I just noticed that the reviews for Sphinx magazine, issue 11 are beginning to appear - just four pamphlets under review so far. The system has changed a little. Instead of a single review for each pamphlet, there are now three.
I suppose it means that, if one reviewer has a very negative reaction, the other two might be very positive. Even the best reviewers can have an off-day or, for whatever reason, can’t see the good in poems which are actually OK. The flip-side of this policy is that a pamphlet might get not one but three(!) negative reactions. The poet can’t say it was ‘just the wrong reviewer,’ although I suppose he/she can always feel that all the reviewers are talking nonsense. It does weaken the poet’s case just a little, mind you…
One of my reviews is up, of The Terrors by Tom Chivers, along with two other reviews of the same pamphlet, so you can see you how it works.
There’s also a stripe rating. That comes from an average of the marks out of ten given by each reviewer for three categories: the look/feel of the pamphlet, the quality of the poetry, and… something else I can’t remember at the moment. I wasn’t too keen on the idea when I first heard about it, but I’ve warmed to it. If it’s good enough for music, why not poems? I notice that Don Share has blogged on a rating system used by rock critic Robert Christgau for assessing albums.
It wouldn’t be hard to adapt this for poetry collections. Reviewers could still use their favourite adjectives like “brilliant”, “significant”, “groundbreaking” etc, but I’d hazard a guess that we’d see few A+ ratings (at least, we ought not to). Also, I suspect we’d see few E- ratings, even in apparently negative reviews. Ratings give reviews perspective.
I would certainly give far more weight to the quality of poems than the look/feel of a book/pamphlet when assessing it. It’s the same with an album. The cover might be rubbish but, if the music is A+, all will be forgiven. A good cover means I might pick the book up in the first place (so it is very important), but I feel reviews ought to be based on the contents rather than the marketing.