according to those same criteria. As we mentioned above, gathering such a durable assembly necessitates criticism to be a paid profession, and not a (very noble) hobby. A scoring system could only be practiced with consistency by someone writing alone, but (again) if that person is not paid, s/he is unlikely to be able to review more than one book every three weeks (which is not very much). And even then, how long can that person go before life gets in the way and the output is cut short?

The subculture of poetry compensates for the lack of a compass point in its criticism thanks to an exceptionally high level of preparation in its readers. The ratio of reader per critic (or artist) is probably lower in poetry than in any other art. In fact, almost anyone who reads contemporary poetry habitually is qualified, at least potentially, to be a poetry critic. This means that the reader of a poetry review will in principle be equipped to understand and contextualise the review with no need for an established source. It also means, however, that the critic must have some special standards in terms of how to write the article. The readership is different than what it is for a film or a game, and the review must account for this difference, respond accordingly and then take responsibility for the way said readership may respond.

What are these ‘special standards’? Having established some of the ways in which the form of the poetry subculture influences the form of its criticism, I now find that space is coming short. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to cut the argument short, only that I’ll have to continue it next week. In the upcoming month is going to publish a few more articles dealing with poetry reviews themselves, with what makes them unique as items of criticism, and with the special responsibilities of the critic in this particular context. See you next Wednesday.

Part Two is out! Read it here!

4 thoughts on “Aspects of the Poetry Review (On Criticism #1)”

  1. Jolly interesting and I'm glad to see it discussed in this intelligent way – most poetry reviews are rather anodyne. You courteously avoid saying that many reviewers are reviewing their mates, or are fearful to write a scathing review, because poetry is a small world. But I'm not at all sure that all critical voices need a similar referent – and if they do, that's a problem for the critic, not the reader. I don't expect that poetry critics, any more than music or art critics, share a common frame of reference. And when I see five stars on a CD review, for instance, I take it to mean that THIS critic loves the album – not that it has any claim to objective truth. I think it might be a jolly good thing to see them on poetry reviews!

  2. True, Anonymous, but I think I'm right in saying those scores are purely for the purpose of giving plaudits to the most well-received books in an annual (or more frequent?) round-up, and don't appear on the reviews themselves.

    Hand + Star have a five star system, but nearly all reviews end up stuck between 3.5 and 5 stars.

    I'm not sure why all the comments are centering at the moment. Most peculiar.

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