What should a book review do? Analyze, empathize? Compare, contrast? Historicize, contextualize? Defend, demolish? When I started reviewing poetry, I had no idea. I flailed away blindly at each assignment until, somehow, I knocked it out. A professor told me reviewing was a job for the young. This seemed an odd and possibly sadistic assertion, given the obvious inanity of my results and how painful it was to produce them. But some years later, having published a hundred or so reviews, I think I may see what she meant. I’ve learned many ways to write a review, but that doesn’t mean I know which of those ways is best. I’m more knowledgeable now, but no wiser: expertise has only made my confusion more complex.
It’s hard to do work you don’t know how to do, and even harder when you’re well aware that many think the task a folly in the first place. Books can be sublime, or awful, or a million other things. Book reviews, it’s commonly held, operate in a far narrower range, from mildly insightful to anodyne to dumb. They’re hack work, tomorrow’s bird-cage liners. “I never read reviews,” every writer ever asked has said. They are lying, of course, but the sentiment is general among the literate: Reviews are the plankton of the literary food chain. Barely there, hardly worth reading, certainly never worth rereading.
Or are they! Upon the occasion of Poetry magazine’s centenary, the editors at poetryfoundation.org asked me to rummage through the archives of book reviews that have appeared in the magazine. I was happy to oblige, especially because these derelict provinces are ones with which I’m already quite familiar. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in the rump pages of back issues of the magazine, because I’ve found at least one enduring use for yesterday’s book reviews. Studying them, I’ve been blessed (and cursed) to discover just how many ways there are to approach the task. The best reviews hold in their bones an implicit theory of reviewing and wear on their sleeves a demonstration of that theory put into practice. Whether it’s valuable to know what Malcolm Cowley had to say about W. H. Auden in 1945 may be debatable, but I am certain that a cub critic can learn a great deal by considering how he said it. The back pages of Poetry are a school for novice reviewers, and every reviewer is a novice, forever, whether he or she admits it or not. Here are some lessons I’ve learned while looking back at the archives.
Analysis purchases assertions. In his January 1945 review of Auden’s For the Time Being, Cowley makes plenty of sweeping claims for the mid-career maestro:
Now, there are certainly other living poets who could write to order fourteen speeches in fourteen different kinds of verse.… There are very few poets, however, who could write them all with such easy grace; and I doubt that there is any other poet whatever who could pack these intricate forms with so many ideas. For that is the paradox about Auden: he combines a maximum of virtuosity with … you could hardly say a maximum, but still with a considerable density of meaning. He has more to say in these two long poems … than I could hope to expound.…
Usually, when I see sputtering superlatives like these in a book review, the critic’s credibility begins to sink for me. It’s nearly the language of a blurb, plus I have a special loathing for aporia in book reviews. (Oh, I can’t possibly do justice to this masterful work in this small of a space … Well, don’t waste space telling us that!, I want to shout.) But this quotation is not from the first page of Cowley’s review, it’s from the sixth, and the first five contain one of the most rigorous and insightful formal analyses I’ve seen performed in a book review. Malcolm Cowley, prosody expert? Who knew! But see for yourself: the precision with which Cowley breaks down Auden’s use of rhyme and meter in “The Sea and the Mirror” would almost seem more at home in a research paper than a book review. The snappy analysis is great, but what’s even better, from the critic’s point of view, is the authority it buys him. Once I see that Cowley’s a smart enough reader to recognize subtle variations in Auden’s management of the Petrarchan sonnet, I’m ready to trust pretty much any bald assertion he might care to proffer.
If the work can speak for itself, let it. I always appreciate seeing quotations in reviews and grow suspicious when they’re absent; readers like to hear how the poet’s voice rings against the critic’s. Richard Howard's October 1970 review of John Ashbery’s The Double Dream of Spring is an extreme example of quotation, and one of my all-time favorites from Poetry. Here, like a sort of critical torero, Howard steps back and allows the book purportedly under his consideration to instead consider itself. What could be more elegant? Most of the review consists of Howard’s arrangements of quotations from the book, just as Ashbery’s poems consist of arrangements of found and received language. In the review’s final moments, Howard synthesizes what remains as definitive a statement on Ashbery’s poetics as one could hope for:
… I have not hesitated to invoke the poems as their own exegesis. Indeed, the great innovation of Ashbery’s poems is that they do not explain or symbolize or even refer to some experience the poet has had, something outside of themselves in the world, something precedent. The poems are not about anything, they are something, they are their own creation, and it would be fair to say that the world is, instead, a comment on them, a criticism of them.
How do you write a review about a book that is, itself, about nothing but itself? Well, as Laurie Anderson says, if you can’t talk about it, point to it.
It’s fine to opine on “poetry these days,” but don’t forget to review the books. It often happens that a reviewer covering a book or, more often, a handful of books will use the occasion to move toward a larger claim about the zeitgeist, and Poetry has featured many memorable reviews of this type. Done well, such reviews are doubly satisfying: they both account for the individual books under consideration and spark our thinking on loftier matters. It seems crucial, though, that the critic allow his or her big ideas to arise from thoughtful consideration of the books at hand rather than develop the ideas in the abstract first, and then bring them to bear on the books.
In her review of books by Audre Lorde and Ruth Stone for the February 1977 issue, Sandra M. Gilbert begins with two crisp paragraphs on the reception of poetry by women in general, but then turns to consider the two books thoroughly on their own terms. When she closes with a quick reminder of her opening argument, linking it neatly to the theme of one of Stone’s poems, the review’s rhetoric clicks shut and resonates. It’s a textbook example of how to introduce your commentary but do your duty to the books, too. Robert Pinsky’s omnibus “Far from Prose,” from January 1974, works similarly to Gilbert’s review, starting with a broad proposition disguised as a question—
… the most “contemporary” of contemporary poetry is often interior, submerged, free-playing, elusive, more fresh than earnest, more eager to surprise than to tell—does such writing represent a drift away from the decencies of prose as an element of the poem? When poetry gets too far from prose, does it choke itself?
—and then setting out to review new books by four quite different poets. It’s clear the critic has an agenda—he’s advertised that right up front. But he takes care not to treat the books merely as evidence in support of his thesis, and even in the midst of his analyses, he cautions himself against overgeneralizing: “If there are fashions, then it is important to try to distinguish the genuine writing from the imitative.” By the review’s end, we’ve learned a good deal about the fashions of the day in general, but also about these four books in particular.
The border between the book review and the think-piece can be hazardous, especially when the critic’s hypothesis grows too grand. Howard Nemerov ties himself in knots, or maybe loses himself in the clouds, in his December 1955 review of Elizabeth Bishop’s North & South, as he tries to simultaneously read Bishop’s poems and offer a unified field theory of lyric poetry.
The view of lyric poetry implied by these poems—that such poetry is by nature meditative or musing by means of detail, that, thoughtful as its workings are, it moves away from thought and toward vision, with an effect of deepening the silence about its conclusions—seems to me to define something characteristically modern about this art; …
Good heavens, man, take a breath! And then use it to read Bishop’s poem “The Imaginary Iceberg” out loud, and slowly. Your readers would be better served.
Then there are those cases where the critic first makes up his mind about some issue concerning “poetry these days,” and only afterward goes looking for some poems to prove his point. These can make for exciting brouhahas on the “Letters to the Editor” page or in the comment threads, but they don’t do much to illuminate the poems. Witness Greg Kuzma’s “The Catastrophe of Creative Writing,” from September 1986. Having come to believe that academia had corrupted not only American poetry but also the very souls of American poets, Kuzma realized he’d need some evidence to support his thesis, and when Martha Collins appeared on the horizon, he let her have it, much as Tamerlane would burn a village at random to cast fear into a refractory kingdom. Setting aside Kuzma’s assessment of the poetry-industrial complex and his appraisal of Collins’s poem “Several Things,” I’m bothered that this supposed book review isn’t interested in Collins’s book in and of itself. Its charges could have been leveled in essentially the same terms at a dozen different books current at the time.
Imagine your audience. I may not know what reviews are for, but I know who they are for: their readers. And it behooves reviewers to keep those readers in mind. One reason I’ve enjoyed reviewing for Poetry is that I picture its audience to be pretty much my ideal one, knowledgeable enough that I can assume familiarity with poetic concepts and history, but broad enough to keep me on guard against the excessively technical or clannish. But not every reviewer for Poetry has imagined its audience in the same way, and it’s fascinating to hear how many different pitches echo through the archives.
The sense of audience depends a great deal on the age in which the review is written, of course. In the magazine’s early days, when its contributors and readers perhaps considered it less a public forum than a semiprivate club, reviews often sounded like overheard conversations between like-minded initiates. I love this opening of Ezra Pound’s May 1914 notice of Yeats’s Responsibilities, where Pound congratulates both himself and his readers for their intelligence, and makes it sound as though his views on Yeats are matters of utmost public urgency.
I live, so far as possible, among that more intelligently active segment of the race which is concerned with today and tomorrow; and, in consequence of this, whenever I mention Mr. Yeats I am apt to be assailed with questions: “Will Mr. Yeats do anything more?”, “Is Yeats in the movement?”, “How can the chap go on writing this sort of thing?” And to these inquiries I can only say that Mr. Yeats’s vitality is quite unimpaired.…
It’s marvelous to picture Pound behind a podium at a noisy press conference, flashbulbs popping in his face, as reporters besiege him with these queries—but of course at the time such burning questions were in fact of interest to a relatively small, not to say modest audience.
Also in the early days, though, many reviews seem designed to enlarge that audience through gentle education. In March 1923, Harriet Monroe herself wrote a review titled “A Contrast,” setting side by side The Waste Land by one T. S. Eliot and The Box of God by Lew Sarett, known to his age as “America’s Foremost Woodsman-Poet” but to ours not at all. (The poor fellow doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.) This is a wonderful performance by Monroe. She first offers a patient, insightful, and clear account of Eliot’s poem, which “shows us confusion and dismay and disintegration, the world crumbling to pieces before our eyes and patching itself with desperate gayety into new and strangely irregular forms.” But she does not, as you might expect, use Eliot’s modern achievement to belittle the old-fashioned woodsman-poet. On the contrary, it’s Eliot who’s taken to the woodshed:
Yet all the time there are large areas of mankind to whom [Eliot’s] thinking does not apply; large groups of another kind of intellectuals whose faith is as vital and constructive as ever was the faith of their crusading forefathers. To the men of science, the inventors, the engineers, who are performing today’s miracles, the miasma which afflicts Mr. Eliot is as remote a speculative conceit, as futile a fritter of mental confectionery, as Lyly’s euphemism must have been to Elizabethan sailors. And these men are thinkers too, dreamers of larger dreams than any group of city-closeted artists may evoke out of the circling pipesmoke of their scented talk.
As you’ll have surmised, it turns out that the sturdy Sarett is just as appropriate a poet for the inventors and engineers as Eliot is for the city slickers. Such equanimity! At a moment like this, one realizes why Poetry had to be born in Chicago, a great city but not one to suffer futile fritters gladly. Did Monroe realize Eliot’s superiority to Sarett? I will venture that she did. But by using the more accessible Sarett as a foil, without denigrating him, she’s able to make Eliot’s “masterpiece of decadent art” seem surprisingly approachable.
By midcentury, Eliotian difficulty had a strong lead over Sarettian simplicity, necessitating the development of a sophisticated critical industry to serve poetry’s—and Poetry’s—audience. Randall Jarrell famously declared that literature had entered an “age of criticism,” and in Poetry’s reviews from that era we do find some stunning examples of criticism that seem directed—to paraphrase Jarrell—not toward an audience of poets or poetry lovers, but rather toward critics and criticism lovers. If Parker Tyler’s review of Jarrell himself, from March 1952, is not the parody one assumes it must certainly be, then it is as perfect a specimen of “the circling pipesmoke of scented talk” as one could ever hope for. I am tempted to quote from it at length—there is no other way to quote from it—but I have too many favorite sentences, and you should find your own.
I want to quickly mention another way to conceive of the audience of the review. Ed Dorn’s June 1964 review of W.S. Merwin is as deadpan as Stephen Berg’s July 1970 review of several books of translations is expressive, but the two reviews share a similar attitude toward their audiences. In each, the critic seems to be talking to himself, working through his thoughts and inviting his readers to listen in as he figures out what he wants to say. Dorn’s opening paragraph is, or at least is constructed to appear, wholly ingenuous: “I have read through The Moving Target twice now and I find I don’t have any great enthusiasm for it. I will try to assess why.” Where Dorn’s tone is artless and objective, Berg’s is outrageously artful and subjective. But he too invites us to accompany him as he investigates how his thoughts have intersected with the poems he’s reviewing.
Perhaps just as my children seem to me planted in nature, growing from it, in the photograph I love, standing there in wonder so it is impossible to say what they mean, Guillevic’s poems reflect the mind that has often found itself in what is other.
There’s a certain attractiveness to this reader-response style of reviewing; it feels both intimate and honest. Still, there is perhaps a risk that the critic comes across as self-indulgent, and readers might find themselves wishing that the reviewer had done his exploratory thinking in advance.
And that brings us as close to the present day as I care to venture, being disinclined to consider anything “archival” that’s happened since my birth. We’re lucky to have a number of vibrant reviewers working today, and the back pages of Poetry remain one of my favorite places to listen in on the art’s boisterous and continuously unfolding conversation. Still, ours is far from being an “age of criticism,” and I wish it were a bit more so. In the 1950s Jarrell lamented that ambitious young literary types longed to publish not their stories or poems, but their criticism. He probably wouldn’t have the same complaint today; perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, as too few young writers review their contemporaries. We need fresh eyes to judge, analyze, empathize, compare, contrast, historicize, contextualize, defend, demolish, and whatever else with all these new chapbooks and books. I know, I know, you don’t know how to do it! But no one does. And there are plenty of places to learn.
The writer wishes to thank Hannah Brooks-Motl for her research assistance and insight, which helped to make this article possible.