Friday, 9 January 2015

Striking a balance

My four years at Oxford sharpened my critical capacity. Those one-on-one tutorials taught me how to dismember or defend a stance on a text. However, they also blunted my creativity and enjoyment of reading.

At the time, I was surprised to find so few tutors were also writers, but I later realised that their constant deep analysis of the relative virtues of existing texts inhibited their capacity to create: when committing words to paper they were only too aware of their own deficiencies. One Spanish lecturer even struggled to bring himself to publish his critical articles, such were his demanding standards.

As a reader, meanwhile, my time at Oxford changed the way I approached a text. In my teenage years I’d fallen in love with books for the way they captivated me. Oxford took that away. I was no longer captivated. Instead, I was coached to assess a text’s value from the first word.  

I do worry that many critics (and poet-critics) have fallen out of love with literature, and that’s why I left academia as soon as I’d finished my undergraduate degree. Almost twenty years later, I’m finally capable of letting a text wash over me once more, before stepping back and taking it apart.

However, there’s also the opposite end of the spectrum. Writers who haven’t developed a critical eye are at a severe disadvantage when looking to improve their work. All poets should write reviews, not necessarily for publication but as a way of getting to grips with their own views on verse. It’s all very well for us to state that we like or loathe a book, but the key is in coherently putting our arguments down on paper. Learning to do so will make us better poets. It’s a question of striking a balance.


  1. Do you think it's fair to say ALL poets should write reviews? I think poets should take reading just as seriously as reviewers have to, but I wouldn't want to force them to write reviews. Only if they want to. And though we hope reviewing may make us better poets, I believe the main aspiration is to be a better reader. Because reading is also an art. (I think)

  2. Yes, I do! Reviewing makes us better readers and that then feeds into our poetry. I'm convinced your editing of pieces for Sphinx helped the reviewers hugely, both in terms of their understanding of verse and.their own use of language.

    If clarity and precision aren't present in our prose, we're unlikely to achieve them in poetry.

  3. It may have helped some. Others (including a couple I particularly valued) didn't enjoy it, even when good at it, and stopped.

    But I think I'm just uneasy with statements about 'all poets'. I always want to disagree with 'all poet' statements. ;-)

  4. Dear Matthew

    When I was teaching English in Istanbul (and writing 'Images of Istanbul') I asked a bright fellow teacher if he ever wrote anything. 'Good God, no!' he replied. 'Why not?' I inquired. 'Because I know that I'll never be as good as Jane Austen' was his resigned response.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  5. Interesting points well made, Matthew. I'm with you on the importance of being able to coherently articulate and justify an artistic opinion - "it's great" or "it's crap" hardly cuts it. As it goes, there's an interesting feature forthcoming in a certain magazine later this year which should shed further light on this topic, offering the perspectives of several critics and poet-critics on the pitfalls and pleasures of poetry reviewing. Will keep you posted.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up, Ben. That sounds intriguing! I look forward to hearing more in due course...