In this post, I share my method for reviewing books of poetry. My reviews appear twice monthly in my newsletter, Sticks & Stones, which is free to subscribers.
- I read the whole book several times.
- First, I read it as if I were not planning to review it. I just enjoy the book. I read every poem, but not necessarily in order; one of the things I love about poetry books is that they don’t have to be read sequentially. They’re also small, so I always have one tucked in my purse. Recently I read a whole book while sitting in a courtroom waiting for possible jury duty (I wasn’t chosen).
- The second time I read the book, I’m more disciplined. I read the book in order, take notes and track page numbers. I then write a one-paragraph summary of the book. This helps me pull together the many impressions that poetry makes on me as a reader.
- The third and subsequent times through, I re-read the passages that stood out. I begin to get a sense of what I will say about the book. By now, I have noticed certain things about the book as a whole, i.e., the poet’s style and skill. Does this poet take risks? Stick to familiar themes? Use forms?
- After reading the book several times, certain poems will haunt me. Themes emerge, as well as connections between poems, small links and groupings.
- I start writing the review. I often struggle with the first paragraph. I don’t want to repeat myself or use clichés, so I work hard to make the first sentences of the review as fresh and interesting as possible.
- I follow the book in chronological order as I write the review.
- I quote extensively from poems in the book. The reader gets a sense of the book from these quotes, but fragments of poetry also have their own life on the page (or the screen), like scraps of beautiful fabric.
- I keep the reviews under 700 words. This allows me to write two per month and fits in well with the newsletter format. It also forces me to be succinct.
A few more things about reviewing:
- I study the covers of the books I review carefully. Sometimes they give me a starting place.
- I fully expect delight and amazement from the book I’m reviewing. So far, so good.
- I am not necessarily giving my personal opinion about a book. I’m giving it as complete and fair a review as I can. Writers have trusted me with their books, and I take that seriously.
Journals that publish reviews of poetry collections include The Atlantic, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The American Poetry Review. Many excellent reviews appear in literary journals.
I enjoy Secrets of book critics, a new feature at LitHub.
One of my favorite reviewers is David Biespiel.