Monday, December 12, 2011

Poets, Reviewers and the Broadsheets

Two short reviews appeared in The Guardian a day or two ago, both written by Ben Wilkinson. The first is a positive review of Simon Barraclough’s Neptune Blue. The second is quite a negative review of Mark Waldron’s The Itchy Sea. I’d make the following observations:

1. Neptune Blue is a very interesting book. There are similarities to Simon Barraclough’s first collection, but he’s definitely not just treading the same ground. I’m not altogether convinced by the Armitage comparison, even if I recognise the similarities Ben points out. I think Neptune Blue does resist the pigeonholing and contains some decidedly odd, mysterious poems. Anyway, it’s just the book you need for a cold, clear winter evening.

2. Some people may not have liked Ben’s criticism of The Itchy Sea, and I can understand why. I don’t know Mark Waldron and have no idea what Mark himself thinks of this review (and silence is usually the best reaction in such circumstances). If it had been my book, I wouldn’t be applauding. When a poet spends years writing and revising poems and publishing them in a book, it’s perfectly natural if they feel aggrieved when dismissed inside a short paragraph in the Guardian. I know some people say we should all consider negative reviews carefully etc, but poets are human and get cross and upset as much as anyone else.

3. On the other hand, the sting doesn’t last. The next review might be highly favourable. Someone (a reader you don’t know, not a critic or reviewer) will email you to say how much they’ve enjoyed the book. Your book will be selected by the Poetry School staff as one of their top ten books of the year – such as, this year, Mark Waldron’s The Itchy Sea! A future reviewer will ‘get’ what you’ve been trying to do, which is a good feeling. Such experiences are fun but adulation doesn't tend to come the way of poets often. Those who crave it ought to stop writing poetry and instead take up the guitar or enter the Big Brother house or try to be photographed often with a celebrity.

4. The Guardian is often criticized for publishing anodyne, positive reviews without any hint of real criticism. We can’t express a wish for a more rigorous reviewing style and then get annoyed when Ben says what he genuinely thinks. It’s not his fault that the word count he is offered doesn’t allow him to make his points more fully. It’s also clear that there’s no personal motive here. After all, he does recommend Mark Waldron’s first book, and feels that some poems in the second book are “very good”. He had reviewed Mark’s first collection very positively in the Times Literary Supplement.

5. But on the other hand again, the bland, anodyne style usually comes into play when the book under review is that of an ‘established’ poet (hard to find the right word here but ‘established’ will have to do). It’s tricky to work out why that is. It could be because the established poet is being reviewed by another established poet who would cause major controversy by writing a negative review (and consequently may elect not to review books by fellow established poets whose work they don’t like much). I’m not sure whether established poets feel that way or not, but would be interested to know. I could certainly understand why they might feel that way. It could also be that poet and reviewer are friends and review one another with regular positivity. Or it could be that the reviewer isn’t an established poet but would like to be and feels intimidated to write a negative review of someone they imagine (usually erroneously) holds massive influence in the poetry world and will nurse their grudge for decades. Or it could be that the newspaper broadsheets don’t want negative reviews of established poets and won’t publish them when they’re written.

6. Perhaps, broadsheets need to search harder for reviewers who are fair but who aren’t concerned with what anyone thinks – independent critics, poets who have stopped writing poetry, poets who couldn’t care less about their own ‘careers’ (but who aren’t, without good reason, simply out to diss those who have had mainstream success).

7. It seems wrong that critical engagement seems only to be allowed in the broadsheets when a book is written by a poet published by an independent publisher. There are occasional exceptions, almost all of them written by critics rather than poets e.g. Kate Kellaway’s review of Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees.

8. I had read some of Mark Waldron’s The Itchy Sea. He’s a good writer. One concern I had with it was that it seemed similar to his first collection, although I’m basing that impression on a random read through a fairly small number of poems – so it’s not something to pay any attention to. Interestingly (to me) Ben clearly implies in his review that The Itchy Sea isn’t like the first collection. That actually makes me want to get hold of The Itchy Sea and read it properly – so a negative review may not have the negative consequences people might expect.

9. Ben writes one thing that struck me as of particular interest. Whether it correctly applies to The Itchy Sea is another matter, but it does sound like a feature of many contemporary poems, those which are:
“... latching on to outlandish similes in the hope that they might lead somewhere new. You have to admire the intention...”
I’m quite fond of outlandish similes when they do lead somewhere new. Or when, as in John Ashbery et al, their outlandishness fits perfectly within the little engine of the poem. But when they are merely fashionable attention-seeking beacons or empty vessels designed to sound meaningful (Ashbery's aren't), that’s not so good.

10. I’m definitely going to read The Itchy Sea over the next few weeks and see what I think.

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