Firstly, the obvious –
- House style, submission guidelines. Please do check DURA guidelines particularly re word count, titles and inverted commas.
- Include an element of biographical detail (not overwhelming). That’s always easy to find in the book or online. Is it a debut collection, or is the poet well-published? If so, where? Any influences? Gender/race/ faith etc?
- Is the poet published in any other genre – novels, short stories, non-fiction, translation etc?
- Your approach will be structured, reasoned and reasoning. It is perfectly fine to say whether you like the collection or not, and indeed you should give some personal response, but it’s probably unwise to give the game away too quickly (although, of course, if you do it very well it can work). A complete demolition job, without justification, isn’t wise. Similarly, a gushy love-in will tend to grate.
- Remove any flab. Padding for the sake of word count fools no-one. Does every sentence advance your reader’s understanding?
- You want to begin your review in a way that captures your reader’s attention, and similarly, you need a strong concluding paragraph.
- It’s good to say that the poet has a witty way with couplets, and better still if you can give an example.
- Treat your reader well. Assume that anyone who is reading a poetry review will have knowledge, and shouldn’t be patronised, but equally they have no reason to be automatically in tune with a particular, specialist field that the writer has just spent the last 3 years researching.
- Read some good poetry reviews.
Now for the less obvious matters – is it definitely a poetry review? You might be surprised how many reviews speak of subject-matter and narrative, and there is nothing to indicate that the book in question is written in verse. Yes, these matters matter, but not exclusively.
- Is this a single epic poem, or is it a collection?
- What kinds of poems are they? You don’t need to be highly technical, but many reviews say nothing of whether poems are five pages long, or there are rather a lot of haiku.
- Read as many poems as possible,
- Do you see traditional stanzaic forms, free verse, prose poems … and yes, can you spot a sonnet? If a poem is titled say Bruise Ghazal (Sharon Olds), the term ghazal is indeed worth a Google. Often endnotes, blurbs on the jacket etc can be good pointers too.
- Read as many poems as possible,
- What sounds do you hear? Does the poet make interesting uses of whispering sounds? Think about alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia etc. It is not enough to say he/she creates ‘good’ sound effects. Give examples, be specific. Quote.
- Rhythms? (Did I mention reading aloud?). Fast/slow/regular/irregular/dancing/trainlike …is there anything enhancing your understanding of the verse? Is formal metre employed?
- Any refrains? Shapes on the page? Use of white space? Is the work condensed … how does it use the page?
- What consideration has the poet given to the order of the poems? Is it divided into sections, is it chronological, sequenced thematically, or into specific forms?
- Are there any quirky devices or unique aspects of the poetic forms (consider Michael Symmons Roberts’ Drysalter– 150 poems, each one of 15 lines)?
- Are there any influences, connections with other poets’ work? Even if there are not direct influences, does the poetry bring other poets’ work to mind? Then again, does it work in surprising CONTRAST to someone else’s lines?
- You might wish to mention (but not at length, it’s your review of this poet’s work, after all), comments on the jacket, or elsewhere. Do you agree with that opinion?
- Overall, does the collection work? Why? Do you look forward to the next collection? Is there anything you would like to see developed/dropped?
- Quite a few first-time poetry reviewers make a first paragraph comment on their own fears about reviewing poetry, and their generalised expectations of poetry’s complexity etc. They may pick up this thread later in their review. They may make broad comments on the nature of poetry itself. Whilst some of these comments can be laudable, and often brave in their honesty, I tend to remove most of this type of commentary …firstly because I do indeed see this a lot, and these sections tend to be very similar. Secondly… all of a sudden 150 words have disappeared from the review which may say a great deal about the reviewer, but nothing about the book. That’s a quarter of the word count, and in that context feels indulgent.
- If you hate the collection, do say so, but be prepared to justify your reasons. Suggesting that someone with 10 collections published, and a raft of major awards just doesn’t know his/her stuff is unwise …Express concerns, query, express personal revulsion, but even if you loathe the work, be very wary of underestimating the poet.
- If you still feel you can’t fill that word count (!), does the cover work/ suit the collection, or does it distract/detract?
- If in doubt, read it aloud again.
- If in more doubt, send me an email and ask. I’ll do my best to help.
Beth McDonough, November 2014
Seamus Heaney once said that as a young poet he wanted his words to have the beauty of stained glass, but as a mature poet he wanted them to have the clarity of the plain window. The wonderful Irishman doubtless managed both (although how easily transparent his words were we might consider, and enjoy), but perhaps we can transfer something of this to reviewing. I suspect it’s tempting to be dazzled by the layers and intricacies of poetry, and to complicate the issue, and build highly complex, long sentences and elaborate notions, but when you have read too often about “that highly fatty, pale yellow substance, certainly cholesterol-rich, albeit a natural product, which is decadently enjoyed, spread thickly”, it’s good to read “butter”.