After a decade of editing poetry reviews for Tower website, Peter McDonald tries to sort out his feelings about his role as an editor and critic:
Reviewing contemporary poetry is no easy matter; and I, for one, can think of no universal formula for how it is best done. Maybe, indeed, it is best not done at all. The problems are varied, for no two collections strike out in quite the same directions, and no two poets (good, bad, or indifferent) operate in exactly the same ways. Nevertheless, one difficulty for a reviewer is so huge that it is almost impossible to face squarely, let alone to solve: the audience for a review of contemporary poetry is not only tiny by comparison with that for other kinds of writing, but also made up largely of other poets. Maybe, then, not as tiny as all that, for there are really quite a few of these. And poets— as literary history, not to mention common sense, should tell us—are not signed up to many disinterested conceptions of literary culture and critical discussion. They are, on the contrary, interested in often the most heated and intense ways: as vigilant guardians of their own art and its aesthetic (if we want to put it grandly), or as querulous and thin-skinned careerists (if we prefer—and I don’t recommend this—a blunter way of putting things). By and large, nobody listens to things like poetry reviews apart from other poets, and those involved in the forever failing, but quietly heroic cottage-industry of its production and promotion. The exercise of critical judgement (and again, that might be too grand an expression) does not take place on any wide field of engagement, with important things at stake; rather, as has been said before, it is more like a knife-fight in a phone box—intimate, cramped, and unlikely to end well. Everybody gets hurt.
I would like to be able to appreciate more of what I encounter, and I’d be the first to concede that my failure to do so isn’t necessarily the poetry’s fault. For appreciation is one of the highest skills in criticism, and one of the rarest: it is worth aspiring to. There is a difference, though, between appreciation and approval, just as there is a divide between literary criticism and promotional copy. Much of what passes for critical discussion of contemporary poetry is (and for some time has been) merely a form of recommendation, one that tends to the hyperbolic. I do not believe that reviewing should be a form of professional networking; but I have to acknowledge that here the facts are against me. In time, all the hyperbole proves corrosive: it should be no surprise that, the higher the volume of praise from reviewers and prize juries, directed in predictable ways to a consistently small circle of predictable names, the less a general reading public feels inclined to tolerate contemporary poetry.