As you can see, the title of this blogpost asks a straightforward question. Sadly, the answer may not be so straightforward.
The question arises, however, from a recent review of my own pamphlet Gaud, where the very thoughtful and often sharp-eyed reviewer finds himself puzzled by a poem called 'Serial Killer Review'. This is actually a found poem of sorts, which does not name its various sources - primarily in order to save their blushes. Among other things, it's a parody of poetry reviews, or rather of the kind I saw a lot of when I first started reading poetry magazines: all vague benevolence, no intellectual clout. I wrote that poem quite a while ago, and I have to say that the reviewing I have been encountering recently, especially from young poets and on-line, has much more interesting things to say. That goes for Paul McMenemy's review of Gaud as well, I should add.
Writing for Sabotage, where I also publish reviews, McMenemy wonders if this poem is making an argument 'for the redundancy of all criticism: poems – works of art in general, perhaps – are too personal, perhaps too irrational to be subject to criticism at all, and to attempt to do so is as nonsensical as to attempt to review an act of violence.' My initial reaction to this would be to say that the poem isn't making an argument at all, but is rather being a poem. Unpopular though it is, I believe very strongly that art does not take positions, make arguments, or propose a thesis. This may sound disingenuous from someone who is often told his work is 'political' in some way. But if I wanted to do make an argument, I'd write an essay or a blogpost (like this one) and tell you what I thought.
My preferred way of looking at poetry (and all art) owes much to what Niklas Luhmann had to say on the subject. Namely, that art is not the world, but that it implies the world; it lives from that tension between being something other than reality and at the same time forcing us to see reality in relation to it. So, a poem like 'Serial Killer Review', which is really more of an extended joke, if I'm honest, does at least have the virtue (I hope) of making us ask the question about the value of poetry reviews. It doesn't offer an answer to that question, or even formulate the question in any direct way, but it does attempt to open a space where a number of ideas are in play. The poem itself doesn't really have anything definitive to say on the matter in hand, has no message or judgement to impart.
However, I do have something to say about reviews and the purpose of writing them (this is me speaking now, not my poem). And, it goes like this.
There are five reasons, for me, to spend time writing reviews:
1. To get free books.
Okay, the amount of time and effort you put into a review more or less cancels that argument out, especially when you are doing it for the love. Still, free stuff is still (on some level) free stuff.
2. To shape taste.
This is not a strong point for me, as my taste is pretty omnivorous and I have no doctrinaire commitment to a vision of what 'real' poetry should be or is. Still, if you feel strongly about what is good and want to encourage those poets who share that feeling, and want to encourage readers to share it too, reviewing is one way to try to do that.
3. To be in the right.
We all like to be in the right, I suppose, and reviewing does bestow on the writer a certain position of authority. It's their place to judge, after all - their opinion is what counts. If only until the end of the review.
4. To be part of the scene.
In the increasingly inter-connected world of Twitter, Facebook and so on, reviewing can also be a great way of getting to know people. You review their book, they get in touch and say thank you. That's a nice feeling, too. Although, the awkwardness of encountering someone whose work you've been unpleasant about in the relatively small scene of poetry would be considerable. There is a solution to this, however. I think that there's something interesting to say about most books, even if they are not to my taste. So, the reviewer can talk about those interesting things, even while being critical of other aspects. If that criticism is precise and well-founded, no offence need be taken. Really, it's about meeting the book on its own terms.
5. To be a better reader.
There is a lot to read, let's face it, and not so much time to read it in. Because the books a reviewer receives are generally not ones s/he has chosen, the process forces you to engage with material that can sometimes be quite far from what you would normally buy yourself. If you are taking into account some of what I said in point 4 above, then you will be trying to meet the book on its own terms, trying to see where it is coming from, trying to see whether it lives up to its own ambition (it surely must have some). This means reading, re-reading, a fair amount of travelling around with the book in your bag or walking about the house with it under your arm. The reviewer is trying to make sense of an experience, the experience of reading, which in other circumstances is easy to pass over. We read one book, open another, often we don't give ourselves time to think. Reviewing makes you give yourself that time, and that is a pleasure. As for the audience, the best you can hope is that a person who reads the review seeks out the book and develops their own relationship with it, perhaps even informed by your own experience, and that this relationship will go beyond the superficial as well.
Frankly, what counts for me is point 5 in the list. Maybe that doesn't justify reviewing as a practice, since this only makes it a public service to a limited extent. Still, in a world where so many good books have few readers, the fact that they get a few really attentive ones - the reviewers - seems valuable enough in itself.