The Value of Poetry Critique/Criticism

I have recently been checking out the 10 Questions posts on the blog Very Like A Whale.

I was particularly interested in the responses given when 10 poets were asked to comment on a passage from the article Why Poetry Criticism Sucks by Kristin Prevallet (first published in Jacket Magazine).

The passage reads:

It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”


While I feel that poetry critque/criticism has become less rigorous and is used now more as a marketing tool, I cannot help but think that genuinely well written criticism; criticism that is thought out, crafted, researched, unbiased is vital for both the poet and poetry.

But that is just my humble opinion… I would love to hear from many of you to hear your thoughts.

I also recommend reading the responses to this passage on Very Like A Whale… some real food for thought. Read the responses here.


Filed under poetry & publishing

11 responses to “The Value of Poetry Critique/Criticism

  1. I’ve been reading the reviews in Cordite and I would have to agree with you re the state of criticism. Poets should never take criticism personally. On the other hand critics should be very careful to make the distinction between saying that the decisions the poet has made in making the poem are wrong and saying that poem doesn’t accord with their taste. This is the most common failure of critics, when they are talking about their taste in poetry but pretending to talk as though they were making an objective observation.

    To criticise a decision as being wrong, the critic has to understand both the aesthetic of the poet and have a working and justifiable aesthetic of their own. That is to say, meaningful criticism can only be part of a larger discussion about the function of poetry and the application of craft in general.

    I could go on but let me say that as soon as critics start criticising poems for being ‘nothing more than prose with linebreaks’ I will be the first one cheering them on.

  2. michael

    i think a roman almost said, ‘who criticises the critics’
    answer: the people the critics criticise

    paul: but isn’t prose just ‘poetry without linebreaks’. chicken & the egg, bro. at least in poetry, linebreaks are deliberate. in prose, the are paginated accidents – a coward’s way to ‘frame’ a thought.

    unless your criticism is that poetry is losing its own language, the metre and melody it once had, attempting to meet some ideal of naturalness; then yes, i’d agree. reservedly.

  3. ashleycapes

    hmm, this is interesting but a bit hard for me to comment on.

    I wish I’d actually written a few reviews so I could be better informed from that side…but from a reader’s point of view, I haven’t decided whether I think autobiographical criticism, at least, is any good (at all) when used for discussing poetry. Probably not. A review on the work itself, rather than the poet, much more useful?

    I do like one of the comments from the link a lot – Tony’s I think – it was spot on. If you publish a book of poetry then you are open to criticism, good and bad, because you just cannot control what others write about your work.

  4. jules

    i’d like to know more about what you mean when you say that you think criticism is used is used more as a marketing tool…

  5. Jacqueline

    Reviewing is incredibly challenging. I try to write reviews that reflect my experience of reading the book, rather than making aesthetic pronouncements. That way, readers of the review can decide for themselves. I always include quotes from the poetry so readers can actually see what’s happening in the work. Still, the space for poetry reviews (in print anyway) seems to be tightening. For example, my last review for the Vancouver paper _The Georgia Straight_ was 350 words for three books! Then it got cut further right before press time. That’s barely enough words to string together a few quotes. And, in a lot of cases, the one review is all many books of poetry in Canada get. So there is pressure to represent the work accurately in terms of what it sets out to do. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize work for not doing certain things when it’s clear that the book is not engaging with those things at all. For example, I wouldn’t necessarily criticize a poet’s attachment to the traditional form of the lyric if there was obviously no attempt at formal innovation. I try to critique, yet write the things I would say to the poet’s face.

    This is different from the kinds of unpublished critical work that happens among poets, though I don’t think anyone really talks about this process. If a fellow poet asked me to critique poems prior to publication, then I would have no problem saying what I thought would make the work better. I think more poets should find critical readers and editors for their work before they publish it.

    • gnunn

      Am glad this has generated some interesting discussion.

      First up, in my initial blog, I was pointing to the fact that in many cases, reviews are used more as a marketing tool and often fail to provide any meaningful comment on the work and its place in the greater body of literature and the cultural world. This is partly, as Jacqueline points out, a result of the shrinking page space for reviews, but also due (in my opinion) to the fact that there are limited marketing opportunities available for poetry, so reviews, become a primary source of spreading the word.

      I think we all agree so far that poetry criticism is essential, and I am a huge believer that if you are writing for a public audience that you should actively seek critical readership.

      What I would like to explore now is what is the function of poetry criticism? This is something that I feel needs to be clearly defined.

  6. That’s an excellent question. I used to think its only function was to give academics who couldn’t actually write poetry a chance to feel involved in some way. Then it became a way for them to justify their salaries. Then it evolved into a key tool for their complete highjacking of poetry as they invented the ridiculousness that is ‘poetics’ and proceeded to confuse that with criticism. It could have (a very narrow) role in promoting the better practice of poetry by placing it in a wider context of intellectual investigation. For instance someone could investigate the correlation between the work of Paul Squires and that of Eckhardt Tolle, but that is probably a bit too much to ask from a literary culture degraded by decades of pretentious waffle designed only to magnify the ego of the critic/academic and justify the nepotism deeply embedded in the government grant structure. And so on,

    • If you wanted to look for the root cause of the problem, I’ld suggest looking at the end of free tertiary education in Australia in the 1980’s. By making degrees so expensive (especially post graduate degrees) the potential pool of students was greatly reduced. This had a particularly sharp effect in the Humanities where career options at the end of the degree process were limited and so the debt accrued was particularly burdensome. Postgraduate studies in the Humanities were really only available to a tiny percentage of the population who came from very similar (my parents can afford to support me for the first 8 years of my adult life) backgrounds. As a result many of our best and brightest were forced out of the system. Decades on, this has had a compounded effect (like interest on a bad HECS debt) as the students have become the teachers and the result is what we see about us now.

  7. Pingback: Further Questions About The Value of Poetry Reviews « Another Lost Shark

  8. Pingback: The Role of the Critic | Another Lost Shark

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