I wrote a comment in response to Simon DeDeo's response to Don Share's post below. It dovetails with Rigoberto's call this week for more reviewing.
I don't disagree with Rigoberto. As an author, I loved getting reviews. As a critic, I like reading them, especially if the reviewer has style. But what's in it for the reviewer? If everything you write is positive, you're seen as merely a booster. If you write anything negative, you'll isolate yourself. Just to assume the critical distance, the authoritative mien of the reviewer, will isolate you.
These letters to Poetry magazine include valuable information by Eavan Boland, Mary Kinzie, Brian Phillips, Peter Campion, and our very own Emily Warn on what it means to review. I won't try to paraphrase their considered judgments here.

There are other problems with reviewing (for the big venues like the New York Times). One is the interdiction against reviewing "friends," which may include anyone from lovers to teachers to blurbers. In our small but very fractured and contentious poetry world, this is a journalistic convention well worth chucking. One can still have something to say, and a lively way of saying it, even if one is acquainted personally. Not objective, you say? Well, is every non-famous poet's review of a famous poet more objective? Is it objective to review every book Knopf or Norton publishes, but to eschew anything by Hanging Loose or Burning Deck?
On the flip side of the coin, at the Poetry Project Newsletter which I edited for 2 years and wrote reviews for intermittently since 1998 or so, there was almost complete freedom but little quality control; lots of favors being asked but very few being returned. It was a hustle. Just because people do work for free doesn't mean it's pure or good.
I still write reviews, so I must find some pleasure in it -- the pleasure of crafting sentences, the pleasure of arguing out loud. But it certainly has its own deformation professionnelle.

Originally Published: September 12th, 2007

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

  1. September 12, 2007
     Rich Villar

    The reviewer's obligation is solely to the audience: should I buy the book, or shouldn't I? And why or why not? There's no problem with a negative review...I would simply ask that the reviewer get his/her facts right. Unflappable editorial standards should be primary.

  2. September 13, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    Hi Ange,
    Bad -- meaning incompetent -- reviews are as common as bad poetry. If I had to come up with a list of what makes a bad review --
    1. the refusal to be explicit about (and question) one's own theories. "Theory" is almost as negatively-freighted a word as "liberal" these days, but we all have theories about what poetry can (and can't do) and what it could (and should) look like. They don't have to sound like Derrida, nor The New Criterion.
    This is probably the biggest turn-off for me when I read a review.
    2. choosing bad books. A review of the latest workshopped wonder is going to be dull. Most work is dull, however, so a major project of the reviewer needs to be going out there and trolling the oceans -- not just waiting for a review copy to land on the desk.
    Being a participant in, as well as an observer of, interesting poetry helps. It's not surprising that the most provocative reviews come from the best poets.
    3. refusal to open up to the wider world of art and literature. Reviews need to make connections between the poetry they are reading and larger movements -- in poetry, literature, or the arts in general. This is particularly important when writing for a "wider" audience.
    4. blurb bathos. Sometimes -- whether it's because they're writing about a friend who needs a boost, or because they genuinely like the book -- reviewers make such absurd and incomprehensible claims for their subjects that readers just get turned off.
    Blurb bathos is a killer, because it's actually really fun and easy to be blurb bathetic in the same way it's fun and easy to write a bathetic poem.
    In general, "conservative" reviewers generally fall victim to (1) while avant-gardy types fall victim to (4).