Reviews & the Study of Us
I've just read all the posts on here for National Poetry Month so far. Wow. What a wonderful group of writers and responders to the world. I am so appreciative to be a part of this community. As I mentioned earlier, I just finished speaking and reading at a poetry symposium in Texas. One of the subjects that we discussed is exactly what Rigoberto González was speaking to in his post, Casa Pequeñita. The subject of reviews. The issue was brought up and discussed from a few different angles, but one of my biggest takeaways was the question as to why so few people want to write poetry reviews and if they do write reviews, why they feel like they must shy away from mentioning anything negative.
Now, those of you who know me, know that I tend to believe that being kind to one another, good to one another, especially in the artistic community where we can feel easily isolated, is incredibly important. I tend to duck away from public controversy (though I am no stranger to a rant in my slippers), and I think being mean, or being a bully, is just about the worst quality one can have. However, having someone deeply read my work and critique it with care, can be incredibly useful not only to me as a writer, but to me as a reader. I’ve had reviews that spurred me on to write better poems, I’ve also had reviews that just made me mad. But, when a reviewer can really delve into your work, live in it, and roll it around, a frank review can be incredibly helpful, even if it smarts a bit.
Now, I’ve only reviewed a few books in my life. Maybe 10 total. And, they were, in fact, mostly positive reviews. Primarily, I found it more enjoyable to talk about books that I liked than books that I didn’t like. But, what was brought up this past weekend, was whether or not that’s always useful. Why are we so scared to point out what’s not working in a book? Maybe, it’s because those people writing reviews are also poets, so it seems like a negative review would only be setting themselves up for an inevitable backlash. (The only times when poets seem to be comfortable with being negative, and in some cases downright mean, are when their comments are anonymous.) Or maybe it’s just difficult to point out faults when we know how hard it is to write in the first place, how difficult it is to write one thing, let alone a whole book of things. Maybe we just want to make sure we're always promoting poetry, always encouraging those who don't read poetry to pick up a book of poems, any book of poems.
But I propose that there is a middle ground. That critiquing each other’s work in a thoughtful, clear, and discerning way can only prove to elevate the quality of work that’s going out into the world. I’m not supporting negative reviews; I’m supporting complex reviews, where a reader might attempt to point out a few places where poems fail, or fall short. As I write this, I am beginning to feel my throat close. It makes me nervous. But I do think it’s good for us. For each other. Maybe we can all hold hands, close our eyes, and try a bit of careful, helpful, honesty. Followed by some sort of sloppy group hug on a giant lawn somewhere with dandelions and cake.
Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...