As a one time reviewer who used to be praised for my honesty, I think I should probably declare that reviews in Northwords Now et al under the name of Elizabeth Rimmer are not those attributed to Ishbell O’Sullivan in this article
though I’m fairly sure I was enough of a nippy sweetie to please Gerry Cambridge. No, they were by me, and I still don’t like Robin Robertson’s work, although I do admire his skill.
I disagree with a lot of what Gerry Cambridge has to say, both about reviewing and about poetry at large, though I do see where he is coming from, and it has made me a think about the function of reviews, and why I do it. I don’t review so much these days, I don’t even write as many reviews on this blog as I would like, and reviews of any sort, and particularly poetry reviews, are hard to find anywhere. Neither Haggards nor The Well of the Moon have ever been formally reviewed, and though it hasn’t done sales any harm (would you mind if I casually mentioned that Haggards is being reprinted for the third time?) I think it would be nice to get more extended feedback than the comments I’ve had which were kind and insightful, and not solely complimentary.
I do miss good extended poetry criticism. It isn’t generally taught in academia, and a lot of tutoring focuses on the creative and technical side of writing – no bad thing in itself, but it leaves a gap, a feeling that there isn’t a broad overview of a poetry scene that is busy extending itself in all directions. Newspapers and journals don’t publish many reviews, and pay for even fewer, so those of us who do it are doing it for love, focussing on what we’ve liked, and neither writers nor readers have time to waste on books which waste our time.
So why do it at all? It doesn’t have any impact on sales, and it isn’t just to make friends and influence people. Firstly, to record the poetry that I’ve read and loved and want to go back to. So much poetry is published now that it’s very easy to read a good poem and like it, and then forget it instantly. When you come across something that really matters, you want to flag it up, not only for yourself, but for everyone else trying to filter the onrush of new books, pamphlets and journals.
Often I write to try and understand what I liked about it, how it influences my thinking and develops my writing practice. Under this heading comes the analysis of the poets who hit that concept, image, technique I’ve been searching for, or that writer who shares my passions and instincts, that I want to have a conversation with. I don’t always agree with these poets, but they fascinate me.
Often I want to have a conversation with friends and readers about what I’ve read, and let me tell you, you get more engagement if you have something positive to say than if you start by describing Rilke as the Jacob Rees-Mogg of poetry – which I did do once. I don’t believe in indulging silliness, pretentiousness or shoddy work, but a wanton display of savagery to amuse readers is no more likely to encourage honesty than a focus on the good stuff – and there’s plenty of that about. Let me share my treasures with you – I may get a bit excitable, but trust me, you will find something you like.