Anita Lahey has a meaty exchange with Phoebe Wang on the subject of poetry and poetry reviewing. Here are some favourite moments:
When I’m coming to a book, I’m coming first as a reader, and having my own direct reaction to the book and what’s happening in it, and then when I sit down to write about it, I try to place my reaction to the book in a wider context. As opposed to starting with a theory or academic context, I’m starting with my visceral reaction to what I’ve read. I’m trying to be open and frank about what’s happening to me as a reader of that book, with the understanding that the person reading the review would know that—it might be different for them, and likely would be, because they’re a different person. And I think that’s important: I think a lot of the discussion that has been going on about reviewing and the way it’s supposed to work really underestimates readers, their understanding of the relationship between the reviewer and the book, and between them and the reviewer. They’re not blank slates that reviewers are putting their all-powerful assessments onto; they’re close readers in their own right, and will have an understanding that a reviewer is one person with a perspective.
As a writer—and I don’t know if other writers would feel this way—I want to know if my book didn’t work for someone for some reason. That’s something I’m really curious about. Because I want to reach a reader in some way. That’s part of the impulse of writing, to share, so I wouldn’t say that my own personal perspective has given me a perspective on the world of criticism—a hard reading is kind of an honour, in a way, because someone cares deeply enough about what you’re doing to give it the attention and time, and to think about it and read it that closely, and that’s a real gift.
I’m baffled by the debates that go on, that tend to have very narrow ideas of what’s okay, what should be allowed, what we should have left behind by now, or all of these things.They have these discussions in the music world, but we all seem okay with loving and listening to different kinds of music. That doesn’t preclude the fact that there are definitely such things as weak poems and bad poems, but why can’t there be many different kinds of really strong poems, just like there’s lots of different kinds of really strong music?
It’s that thing about poetry: you can never adequately articulate what makes a good poem because the whole magic of a poem is that it’s holding something you can’t articulate. So the best poems are the ones that, when you read them again, you see something that you didn’t see before. There’s room for you in that, because we’re always different in the sense that we’re amassing experience and things all the time, so when we’re going back to something, we’re going back to it slightly different than when we read it before. And if a poem is a good, strong one, it actually responds to that change somehow, so you get something more, or different, or you see something you didn’t like the last time.