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The Perils of being a Poetry Critic


“Burdensome artistically, exhausting over time, damaging to one’s reputation, the source of rebuffs both private and professional … poetry reviewing is an enterprise only a few people do credibly or well”. So Mary Kinzie declared in a letter to Poetry magazine, around the time I stumbled onto this strange path of poetry reviewing, nearly a decade ago. It’s a nifty quotation, and one I’ve gone back to over the years. The hours are long, the rewards are poor, and your typical response is the indistinguishable silence of the indifferent, agreed and aggrieved. That, and the occasional feeling – after a ‘mixed’ or ‘negative’ review appears in print – that somewhere out there, your name is being scribbled in a black book. If you’re really lucky, the poet in question – or their partner, or colleagues, or friends – may even take to social media with brimming ire. (Poets are ‘the irritable race’, as Alice Fulton once quipped.) Why bother? Why on earth did I start penning these things?

Because I’d just begun to take my own poetry seriously, and thought of reviewing as an overlapping endeavour. A way of stretching and questioning my reading habits, honing a sense of what I thought poetry was capable of, how and why poets succeeded or failed in their poems, and what I wanted for my own. Because, during my final year as an undergrad, immersing myself in new poetry instead of studying the things I should have been, I came across some of the most witty, smart, engaged and engaging prose I’d read, in the form of electric, genuinely discerning pieces by the likes of Ian Hamilton, Michael Hofmann, Ian Sansom – reviews as memorable as a good poem. Because I studied literature and philosophy at university, mixing a propensity to debate and argue with a desire to do so in crafted, perceptive, entertaining, even downright infuriating writing. No doubt, too, because in a fit of youthful hubris, I fancied myself as one of Kinzie’s ‘few people’. With a love of language, an analytical mind, and an (ahem) argumentative bent, I might be halfway decent at the job. (How little I knew. Truth is, reviewing is an art form in and of itself. As with writing poems, getting any good is a lifetime’s work.) And because, increasingly and ever more importantly, I believe in the necessity, as Douglas Dunn puts it, of “an honest, descriptive, detailed, clarifying criticism”. It keeps poetry healthy, and it’s poetry’s weedkiller. “No good growth without good gardeners”.

In the end, though, the real peril of being a dedicated poetry reviewer isn’t occasionally upsetting folk – that happens to anyone who lives an honest life – or unwittingly shutting doors on yourself. It isn’t publically broadcasting your opinions in a way that might make you wince, years down the line. It isn’t even, as Michael Hofmann once said, the knowledge that “a lot of the articulacy and connections and the nerves that might have gone on poems, have gone on these pieces”, though that can be a sorry thought. The real peril is more of a threat: that you might graft to become as astute a critic as possible, and the worst warnings still turn out to be true: that the critical culture is forever losing ground to a fast-food one, and that cash prizes, administered by a process marred with conflicts of interest, are the endgame of literary reception. But then, even as I entertain these thoughts, I console myself: through whatever affliction or vocational derangement, it was me who fell into poetry reviewing, not the other way round. The poet in me has no choice but to write poems; so too, the critic and his criticism. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Or so I tell myself.




first published in New Walk magazine, issue #10, Spring/Summer 2015

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About the Author

Welcome to the website of the English poet and critic, Ben Wilkinson.
Ben was born in Staffordshire and now lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He received his first degree from the University of Sheffield, and holds an MA and PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, including the Poetry Business Competition and a 2014 Northern Writers' Award
His debut full collection of poems, Way More Than Luck, appeared from Seren Books in February 2018.
He is a keen distance runner, lifelong Liverpool Football Club fan, and among other things he works as poetry critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. You can find many of his reviews on this site.
To contact Ben about readings, workshops, or for any other enquiries, you can drop him a line at benwilko(at sign)gmail.com. Unfortunately, I am not able to consider unsolicited requests from authors for book reviews.

You can follow Ben on Twitter - @BenWilko85 - and on Facebook.

You can find B…

Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018)

From the thumping heartbeat of the distance runner to the roar of football terraces across the decades, Ben Wilkinson’s debut confronts the struggles and passions that come to shape a life. Beginning with an interrogation of experiences of clinical depression and the redemptive power of art and running, the collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to some of football's legends. By turns frank, comic, sinister and meditative – ‘the trouble with you, son, is that all your brains are in your head’ – these poems uncover the beautiful game’s magic and absurdity, hopes and disappointments, as striking metaphors for our everyday dramas. Elsewhere there are tender love poems, political satire and strange dream worlds, in an urgently lyrical book of poems that take many forms and modes of address: pantoum, sonnet, sestina; epistle, confession, dramatic monologue. All are united by a desire to speak with searching clarity about matters of the heart. Way More …