Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The language of reviews

  • Blurbs are one thing, and review another, but they share vocabularies at least - Vitally Urgent: The Game of Blurb is fun.
  • Here are some extracts from 2 reviews in "Envoi" issue 151 (2008).
    June Hall reviewing June EnglishJan Fortune-Wood reviewing Nigel McLoughlin
    "brims with energy""brimming with energy"
    "sharp eye for detail""attention to detail"
    "ironic", "irony""irony"

    In addition the pieces include some other standard review features

    June Hall reviewing June EnglishJan Fortune-Wood reviewing Nigel McLoughlin
    clichés "chronicling", "evocative", "challenging""within the themes that both weave and compete within and between the sections", "at once familiar and strange"
    self-repetition "captures her bewilderment", "are caught by", "catches the rage" "dissonance(s)" 4 times, "resonate with a stance towards language", "resonate across the discord"
  • I sometimes get the impression that there aren't many things to say about poetry, so one needs to resort to metaphors to add variety, to make the review more readable. And often reviewers, even good ones, have to tell rather than show because of space constraints. For example, Judy Brown in "Poetry Review V103:4 (Winter 2013)" values
    • exactness and precision - "engineering exactness", "carefully laid trail of thematic markers, "how precisely they achieve their friable effects"
    • structural order and control - "the thematic patterning is surprisingly insistent", "The formal and syntactical control is resolute", "sound drives the construction of his poems, creating a distinctive, allusive architecture", "poems ... unfold on syntactical recipes using repetition"
    She writes that "Names are a common trick in contemporary poetry, but Warner is doing something entirely individual, far more to do with sound and widening the screen, than the usual stab at specificity and grounding". An example might have helped.
  • Menus and reviews share a style -
    • "a subtle hint of truffle"
      Why "subtle" rather than "slight" or simply "weak"? The same trick is used in poetry reviews, especially with comic verse written by famous, non-comic poets. "weak" implies a lack (in quality or quantity) of ingredients. "subtle" is more to do with perception than final significance. It describes something that's hard to initially discern, perhaps because there's little worth discerning (i.e. the effect is weak), but it may describe something that though well masked has a strong effect once it's detected (e.g. a sigh that means so much). You need to be an astute observer/taster to notice something subtle - the recipient is being flattered by the writer.
    • "Rutland beef in a white sauce"
      Why not "beef in white sauce"? Detail and particularity are valued in poems. In poetry it won't do to give someone a flower, or see a bird pull at a worm. Use African pansies, and magpies. There might not be significance in the choice of detail - in this menu example the extra "a" adds no information, and there's no reason why Rutland beef should be prized. What matters is the evident attention to detail - a reason for the poetry reader to be optimistic.
    • "with a smooth articulation of aftertastes"
      Beware when a word representing an admired quality in one context is used in quite another. Wine in particular needs to import terms, given the limited range of raw materials at its disposal. As soon as more than one factor is involved in a meal or poem, terms can be used from other domains (often engineering) to indicate successful integration - cogs meshing, etc.
    • "clean-flavoured, relaxed, precise cooking"
      Precision is valued in many disciplines. Poetry precision is harder to define and measure than precision of musical performance or realistic art (look no further than the tolerance granted to line-breaks), and yet poetry reviewers, even good ones, praise exactness without explaining the term.

In The Poet Tasters Ben Etherington noted a uniformity of structure in the reviews he read -

More often than not, reviews follow this formula:
1. Introduce the volume, the poet and their previous publications.
2. Describe the poet’s overall aesthetic with reference to European and / or North American antecedents.
3. Quote approvingly from two or three choice poems with some technical commentary.
4. Express reservations about one or two poems.
5. Affirm, nevertheless, the worthiness of the volume as a whole.

A template I often see is a review that begins with an observation about poetry, then shows how it relates to the book in question. My current pile of magazines-to-read has examples. Here are 3 starts -

  • When you are young, and full of verse, there seem so many subjects for poems: the self, the other, the leaf on the pavement, the scent of the mock orange: all present themselves as thrilling and new. And when you are old, for many poets, the world fills again with the urgency of imminent loss, and you enter another phase of intense creativity. But in between there is middle age: the era of responsibility, and consistency, and matrimony, and parenting, and imminent not much - Kate Clancy, The Poetry Review, V103:4, p.104
  • In 2004, Dr James Kaufman of California State University published his study into the varying lifespans of writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Along with statistical evidence suggesting that the business of poetry contrived to bump off poets at an average age of sixty-two (four years earlier than novelists), Kaufman concluded that "Poets produce twice as much of their lifetime output in their twenties as novelists do". While novelists of the late modern period were shown to improve through a good long stewing, poets of the same era tended to flash fry, then overcook themselves - Jack Underwood, The Poetry Review, V103:4, p.125
  • Do writers describe places, or create them in their work? Perhaps that question should be can writers describe real places, or must they write them into existence? - Matt Ward, New Walk 10

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