Poetry magazine people: How many review copies of poetry books do y'all receive? It must be bargeloads, because I'm just one low-rent sometime-freelancer who writes maybe five or six reviews a year, and I get something like, I don't know, probably six or eight review copies a month. Some from presses, some from the poets themselves. Let there be no doubt about this: I'm wildly grateful to receive this bounty. The sight of a book-sized envelope in my mailbox has always given me a thrill, and I don't see that state of things changing any time soon. No way, though, will I ever have the opportunity to review but the smallest fraction of these babies, and the unshakeable-no-matter-how-hard-I-try Midwestern Calvinist ethic of my childhood demands I experience guilt over this fact.

Presses and poets aren't sending me these books because they like me personally, much as I'd like to think so. They're sending them because they think I'll perhaps review them, or exhort or require students to buy them, or talk them up in the locker room at the gym. OK, they're probably not expecting that last. But they're expecting something, and most of the time, I'm not coming through. I'm hoarding. Squatting. Freeloading. Cheating.

WWJCD? (JC = John Calvin, of course.)

(a) Send the books back if you're not going to plump them one way or another.

(b) Write deeply thought-through and wildly entertaining reviews of each and every one of them and find a way to disseminate them.

But I don't want to do (a)! I like having the books! I like loaning them to students! I like reading them! I like how they furnish a room! And I can't do (b). I'm a glacially slow reviewer. I could write reviews all day every day and never catch up with the mail. Plus I have other demands on my time, like, well, my job. And even if I could write all these reviews, how or where would I publish them?

Today another idea occurred to me. SpeedReviews(TM). Not sure if this would earn JC's approval. But I think it might be better than nothing.

(NOTE: That's a possible discussion question (PDQ). "Are speedreviews better than nothing?")

Yes, friends, SpeedReviews(TM). Ever notice on Ron Silliman's blog how he posts lists of books he's received, but doesn't say anything about them? Isn't that kind of weird? They do that on the Poetry Daily web site too. I guess we're just supposed to be like, "Oh, thanks, now I know that book exists, um, thanks." Wouldn't it be more fun, and potentially more helpful, or at least, yes, "better than nothing" (cf PDQ supra), if Ron Silliman would say something like, "Received: Blacken'd Delphiniums Dans Ma Cravasse: A (Still) Life, and Other Poems of Social Disease, by Craig S. List. List's sonnets to syphilis will strike the smart set as a bit below the belt, but his relentless 'Chlamydia Canzone' left this reader itching, eager, and inappropriate."

Better than nothing?

Here, I'll try a couple live rounds on volumes pulled at random from my long shelf of books that interested me but which I never had a chance to review anywhere.


Rooms and Fields: Dramatic Monologues from the War in Bosnia, by Lee Peterson (Kent State, 2004). Often, when a poet chooses to write about a specific historical circumstance, the poems become so bloated with information that they cease to be poems; instead, they read like history written fancy. How to get the information to serve the poem, instead of the poem serving the information? Peterson provides many possible (and pleasing) answers to the conundrum. To name two: She casts many of the poems in persona, so what information needs to be delivered can at least be delivered in a character's voice rather than that of narrator who's spent too many hours in the library. And she takes Pound's advice -- "Vary a little!" -- to heart, offering all sorts of different kinds of poems -- lyric, dramatic, narrative; fractured and coherent; hermetic and candid -- thus ensuring that the collection never sounds monotone. On the contrary, this book's remarkably full of formal vitality, which is all the more impressive given the fact that its subject matter is so tragic.


OK, that's one, here's another, sticking with the Eastern European theme, because why not . . .


The Arrival, Daniel Simko. Edited by Carolyn Forche and James Reidel. (Four Way Books, 2009). Simko was born in Bratislava in 1959, emigrated/fled with his parents after the Soviet invasion in 1968, attended Oberlin and Columbia, translated Trakl, and worked as a librarian at the New York Public Library until his untimely death in 2004. He wrote his poems in English and published a few in journals, both here in the States and in translation in Europe. An earlier book appeared posthumously in Bratislava. This is his first American book publication -- his "Arrival" -- and his last. Tonally and formally, the poems are clear kin to the Soviet Mitteleuropa house style of Popa, Sorescu, and Holub: simple sentences, stark and dramatic imagery, wry fatalism, winks of humor. In terms of content, of particular note is the poet's (wholly understandable) obsession with deracinations both geographical and lingual. The poems of displacement -- from the homeland and from the mother tongue -- are . . . well, stunning.  They leave me speechless.  They sound like poems trying to carve themselves into my head.


OK, that's two! And they only took me maybe fifteen minutes apiece to write. (Reading the books takes longer, obviously, but reading is fun, so I don't count that into the labor charge.)

How am I doing, John Calvin?

It occurs to me these would make ideal Tweets. Are these too long for Tweets? I think they are.

Now it occurs to me that one of the advantages of SpeedReviews(TM) is that I don't feel the same pressure to write the valedictory closing sentence which both closes one door and opens another. Those are so hard to do well. And even if you do them well, they can still sound totally annoying.

Now it suddenly occurs to me that these are in fact way, way worse than nothing, insofar as they are revoltingly superficial accounts of texts whose authors labored for years. They aren't reviews; they're notices. Isn't that insanely disrespectful? To spend twenty minutes writing a notice of a book that perhaps took the author a lifetime to create?

Revised PDQ: Can a notice be better than nothing?

Originally Published: September 23rd, 2009

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, poet Joel Brouwer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Syracuse University. Brouwer is the author of several collections of poetry, including And So (2009); Centuries (2003), a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book; and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis...

  1. September 23, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    "In terms of content, of particular note is the poet’s (wholly understandable) obsession with deracinations both geographical and lingual."\r

    Ugh. Another problem with SpeedReviews(TM): godawful writing is almost certainly unavoidable.

  2. September 23, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Totally weird. Just made my daily visit to HTMLGIANT and found this: http://htmlgiant.com/?p=15414.\r

    I'm ridin' the ZEITGEIST, baby!

  3. September 23, 2009
     Steve Fellner

    Hi Joel,\r

    I LOVE this idea. If there's anything I can do to make this happen, please contact me.\r

    My email: [email protected]

  4. September 23, 2009

    Thanks Joel, very intriguing. I'm not sure if I would advocate speed reviews, but I do advocate brief literary engagements, openings, explorations of texts and have been encouraging this on my own blog for a while now--most recently Nick Thran's reading of an Ashbery poem. \r

    Who came up with the formula for reviews in any case? Who do they serve? And who reads them?

  5. September 23, 2009
     Chad Parmenter

    Joel, thanks for ghost-riding the zeitgeist once again. Awesome thoughts, that make me think of the Speed Review (TM) not so much as a cannily trademarked version of the Publisher's Weekly review, but something taking shape from the romance between the fragment and the Tweet era, sightbyte plus a little bit of substance, but not enough. But not-enough as good-enough?

  6. September 23, 2009
     Don Share

    I take you up on this challenge, though I cannot reveal the number of review copies we receive, 'cos that's a trade secret; ok, it's not, but I'm not counting them.\r

    One review copy, in any case, is the late Margaret Avison's autobiography, I Am Here and Not Not-There, published on absolutely beautiful paper (remember paper?) by The Porcupine's Quill. (The title comes from something that happened at the famous Vancouver Poetry Conference, 1963: "This question was put by a registrant: 'What makes a poet's language distinctive?' We all fell silent, trying to pin it down, then tried to answer. Not just affection for words, which is common to all good writers; not necessarily a matter of cadence, formal structures, rhythm. The answer that came to me, forced out of minutes of dismissing options, was new to me too: 'It is saying 'I am here and not not-there.'")\r

    The book opens with a poem, which "occurred" to her while sleeping - at the age of 88! (Talk about books that took a lifetime...) The poem, she says, citing Tennyson's "I am a part of all that I have met," is not actually autobiographical, though it's drawn from nine decades of living:\r

    A Novel in Miniature\r

    My aunts are robust. I\r
    still have all\r
    four. Do\r
    yours come vividly\r
    to mind at mention of\r
    a comment at first\r
    glimpse of the\r
    no longer new baby?\r

    'Look at the X nose\r
    on the wee face!' (Or\r
    any kinship-logo-feature they\r
    spot, or think they do).\r

    That may be why\r
    the X family keeps\r
    a keepsake portrait of great-\r
    grandfather Jock in the\r
    dark or a\r
    wall near\r
    the front stairs landing but\r
    not near enough for you\r
    to stand and view it.\r

    The prose part of the book, her story, begins with a memory of being in church, "spitting up into Mother's dainty, lavender-scented church handkerchief during the service, and its soft damp silky touch on my chin."\r

    Make you want to read the book, I'd say. Take notice!

  7. September 23, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    The poem had me at line one and ravished me by three. Thanks, Don.

  8. September 23, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Thanks, Chad. I cast the post in a comical tone, but my concern, as I see you see, is of course quite serious. So many books deserving of notice. So little time and so few venues to afford them such.

  9. September 23, 2009
     Henry Gould

    These are great, Joel.\r

    Of interest to would-be speed reviewers : check out the file-card-size book reviews produced by Library Journal, for librarian book-selectors. That's how it's done by the pros.

  10. September 24, 2009
     Jim Murdoch

    Part of me is jealous but part of me is grateful too that I don't get so many poetry books to review. Novels I can cope with – I get about one a week at the moment – but poetry takes time to absorb. I've just finished one review that took me the best part of a week to write. Had I been asked to read the thing and write a few hundred words in one day she would have had a completely different review from me because not a single poem struck me on first read. I can't fake it with poetry. I have to read and then give myself time to absorb a piece. So, my heart goes out to you. That said I'm not sure Ron's single lines are a huge help but they are better than nothing. Actually my heart goes out to him too because all of us expect him to plug whatever we have on offer be it a chapbook or just our latest blog entry.

  11. September 24, 2009

    It takes time and work to improve on lists of books received. Most people I know who've worked in the labor or prison reform movements are clear with themselves about how much work they're willing to do for free, and what they expect to accomplish with that work. Ron's lists -- all such lists, actually -- are the closest poetryland gets to the purity of the Transactions items on the sports pages. \r

    That said, I'd read almost anyone's annotated lists at least once.

  12. September 24, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    When I arrived in Quito, the folks at the Nuevo Mundo bookstore told me the poetry scene was Wednesday nights at the Cafe Libro. I got there early (photos of Neruda, Woolf, Faulkner, Darío, Hemningway, Dottie Parker on the walls) and fell upon the shelves full of small-press Ecuadrorean poetry books. I had time to skim thirty of them before the reading began. I scribbled brief reviews in my notebook. Nine of the thirty seemed worthy of attention. The other twenty-one were just dreck, amateur stuff, rosas y corazones in italic type with arty drawings. The nine ranged I liked from the great Jorge Carrera Andrade to inventive youngsters like Jetzy Reyes. I still treasure the title of her chapbook: Lluevo (I Rain).

  13. September 24, 2009

    Why not just a grade? No explanation just: C+. Or maybe, 81/100.

  14. September 24, 2009
     Don Share

    I like the idea of maybe doing something like Robert Christgau's long-running "Consumer Guide," his graded music reviews for the Village Voice!\r

    Here's one version of a grading system he used (substitute poetry book for record, and reading for listening, and you're in business):\r

    An A+ record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut.\r

    An A is a great record both of whose sides offer enduring pleasure and surprise. You should own it.\r

    An A- is a very good record. If one of its sides doesn't provide intense and consistent satisfaction, then both include several cuts that do.\r

    A B+ is a good record, at least one of whose sides can be played with lasting interest and the other of which includes at least one enjoyable cut.\r

    A B is an admirable effort that aficionados of the style or artist will probably find quite listenable.\r

    A B- is a competent or mildly interesting record that will usually feature at least three worthwhile cuts.\r

    A C+ is a not disreputable performance, most likely a failed experiment or a pleasant piece of hackwork.\r

    A C is a record of clear professionalism or barely discernible inspiration, but not both.\r

    A C- is a regrettably successful exploitation or a basically honest but quite incompetent stab at something more.\r

    A D+ is an appalling piece of pimpwork or a thoroughly botched token of sincerity.\r

    It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D record.\r

    It is impossible to understand why anyone would release a D- record.\r

    It is impossible to understand why anyone would cut an E+ record.\r

    E records are frequently cited as proof that there is no God.\r

    An E- record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays repeated listening with a sense of horror in the face of the void. It is unlikely to be marred by one listenable cut.

  15. September 24, 2009
     Margo Berdeshevsky

    Just gave you a dislike on that, Don, for the same reason I continue to disdain the thumbs. Scorecards, numbers, or letters with plusses or minusses aren't much communication, they're shouts for a stadium or the hungry animals, but not meat for poets. \r

    That said, speed reviewing is kinda cool, Joel. Short n sweet can still be deep. Better than speed dating, at least in your examples, more spice, more substance, enough words to add flourish and intrigue to name, school, job, favorite color, astro sign, coffee, tea, or vodka.\r


  16. September 24, 2009
     Don Share

    That was meant to be tongue in cheek, Margo. Guess it was foot in mouth instead.

  17. September 24, 2009
     Margo Berdeshevsky

    True, Don. But thank you for the smile. Admittedly difficult to do with the busy tongue & foot.

  18. September 25, 2009
     Mary Alterman

    "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Voltaire\r

    I am an "amateur" who dabbles in reading and writing poetry so don't know if you want to count your more general audience. Having now discounted myself, I would like to add that I was impressed with your speedreviews, really, delighted and learned from reading them. We're not all scholars out here in the world and frankly, some of the long reviews I've attempted to read leave me blank. So I enjoyed your short pieces. Must be nice to be so smart and talented a writer!

  19. September 25, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Mary, \r

    My question was implicitly two-fold: First, might writers be interested in writing quick reviews? Second, might readers be interested in reading them? \r

    Seems to me those two questions would cover a general audience, which is an (or the) audience I do wish to count, yes.\r

    I'm sorry that the scope of my agenda was unclear.

  20. September 26, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Strangely, I'm about a third of the way done with a collection of 100 very short "reviews" of poetry books that I'd been tentatively calling "Rapid Reviews." I guess I'll have to reference Joel's post in the intro, if it ever comes out as a book-- though my "reviews" are of a decidedly different nature, quite a bit more idiosyncratic, I think, than the tentative "SpeedReview[TM]" examples Joel provides above (for example, each one of mine carries, somewhere within it, a quote from Lenin, e.g., the rapid review of Rae Armantrout's Next Life ends with the maxim "Communism is the electrification of the countryside"). Still, Joel's are certainly good for what they aim to do.\r

    Which is to say, for what it's worth, that the attempt (though I'm not making any great claims for my book in process, we'll see how it comes out) is not really to write reviews that are merely shorter and more "convenient" in certain ways, which is what Joe's proposal seems to come down to (maybe he could have called them "MicrowaveReviews[TM]"?). The aim is to make something that oscillates between the idea of "review' and "poem," or criticism and fiction. Maybe the gesture is in some similar spirit to what Koch did with his mini-plays. I have no idea if my things are any good or not, of course.\r


  21. September 26, 2009

    Thank you, Joel Brouwer, for another interesting blog. I get the dilemma you, in your capacity of poetry reviewer, face. While I found your speed review examples thoughtful, and would be glad myself to get such a notice, I also get this sentiment:\r

    "Now it suddenly occurs to me that these are in fact way, way worse than nothing, insofar as they are revoltingly superficial accounts of texts whose authors labored for years. They aren’t reviews; they’re notices. Isn’t that insanely disrespectful? To spend twenty minutes writing a notice of a book that perhaps took the author a lifetime to create?"\r

    I guess it is that interstice between the rock and hard place in which reviewers find themselves. I am also enjoying the exchange. This is an aspect of the poetry world I know nothing about, not even second-hand. So I appreciate the view into what reviewers and critics have to trade in.\r

    The exchange has spontaneously brought to mind lines by Yeats. I don't mean this negatively and I am not trying to be snarky. It is just what comes immediately to mind. Maybe it amounts to something professional reviewers might find themselves thinking about to.\r

    From Yeats's "Ego Dominus Tuus"\r

    Ille. By the help of an image\r
    I call to my own opposite, summon all\r
    That I have handled least, least looked upon.\r

    Hic. And I would find myself and not an image.\r

    Ill. That is our modern hope, and by its light\r
    We have lit upon the gentle, sensitive mind\r
    And lost the old nonchalance of the hand;\r
    Whether we have chosen chisel, pen or brush,\r
    We are but critics, or but half create,\r
    Timid, entangled, empty and abashed,\r
    Lacking the countenance of our friends.\r

    I first read the poem in the mid-seventies sometime. His characterization of the "modern hope", as he calls it, struck me then and still does. It is interesting to realize that lit crit (and I suppose professional book reviews would come under the category) is pretty much a product of the 20th C.\r


  22. September 26, 2009


    I should have said I am familiar with Poe's work as a book reviewer and Coleridge's "Biographia Literaria".\r


  23. September 27, 2009
     DW Cunningham

    I have no problem with brief, brief reviews--notices, if you will. A model might be the New Yorker with its "Briefly Noted" and the trenchant blurbs up front.\r

    Give the reader some credit. The reader knows that such are distillations and takes that fact into account. \r

    Longer reviews, which POETRY is featuring these days and which feature the good the bad and the maybe...all doubled, tripled, forward an backward, seem to tend toward cowardice rather than bravery. And toward a dullness. I can't say that I trust such reviews any more than I trust the brief blurb.\r

    So go for it, JB.

  24. September 27, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Kent, I like your idea a great deal; I'm always exhorting students interested in writing reviews to think of them as exercises in imaginative writing. This is a lesson that was drubbed into me by the great Herb Leibowitz of the journal PARNASSUS, who points out how weird it is that so many great imaginative writers, when they turn their attention to writing criticism, inexplicably jettison all the tools and techniques that make their imaginative work so vibrant (image, metaphor, sound, suspense, narrative, etc.) and churn out dutiful drecky blah. \r

    I am toying with the idea of setting up a site where people can react in 250 words or less to recent books, in whatever way seems authentic to them. \r

    I am also toying with the idea of trying to have fewer jobs instead of more.\r

    Thanks for your comment and good luck with your project.

  25. September 27, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Thanks, Tereson. \r

    Your Yeats couldn't help but make me think of another, perhaps also apropos. \r


    Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,\r
    Old, learned, respectable bald heads\r
    Edit and annotate the lines\r
    That young men, tossing on their beds,\r
    Rhymed out in love's despair\r
    To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.\r

    All shuffle there, all cough in ink;\r
    All wear the carpet with their shoes;\r
    All think what other people think;\r
    All know the man their neighbour knows.\r
    Lord, what would they say\r
    Did their Catullus walk their way?

  26. September 27, 2009

    Good choice, Joel Brouwer. And naturally Yeats's chosen poet could not have been more pointed. You suppose maybe he was the exception to the rule of his bald headed scholars, becoming younger the older he got?\r

    Got a question for you. When reviewing poetry how do you proceed? What is your approach? What, if anything, do you bring to your reading? And what, if anything, are you looking for? Questions maybe for another blog article? \r


  27. September 27, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Thanks, Joel.\r

    At the risk of "self-promotion," though very much on the topic of rapid "creative" reviews, you can find mine on Kenny Goldsmith's Day, here:\r


  28. September 27, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    That should probably be, rather, "...very much on the topic of rapid *uncreative* reviews..."