Randall Jarrell is one of my heroes. His criticism was based on his “taste” - which was of course refined & honed & very articulate - but still his taste, his preferences, his gut feeling.
I think one problem with contemporary reviews has to do with the fact that the reviewer doesn’t have enough personality, enough of a stake in the review itself. I’m not concerned with the “exuberant praise” found in some reviews as much as I am that I can’t tell - from one review to the other - who has written it.
I want the review to be the voice of someone I trust to guide my reading, not some nameless laundry list of likes and dislikes.
The magazine I founded & edit - H_NGM_N - has one guiding aesthetic for reviews. We do not review any work that we are not enthusiastic (exuberant?) about. And as a reviewer, I do not review anything that I am not convinced is important reading. Within that, there is room for “negative” statements - notating things that fall short. These kinds of moments happen because I love poetry & I want to love the poetry at hand even more.
I would submit that a negative statement in a review is as self-serving as a positive statement. But who cares? The review should be it's own living work - a riff on the existing poetry, yes, but it should be its own animal. I don’t think a review should be read or judged by how transparent the reviewer is - it’s not possible. There is no unbiased, impartial view of ANYthing. And so it would be ridiculous to come to a review expecting it to present an unbiased, impartial view - a pure view of the work as itself. The work as itself doesn’t exist since it is always viewed by a consciousness that is perceiving it through its own filters (a you or a me that is reading the poetry, for instance).
Part of the problem with reviews is that people confuse them with critical essays. Reviews should be fairly lightweight - which is not to say they can't include hard-edged assessments. Simply stated, a review shouldn't require a PhD to get through it.
I depend on reviews but I'd like to see more conversations - two poets talking to each other about their books. I’m more interested in getting down to the overarching concerns & obsessions of a writer than the individual machines developed for dealing with / communicating them. Writers, in conversation, are more likely to get at those themes & ideas, while also talking shop, in a way that I think would be constructive.
What is the guiding fallacy of a book review? Reading the review will somehow better equip us for deciding whether or not to read the book. As poets, we should be reading everything we can get our hands on & making our own choices. We create our own aesthetic out of a complex process of add & subtract: I like this technique, I don’t like this technique; I like where this is going but wonder what would happen if I torqued it this way instead; I’m going to try something totally different. A review is a tool for the writer - of the review as well as for the work under consideration. We - other people - can & should use it as a tool as well; though the review should be viewed as a tool that has as its inherent purpose guiding us to, or away from, a book.
The review serves as a record of someone’s thought on a subject. Which means that, at its root, it’s no different than a poem.
Nate Pritts is the author of two books of poetry—Sensational Spectacular & Honorary Astronaut—with a third, The Wonderfull Yeare, due out in early 2010. The founder and editor of H_NGM_N, Nate teaches poetry at the Downtown Writers Center/YMCA in Syracuse, NY, and works as a freelance tech editor & copywriter. Find him online at http://www.natepritts.com
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence