Or, to put it another way, what should a book review do? What are book reviews, and poetry reviews in particular? What should they be? What is the reviewer’s goal, her MO? How does she approach a work of poetry? It’s worth thinking about (and rethinking) reviewing, and the ways some reviews may or may not be doing right by their readers or the books they discuss. And, after reading Natalie Zina Walschots’ blog post about gender disparity in the National Post’s poetry reviews, I’d like to share a couple of hunches about what reviews might do and be in order to address, in a round-about way, this imbalance Walschots noticed.
Nick Mount, writing about Methodist Hatchet in the Walrus last year, couldn’t begin his review without making it clear that “[p]oets write mostly for other poets” and that “a poem today is mostly a conversation with other poems.” Because of the smallness (and some would say, insularity) of this world (which Mount says has driven up the quality of the work), or because of hard borders perceived by the small numbers of people who are readers of poetry and not writers of it, Mount opts for context and disclosure as his frame, perhaps as a way to gain licence from his (poet) reader to discuss Ken Babstock’s latest collection, or to acquaint those not so familiar with poetry with the world in which the work exists.
Mount is an anomaly, of sorts. Overwhelmingly, poets are also reviewers of poetry. Poets are editors, teachers, promoters, mentors, and publishers of poetry too. I can think of no example, off the top of my head, of a Canadian poet who has only ever written the stuff and nothing else. In part because of this, I’d dare posit that a poetry review is no place to spout off opinions. Even though there is an inside and an outside—multiple layers of insides and outsides—in the realm of poetry, as with anything else, the majority of people who care enough to read poetry reviews already know or can intuit the reviewer’s poetical stance, or they simply don’t care about where the reviewer might stand aesthetically or ideologically but are looking for something else entirely when they sit down to read a poetry review.
I don’t care, for instance, that Reviewer X didn’t take to Tim Lilburn’s Assiniboia or Reviewer Y thought Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries is the best book to come out of Canada ever. That’s not important to me. I sit down (the most perilous of practices these days) and read a poetry review to find out what’s going on in said poetry collection, how the poet’s work has changed or not changed from previous collections, and what the book is on about. I sit down to witness the reviewer’s brain parsing through the work. At best, opinion is tertiary, expendable, skippable, an unnecessary framework. At worst, opinion is a deficit of thought dressed up as thoughtful authority. And a failed review is one where the reviewer thinks her opinion is the reason why people are reading the review. When a reviewer fixates on a collection’s success or failure, or on whether or not a book worked on them, she’s hijacking the review and overshadowing the book with a veiled polemic on what the reviewer takes to be good or bad poetry. We don’t need that. I don’t want it. It doesn’t help anybody.
What I really want a reviewer to do is get out of the way. Don’t lead with your ego. Or, to rephrase: resist the urge to couch your review in your own literary preferences. Impossible, yes, but it’s worth making the attempt. The best reviews I’ve read are a failed attempt at invisibility or egolessness. This not-quite-seamless concealment ends up giving us a glimpse of what the poems are doing, what the poet is doing. And focusing on showing or critiquing (instead of assessing) a book forces the reviewer to work harder. Her focus will be on telling us what she surmises the book is trying to do, how it goes about doing what it does, and where in the great field of poetry we might attempt to place it. A good review will talk about what this poet is known for and what that looks like and what it does. It will let us see what the poet is doing. Perhaps it will talk about places where the writing might miss its perceived aim, or it will posit places the writing might still go, or places we as readers might still go with that writing. It will make guesses and it will admit that its observations are malleable. Ultimately, it will supply us with a pervasive, thoughtful, nuanced reading. I’ve found, in my small amount of experience, that reviewing poetry is about articulating differences and particularities: what makes this collection, this writer, different from any other? Show us, the eager readers both inside and outside the fence. Show us what the poet’s doing. That’s what I want when I read poetry reviews.
But gasp! How can it be that all a review should do is point at places and show us things? What about the revered five-star system, the Siskel & Ebert thumbs up/down system, the ancient Roman live-or-die thumb, democratic and savage? It’s clean, it’s quick, it’s easy. A book either passes or it fails. It’s either worth our precious time or it’s not. Here baby, let me pick out a book so you don’t have to. Don’t we need an expert to tell us these things, someone who took the time to do the dirty work? Isn’t that what a review actually is?
The problem with this system of assessment, this focus on yaying or naying, on is that it leads to the empty game-show antagonism of Canada Reads. It leads to a TV lawyer calling writers terrorists and liars because of books they’ve written, and it makes attacking a writer’s character a legitimate method of critique. It leads to fisticuffs in the comment sections of the book blogs. And this might be a stretch, but we then find ourselves in the same ballpark as Giorgio Mammoliti giving the thumbs-up/thumbs-down in Toronto’s council chambers to show his apparent minions how they should think and position themselves. It leads to sides and camps and threats and away from thinking and actual debate and the generosity of mutual care for, in this case, the vocation of writing and reading and poetics. It leads to people becoming sheep instead of readers, and it leads to the stultifying phenomenon of readers knowing how a reviewer will respond to a certain book or a certain poet without having to read a word of the review. It leads to people fearing judgement, and people adopting a too-narrow view of what constitutes good writing and not even knowing so. And it leads to poetry collections written by a slim cross-section of society getting the lion’s share of attention, consideration, and discussion—even though that cross-section might well contain worthy and astounding poets who refuse such narrowness themselves—while a whole bulk of other worthy and astounding books and poets go unmentioned (or worse, admonished), due to factors that have little to nothing to do with the work.
In the comments section of Natalie’s piece, poet Jan Zwicky relays some useful, tempering advice she once received from a colleague: “it’s a mistake to assume the presence of malice, where ignorance or insensitivity would also explain the facts.” I don’t think there’s malice anywhere in the whole small world of poetry in Canada, not really. I’m glad to be in this small world. I will always wish for it to be more robust. And in order to help keep our small world healthy, we need to extend our reach as far and as wide as possible, make sure that everyone who works within it has a place to not only be heard, but considered and included. As a reader, I might not take to a certain collection, but as a reviewer, isn’t it my task to show readers who don’t hold the same preferences as me why they might wish to seek out, take time with, and think through a new work?