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On Reviewing Poetry

Updated: May 24, 2023

Simon Mulder

Probably the least interesting way to review a poetry collection is to measure it alongside the yardstick of one’s own poetics. This approach will only show the reader to what extent the collection corresponds to the expectations of the critic. Then, the purpose of the review is not to learn something about the intrinsic value of the work under discussion. Instead, the review becomes a vehicle for imposing the critic’s own point of view. The work becomes subordinated to the affirmation of the value system and—unfortunately in most cases—of the critic’s ego.

Most reviews I come across nowadays are long pleas that could just as well have been summed up in one sentence: ‘I, poet A [because poets often evaluate each other’s work], am a member of movement B, and poet C, whom I’m reviewing here, is not (or is).’ After reading such a piece, we find out solely whether a specific poet does or does not meet the ideological maxims that are important in the eyes of the critic. And that, in the case of deceased poets who usually (logically) do not meet those maxims, the past was indeed different. Hardly elevating.

The most interesting interpretation of a poem is not one that indicates whether the poem fits within the worldview of the critic, but one that provides us with insight. Such an interpretation, in the case of poets of the past, is an act of historical and social justice. To denounce someone because they happened to live—or are living—in a different temporal or social context is simply unfair. Besides, in my opinion, this type of interpretation is also more enjoyable: through it, you find out something new rather than confirm a biased point of view. All of this makes it much more rewarding to appraise a poet based on whether their poetry meets their own notions. Many poets write poetry and essays about literature, or have been critics themselves, which makes it easy to identify these notions.

It seems to me that the most worthwhile approach begins with examining the axioms a poet uses as the basis for their work. Then we can determine whether the poet, according to their own standards, has produced a successful work. Some of those axioms are historically determined. They can, for example, cover form, language use, or the intended audience. Maybe the form has gone out of fashion, or perhaps the language use is no longer current and the originally intended audience no longer alive. These, however, shouldn’t be grounds to reject a work purely because it seems ‘strange’ (compared to the currently dominant aesthetics, or, to be more precise: compared to the dominant aesthetics of the critic’s sociotope). Besides, you will generally have a more pleasant reading experience when you accept the principles of the specific poet. If you are reading Willem Kloos, allow yourself to be momentarily transported by his proposition: ‘I am a God in the depths of my thoughts’—only then the following turn ‘And yet, I sometimes yearn so endlessly / To wrap your precious body in my arms’ leaves an impression. For a moment, forget the idea that rhyming poems are out of fashion, immerse yourself in the form and you’ll see that Kloos is a master in structuring sonnets, such as ‘Evening’ (‘Barely visible, swaying on a light sigh…’). On the other hand, when you read Herman Gorter, you might complain that his meter is rickety or that his rhyme is simplistic—he found himself compelled to apply the rules more loosely so that he could find new music in his poetry. Gorter’s value lies elsewhere. And when you read J.C. Bloem, Lucebert, Herman de Coninck, or Menno Wigman, you will also constantly find different paradigms that require different assessment scales. Are there then no objective criteria? Certainly, there are—language proficiency, accuracy, and musicality seem to me several criteria that accomplished poets almost always meet. But there are always exceptions. A gifted poet can operate so brilliantly outside of the rules that something that previously seemed impossible now becomes possible—someone like Gorter, for example, as I argue in my recent anthology of his work published by HetMoet. He uses a simplistic rhyme scheme, his metre is incorrect, and his imagery is unusual; this type of poetry would nowadays immediately be dismissed by publishers:

But large fire blossoms commence Maar groote vlambloemen gaan beginnen to sway with love in your hands— in uwe handen te wieglen van minne— your hairs, they rise like fire, uw haren rijzen als een vlam, your cheeks ardent with light transpire— uw wangen zijn vuurvloeiend, lichtklam— o perish in me o doe in mij vergaan that fiery pondering dat vlammend beraan

(‘O cool black breaths of the night…’ from: Herman Gorter, Een rood lied zingt er, Uitgeverij HetMoet, 2021)

Nevertheless, these rules of thumb usually work. Some poets very easily meet these criteria: nobody needs a critic to tell them that the poets mentioned above are terrific.

But precisely for those poets who need context and do not automatically belong to the classics the fruitful approach is not that of the critics’ scourge, but that of the binocular and the microscope. Then we can consider whether a poet achieves what they aspire to. Many poets wanted to achieve what Kloos, Gorter, Lucebert, and De Coninck achieved—but many didn’t accomplish the same results and aren’t read anymore.

I am duly aware that I myself am now reviewing the genre of reviews and, as a result, also have to take into account the intention of the critic in my judgement when I read a review. That, however, means that I assume the purpose of a review is to review (to analyse, interpret, and evaluate an artwork). That the purpose is not to do something else, like levering a personal attack on someone or giving a summary of one’s own notions about what constitutes good literature. When that is the case, the evaluation should be based on other questions: is the personal attack justified, is the review itself a good piece of literature, or is the critic’s argument on poetics interesting? Even so, it seems silly to leave out that people call something a review when it is actually something completely different.

However it may be, a lot more interesting than the question ‘Does this poet conform to my expectations of what poetry is, or to the demands of contemporary fashion?’ is the question: ‘Is this poet the best executor of their own ideals?’ Following the contemporary discussion about cultural appropriation: when a critic assesses a writer according to their own poetics, they try to include the writer where they don’t belong—and as such, commit poetical appropriation.

On April 10, the Feest der Poëzie Foundation will organise the event ‘Kom zijn liefste—on Herman Gorter’ in Bibliotheek de Mariënburg, Nijmegen (Dutch-spoken).


Simon Mulder is a performance artist, artistic director of the Feest der Poëzie Foundation, and a teacher in secondary education of Latin and Greek. He organises and performs at poetry and music events in the Netherlands as well as abroad. Simon also writes poetry and essays and works as an editor at Armada, a journal for world literature, and Arabesken, the journal of the Louis Couperus Society.

Translation: Ilse van Oosten. Read the original Mamoetje in Dutch here.



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