. . . evidently a LOT. So far as we know, no-one has yet selected "because of the wonderful reviews" as their top reason for purchasing a poetry magazine.
Some poetry magazines can, and do, easily solve this problem by not having any reviews at all. Others have minuscule two-liners. But still there's the issue that too many of the reviews so often deplored are written by men. Those of you following the current Magma thread "Are literary publications biased against women?" will know all about this.
Knowing all about this, poets frequently complain that their books don't get reviews, even by men. Or that the single review they got was horribly biassed or badly written.
Badly written? Obviously this website seeks to apply a corrective by offering three well-written reviews of each poetry pamphlet we see. Many Sphinx reviewers are women, although I am nervous about counting the precise gender distribution.
But whatever their distribution gender-wise, Sphinx reviewers are required not to sound authoritative. They give a personal response, in an accessible style. They are, like the wedding guest in The Ancient Mariner, "one of three".
But one of three or not, a still harder task falls on their shoulders, and it's all my fault. I'm concerned about the degree to which the language of blurb and cliché is entering reviews, the last place on earth where these manifestations should find a home. So I have a list of proscribed phrases, and it keeps getting longer.
It keeps getting longer because editors are ornery and unreasonable people, and I am one of them. And sometimes my reviewers, quite naturally, react edgily ("edgy" is officially out of bounds but I can break my own rules). George Simmers, editor of Snakeskin, and occasional Sphinx reviewer, fell upon my latest guidelines and instantly rustled up a review, in verse form, using almost all the phrases he will never use in a Sphinx review. He also makes use of the word "beige", the colour voted most unpopular in the United Kingdom in 2002. You can read it in his blog here.
A new set of reviews will be on the Sphinx part of the website imminently, as well as an interview with two of the redoubtable guys (I'm trying to avoid the word "men" but they are) behind Pighog Press.
(If you happen to be a man, and read this, please don't worry about your gender. In the end, the balance, in poetry reviews as well as much else, will probably adjust dramatically in favour of the gentle sex and then just a little positive discrimination will get you back on your feet in no time.)
ps Here is my current 'to be avoided' list:
• début collection
• eagerly awaited (by whom???)
• any description of one poet in terms of another by making up an adjective from that poet’s name eg Larkinesque & Eliotian
• the new Peter Reading (or any other poet’s name)
• shows promise (patronising with faint praise)
• a new voice
• one to watch
• upcoming poet (or worse – 'up and coming')
• literary terms that general readers struggle with (e.g parataxis, synecdoche, metonymy)
• at the height of his/her powers
• emerging poet
• important poet
• sui generis
• risk-taking, taking risks (unless you’re going to be very precise about what you see as risky or have tongue firmly in cheek)
• beware of ‘edgy’ – which is starting to become the new ‘risk-taking’ – and ‘spiritual’
• metaphorical domain
• exciting new talent
• demotic idiom
• and please no ‘epiphanies’