Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hofmann on Reviewing

Some readers don’t trust reviewers. And who can blame them? Plenty of reviews are only settling old scores, or helping to cement a status quo. Some may tell you plenty about a reviewer’s opinions and enthusiasms, but they miss out the book under consideration. Some are badly written or send you to sleep. So I ask myself once again what the point of reviewing is.

This isn’t a theoretical question. I have several books and chapbooks to review in front of me. I’ve heard the argument, from several people, that the best review for a book is simply to print one of the poems. The reader can then judge whether to investigate further on that basis. Who needs a reviewer’s opinion, which is, after all, just an opinion?

However, I’m not convinced that ‘opinion’ ought to be the central focus of a good review in any case. Reviewers may offer opinions, of course, but if all they do is add to the dry mass of public opinion, not much is being achieved.

I think reviews are an art form in themselves, as much as poetry or any other form of literature. I can read a poem from a book and appreciate it, but a good review may challenge my reading, get me thinking again about a book’s virtue and vices, and enrich my knowledge. Even if I don’t know a thing about a book under review, I’d still expect a good review to get me thinking about poetry, and deepen my understanding of it in some way.

I’ve been reading, off and on, Behind the Lines – a collection of Michael Hofmann’s essays on poetry, fiction, art and film, which certainly does all the positive things in the previous paragraph. He is fearless too and doesn’t seem in awe of anyone’s reputation, but his enthusiasm and thoroughness is obvious. In his chapter on Robert Lowell’s prose, Hofmann has this to say:

“In an illuminating piece on Yvor Winters, he speaks of him not being ‘adequately praised’, and it seems to me it this ‘adequate praise’ (a dubious, stiff, almost paradoxical notion) that he is most often giving. Lowell is not a proselytizer, not an unraveller; he seems to keep a constant distance between himself and his subjects: his reviews are not discoveries.”

It’s the enthusiasms (positive or negative), the unravellings, and the unexpected discoveries that bring reviews alive and help me read poems with fresh eyes, those moments when another person sheds real insight on a poem or on a few lines, and reveals something I would have overlooked.

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