Critical Voice by Terry Locke

Poetry reviews

Reviews have been around as long as people have responded critically to texts produced by others. The rhetoricians of Ancient Greece can be thought of as establishing standards, principles and procedures in terms of which the spoken texts of orators might be reviewed and criticised.

In Ancient Greece, of course, reviewers would have had to restrict themselves to considerations of the texts available, for example, plays, public speeches, epic and lyric poetry, and histories. Nowadays, the range of texts lending themselves to the activity of review writing has expanded enormously as has the range of publications in which the review is a major genre. On the New Zealand scene, for example, Landfall specialises in reviewing literary texts, Rip It Up used to focus on the reviewing of popular music, the Listener specialises in reviews of plays, books, films and videos, television and radio. In fact, it’s hard to find a publication that doesn’t include a review section.

A review has two main functions. The first can be thought of as a narrative which puts the reader in the picture by backgrounding the text’s production or saying something about its producer, and summarises the text’s content. The second function is evaluative. Here the review writer argues for their opinion of the text on the basis of certain criteria.

Review writing is a risky business, as anyone who has gone public with a review knows. You don’t have to look far among letters to the editors to find reviewers being attacked for their views. Occasionally, reviewers are attacked because they have not got their facts right. Usually, however, the disagreement occurs over the reviewer’s choice of evaluative criteria.

How might the medium of hypertext help a reviewer in the review functions? Primarily, review writing can be thought of as an intertextual act. It is usually incumbent upon a reviewer to place a text in relationship to other texts, both those produced by the maker of the text under review, and those that the text under review alludes to in some way. Hypertext allows these links to be inserted as “hot” into a review text. It also allows hotlinks to be made to sites that are relevant to the reviewer’s own frame as they undertake the review task.

My own reviews

I started realising the hypertextual potential for poetry reviews when I was sent for review a copy of Husk by Chris Price, a contemporary New Zealand poet. When I began reading the book I had enormous difficulty in getting into it. It was as if there was a whole dimension to the book that was beyond my reach. I was frustrated and began to feel quite negatively towards the poetry.

Then, towards the end of the book, I came across a poem entitled “Electroshock” which mentioned Professor Cerletti. There and then I decided that I would let a search engine mediate between the poems and me. I entered “Cerletti” and “Electroshock” as key words into an advanced search. What happened is described in the review I subsequently wrote as a print text (for English in Aotearoa) and a hypertext. Effectively, the search engine window led to my accessing a dimension of the poems that had been beyond me. (You’ll find the review hotlinked from the page: Terry Locke: New Zealand Poetry Reviews.)

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