It's not often I find my way over to Facebook these days, but I have been following an interesting discussion on Rob Mackenzie's wall this week, about the way that poetry is reviewed in this country.
It's a complex subject, and to a large extent I find myself agreeing with the thrust of Jon Stone's argument (why can't poetry be reviewed in the same way that, say, film and music are?), as well as feeling a good deal of sympathy for Rob's starting-point.
I suppose one of the angles that hasn't been explored fully is where the reviews are appearing. I've no idea what The Guardian (or any of the other broadsheets) pay their reviewers, but I'd assume they do, and that would inevitably create a different situation to that of reviewers writing for a small press mag for no financial reward. While it might on the one hand make it easier for the reviewer to be critical (not having to worry about offending a potentially large proportion of the magazine's subscribers), it might also work the other way - the paper would be reluctant to consistently be too lukewarm towards the books of a regular advertiser.
In poetry mags and webzines themselves, it's a bit different. The reviewer is often writing for no reward other than a free copy of the book (although some, such as Magma, certainly pay). From personal experience, that's fine - it's a chance to read more poetry than I could otherwise afford, and especially to take a chance on books that I'd otherwise have thought looked interesting but didn't feel like shelling out for. It does mean, though, that the reviewer is often predisposed to like what they're reading - you're unlikely to take the time and effort to read the book carefully, make notes, then write the review, if it's something you just don't like.
The same's true on blogs, and that's certainly unashamedly the case here at Polyolbion. I don't get the time or the money to read anything like all the poetry I'd like to, so I'm not going to waste precious time writing a negative blog review when I could be just getting on with finding something I do like. I don't get enough time to be positive about all the things I do like, for that matter, so a great many good books go unheralded.
Finally, someone in the discussion brought up the subject of what a review is actually for. I haven't ever, I don't think, bought a book of poetry purely on the strength of a review, but a good review (as in a well written one) is often enough to spark my interest in a book that might otherwise have passed me by - again, it might well encourage me to take a few chances.
So what is a good review? Well, as Rob originally suggested, I want to see some suggestion of weak points, as well as strengths (and I can't think of a single collection I own that doesn't have at least some negatives), and I want to see both highlighted with plenty of reference to the actual text. In that, at least, I suppose it's always going to be different to any print review of film or music, where examples can only be described.