Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.


How does one review a collected works? I’m having some problems figuring out an approach that doesn’t reduce to “do you like what so-and-so has written over the course of his/her career? Then you’ll probably like this.”

I suppose a reviewer could review the poet’s career as a whole, but that seems a daunting, if not impossible, task for an essay the length of most reviews, especially given the kind of ground that a Collected Poems tends to cover.

With a Selected Poems, the reviewer can admire or question (or both) the choices that the editor made, but even that feels, to me, like the editor is being reviewed rather than the poet (assuming the poet wasn’t involved in the intricacies of the poems being chosen). That requires a fairly extensive knowledge of the poet’s career, since one is looking at what was excluded as much as what was included, but it’s a decent way of attacking the book.

But for a Collected, I really have no idea. I don’t have one on my plate to review or anything, but I get them across my desk from time to time, and have problems getting people to take them on. Any suggestions? I’m open to anything.


May 2, 2010 - Posted by | book reviews, poetry


  1. Is there a common theme or tendency of thought or language that runs (approximately) through the poet’s oeuvre? Since space is an issue and you must be selective, I would consider attacking the volume by exploring/addressing/challenging an image or general subject tendency or the diction or prosody of the poems — some one or two interesting or curious things that struck me as either consistent throughout the poet’s career or that builds, diminishes, or ebbs and flows through different phases.

    The order of the poems can also be a road into navigating the collection as a whole: chronological can reflect both the poet’s path and that of historical events; selective arrangement by the poet (e.g., Leaves of Grass) suggests an experience the poet wanted to create as the reader advances from beginning to end.

    I personally think research into the poet’s career would help a great deal, though, not just for comprehension but because knowing what pieces are most often selected/omitted gives the reviewer the ability to consider which poems of that poet are seen as canon, which aren’t, and why — and how the inclusion of the noncanonical texts alter (or don’t) the common understanding of that poet’s work.

    Comment by Kellie | May 2, 2010 | Reply

  2. Depends on the length of the book, I guess. Someone like Robert Hayden (>200pp.), you review as if it were a single collection. But then with something like the massive 4-volume Larry Eigner just out from Stanford, it’s a whole different kettle of fish.

    The big collecteds, I think, just can’t be covered in a 1000-word review; they can be *noticed*, but not truly reviewed.

    But if you’re given the space, I don’t think the basic problem is any different from reviewing any other poetry collection: you point out strengths & weaknesses, eccentricities & commonplaces, places where the poet develops what’s most interesting about her work or illogically cherishes what’s most irritating. The only difference is that the reviewer of a CW has to keep a kind of global, career-wide scope in mind.

    Comment by Mark | May 2, 2010 | Reply

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