Everyone’s a critic!

It’s been an interesting experience trying to garner reviews for my book over the past few months. I’m delighted to have received two very positive ones so far, from John McAuliffe in The Irish Times and Richard Hayes in the latest issue of Poetry Ireland’s Trumpet magazine. I’m hoping for a few more in the coming months.

The hunt for reviews is a strange process. It opens you up to criticism as a writer, which means that there is often a temptation to allow the work to slip by unnoticed. But if no one engages with your work in a critical fashion, how do you improve as a writer? The two reviews I’ve had so far have both commented on tendencies in my work of which I previously unaware. This, obviously, will be a great help to me when it comes to writing my second book. Pulling a collection together is an exciting experience, but you can come to a point where you can no longer see the wood from the tress. The viewpoint of the critic is invaluable, when they carry out their work with due care and diligence of course.

I’ve become aware in the past months that there is a very small pool of poetry reviewers working in Ireland. I can understand the reasoning behind this – it’s a small country and it’s not ideal to have acquaintances or even friends reviewing each other’s work. This can devalue the review in the eyes of many and lead to charges of nepotism. There were a few interesting cases of this in 2014, and a recent article in the TLS about David Harsent winning the T.S. Eliot Prize continues the debate and demonstrates that small pond-ism isn’t restricted to the Irish poetry scene.

So how do we become good critics when everyone knows everyone? A lot of this depends on keeping to a firm ethical code – simply don’t review the work of a colleague. It’s an easy line to preach, but how easy is it to practice? My thoughts on this, paired with my own experience waiting for reviews, got me wondering whether the role of a critic is something I’d like to take on. It has its advantages; offering a heightened awareness of the contemporary poetry scene and hopefully fulfilling a useful purpose. But there’s also the risk that after a lot of hard and often unpaid work you could find yourself standing face to face with a lynch mob of angry poets. After thinking about it for a while, I decided that engaging with a scene from which I’m at a safe enough remove would be a good starting point. I decided to see if Sabotage Reviews would have me as a reviewer. I like the aim of their website: to offer reviews to pamphlets and collections published by smaller presses in the UK and further afield. I like that I’d have an opportunity to become more familiar with the English scene at grass-roots level. And I also thought it would be a good discipline for me to try to think critically about the work of other poets.

Sabotage Reviews were happy to have me on board and here’s my first review, of Helen Clare’s Entomology, a pamphlet published by Happenstance Press from Scotland:

Entomology by Helen Clare

2 thoughts on “Everyone’s a critic!

  1. One reason I write reviews is it forces me into a real engagement with contemporary work, where my natural tastes and curiousities lead me just about anywhere but contemporary poetry. I also feel it is a way of giving back to the art form and of helping to maintain it, and also to maintain, however subjectively, standards in poetry, by applying the same level of thought and questioning to a contemporary as one was taught to do, or as one has taught oneself to do, to Wordsworth, Yeats, Bishop or whoever your bag is. Or at least to raise the questions of what standards might mean in anything goes era in which traditional university bastions of poetry criticism are crumbling under the accumulating and relentless pressures of neo-liberal educational policy. Outside the university system it is even worse – with honorable exceptions like the Munster Literature Centre – in ireland at least poetry funding, promotion and so on are in the hands of people who know little or nothing about poetry and so promote whoever they think will be most advantageous to their funding applications above all other considerations.
    This leads to all kinds of comedy of course, with poets who have never even been reviewed by an actual poetry critic pushed in front of the cameras at the press event, but it also leads to the tragedy of genuinely deep and challenging poets being marginalized. I see a really crucial role of the poetry critic as being NOT focusing on the ‘big names’ (or the ‘buck names’ as I call them) but shining a light on the margins, as Sabotoge Reviews does so admirably. Also being afraid to criticize each other’s work (or worse engaging in uncritical puffing of one’s close colleagues as is standard craic in much irish poetry reviewing) is a terrible and I think in the end fatal weakness in a poetry culture. Someone has to say, eventually, the Prog Rock is over, and Punk’s time has arrived, even if we upset our Prog Rock friends. If we we really care about poetry we will be willing to forget about quangocratic gibberish like ‘ the poetry community’ and ‘irish poetry’ and engage in an honest and passionate fight with each other about what we like and don’t like and why we like or don’t like it. I’m looking forward to reading more of your critical writing and in having a good debate with you.

    • Thanks Dave, as I’ve said to you before I’m always intrigued by the differences in the poetry and theatre reviewing cultures in Ireland (even if the latter is far from perfect). And yeah, the only community without argument belongs to a totalitarian regime.

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