We had considerable conversation, and a little controversy, around my post two weeks ago, The 6 Most Overused Words in Poetry Reviews. I didn’t realize poetry reviews were such a hot topic.
A common question arose: “OK, so you have six overused words in poetry reviews and three more that are contenders for the list of most overused. Just how do you go about writing a poetry review?”
I consider poetry and book reviews highly subjective endeavors. It is someone’s opinion, after all, of someone else’s creative work. There’s no textbook approach I could cite that would meet all conditions and situations.
But I can explain how to write a poetry review by describing how I do poetry reviews myself.
And you can blame Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974).
Lippmann wrote a book entitled Public Opinion (1922) that was likely the most influential book on journalism until Marshall McLuhan came along more than 40 years later with Understanding Media (1964). Lippmann was a modernist, strongly influenced by science and the scientific method, and saw journalists as a key link between government and the public. He recognized that people bring preconceived ideas with them (we call them worldviews today) and it was critical to present the facts before those preconceived ideas could harden.
What flowed from Lippmann’s ideas was the notion of objectivity in journalism. What also developed was a journalistic approach known as “The Five Ws” or “The Five Ws and One H”—who, what, when, where, why and how. This is what I learned in journalism school in college, even as the ideas were becoming much more fluid with the impact of television (McLuhan) and the Watergate scandal. A decade later, the influence of post-modernism would begin to make an impact as well.
As an aside, Lippmann was a co-founder of The New Republic; won two Pulitzer Prizes for journalism and reporting; helped Woodrow Wilson draft the Fourteen Points speech; coined the phrase Cold War; feuded with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War; and is considered today to be the father of modern journalism.
But those “Five Ws and One H”—that’s generally how I write poetry reviews. It was how I learned to write news stories in college, and how I learned to write first music and fiction reviews and later poetry reviews.
Who: I like to know who the poet is, what (if anything) has been previously published, if they have a website and how they describe themselves, and, if available, to see a photo. This is information that helps shape a review, and it’s important for a reader to know. The “who, ” even if brief, places a personality around the poems under consideration.
What: What kind of poetry is it? What form does it follow (or does it have a form)? What is the subject of the poems in the collection?
When: Is this the poet’s first collection? A chapbook? Where does it fall in the poet’s writing career? Does the collection make use of childhood or old-age themes and ideas? Is time an important factor in the poems?
Where: Does the volume have a geography? Robert Frost has New England, Carl Sandburg had Chicago, Walt Whitman had the Civil War hospitals of Washington and his home in New York, and Emily Dickinson had Amherst, Massachusetts. Is geography or a sense of place a strong element in the collection being reviewed?
Why: What is the poet trying to accomplish? What are the themes and ideas the poet is attempting to communicate?
How: How does the poet use language? What are the key metaphors (and there are almost always key metaphors)? What images are employed? What does all of this tell us about what’s going on in these poems?
While I always believe in providing context for a review, the fact is that a book of poetry can be evaluated simply on the basis of itself. It can also be evaluated by focusing solely on any one (or two) of the Five Ws and One H.
I’m not sure if Walter Lippmann ever thought his influence would extend to the writing of poetry reviews, but I don’t think he would be surprised.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish