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One of the unspoken issues behind the recent brouhaha about the decline of reviewing, is the fact that so many reviews these days are not worth reading. I don’t care if a review is in the Times Literary Supplement or on someone’s blog, the thing that makes you read a review is if it has something interesting to say and says it interestingly. Readers are not going to abandon the review pages in a newspaper or magazine so long as those review pages are worth the effort of reading. Similarly, readers are not going to abandon newspapers or magazines in favour of blogs or online journals if the blogs and online journals are not worth reading. There are certain reviewers I seek out, whether in a blog or in print, because I value what they have to say, because I am entertained by the way they say it. In that respect, the only difference the medium makes is when and in what circumstances I actually read the review.

However, the fact that there are more and more people writing about books, and more and more venues for them to do so, does not mean that there are more and more reviews being written. In print or online, gushing enthusiasm does not count as a review, plot summary does not count as a review, self congratulation does not count as a review, playing tit-for-tat with your author friends does not count as a review. And more and more that, or some variation on that list of horrific self-indulgence, is what you get in both media.

And yet there are still reviewers who can command our attention. Who can, in one- or three- or five-thousand words, effortlessly open a book up and reveal what it really has to say and how valuable it is and where it might take us, and do so with wit and intelligence and a writing style that is in itself a pleasure to read. Chief among this tiny circle are two men who have been doing the job for donkey’s years, one of them indeed long retired, yet they still show up practically every one of the younger would-be reviewers who come along. I will read their reviews whenever I come across them in the TLS or London Review of Books or elsewhere, even if they are on a subject in which I don’t otherwise have any interest whatsoever. I have seen both of them speak a couple of times, and they are as sharp and funny in person as they are in print. One is the ineffable Frank Kermode, the other is Terry Eagleton.

Having said all that, and despite the fact that we have quite a lot of shelf space given over to his works, it is something of a surprise that I have not read any of Eagleton’s books before now. I have finally broken that duck with what is, I think, his latest book, a slim volume called How to Read a Poem.

All I can say is: go away and read it. Now. You don’t expect a work of serious literary criticism to be laugh-out-loud funny. This is probably the most entertaining work of criticism I’ve read.

More than that it is a revelation. It made me realise that though I’ve been reading poetry for 40-odd years, I don’t actually read it. In a crystal clear fashion he showed how all sorts of things from rhyme scheme to rhythm, from word-choice to line breaks, all feed in to exactly how the poem works. Over the next few weeks I feel sure that I will be revisiting some of my favourite poems and discovering completely new things in them as a result of this book. And I don’t think there is any higher praise you can possibly bestow on a work of criticism.

Oh, and he has finally made me see what distinguishes a poem from any other piece of writing. I mean, it is clear that a poem and a story are not the same thing, but what makes the difference? Poetic attributes like rhyme and rhythm clearly do not appear in every poem, but can appear in some prose fictions, so they are obviously not the defining characteristic. Nor can less definable attributes such as subject matter, perspective, etc, do the job. Well, Eagleton comes up with a definition of a poem (I don’t have the book here so I’m not going to attempt to quote it) as a moral fiction in which the writer determines the line breaks.

Now, I might quarrel with the moral fiction part, since I don’t think either word is necessarily an attribute of a poem. But the line breaks! In any other piece of writing the writer does determine the line breaks, but in prose they are paragraph breaks so the writer uses line breaks to delineate sense units; in drama they represent the different speakers. But in poetry they are structural, the break might be decided because that is where the rhyme comes, or because it delimits a pentameter, or because it fits within a predetermined grid (concrete poetry), or because it completes or breaks an image in a particular way that the writer wishes. The line break does many things, but it is the fact of the line break that marks it out as poetry. So simple, so obvious, yet it had never occurred to me before.

First published at LiveJournal, 27 February 2008.

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