Forming a judgement about a book is always going to be a least slightly subjective, but book reviewers have certain standard elements they analyze, that they can compare to other books. But what about books of poetry? How can reviewers form judgements on, and truly analyze a form of literature that’s so incredibly subjective? What one person thinks is beautiful poetry, another may think is too sappy or flowery. What one reader thinks is a brilliant, sharp form of modern poetry, another reader might argue is just gimmicky. Reviewers need to be able to evaluate the content of a book with a critical eye; so, what are some more objective principles a they can rely on to back up their initial opinion of a collection of poetry?
Poetry book reviews do share some elements with those of standard prose fiction and nonfiction books. Because, like a with any of those books, poetry reviewers will analyze themes, genre, figures of speech and cultural context. However, there are some things that are unique to poetry that you must consider. It must be noted that there are many loose kinds of subgenres in poetry. For example, some poems read like epic tales, such as Homer’s “Iliad;” others read like existential journal entries, such as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Others are more like e.e. cummings, who evoked an image on the page with his words, like his portrayal of the path of a falling leaf in his poem “l(a.”
Traditional poetry has a set form, using rhyme patterns or a meter, and a poet can be assessed by how well they use those tools. But many modern poets have abandoned those forms, or evolved them to such a point that they can’t be assessed in the same way; so the reviewer must turn to other methods. They can look at other common mechanics in each individual poem. A reviewer must address details specific to the poetry, such as the poet’s use of iambic pentameter, alliteration or onomatopoeia. They can analyze the poet’s recurring use of figures of speech, such as metaphors, similes, personification or irony.
The reviewer must also look at the overall structure of the poem. They can ask themselves questions such as “does the content in each poem flow smoothly?” A poorly structured poem may get boring part way through, or be structured in a way that makes it confusing for the reader. If it is a more grounded, narrative poem, it is also important to ask “is there a logical progression of thoughts and ideas in the poem?” However, this is harder to apply to abstract poems, where the poet is simply creating images, or using the sound of the words more than the meaning. But if that’s the case, then it still should not be a boring experience.
But beyond analyzing each individual poem, the reviewer must look at the collection as a cohesive whole. Like any story, a collection of poems should have an underlying message or theme. The poet will use recurring imagery or ideas throughout the series of poems, to serve as analogies for those central themes. This, of course, doesn’t apply to anthologies or the “selected works” of a poet. But when the poet releases a new book of poetry, they will endeavor to create a flow throughout the work, using an underlying focus.
A poet’s vision should become clear with a close reading. It may not be blatant, because intricate poetry can take several readings to truly understand. But there should be an overall sense of unity and flow to the pieces. A key point of analysis in poetry is not only to identify what you believe the poets main themes to be, but also if they successfully portrayed/conveyed that theme. If the collection feels like a jumbled, disorganized mess, without any reason for the discordancy, then the poet probably didn’t put enough thought into the work. Even if the reader cannot directly relate to the subjects of the poetry, a good poet should be able to make them experience, or at least understand the emotions of the idea. Therein lies the truest of talents.
In the end, the reviewer may find they simply don’t like the style of poetry. If that’s the case, they must still endeavor to be fair. Of course, always be frank and open that you don’t like the technique, or that you don’t think it works. But as with any other book, that cannot be the sole driving focus of a poetry review.