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