According to the editors of Poetry:
These rules [for assigning book reviews] were put in place a couple of years ago, because it seemed to us that the state of reviewing in contemporary poetry was so dire. Not only was there a great deal of obvious logrolling going on (friends reviewing friends, teachers promoting students, young poets writing strategic reviews of older poets in power), but the writing was just so polite, professional, and dull. We wanted to eliminate the descriptive review, those pieces you finish without any clear idea of whether its author loved or hated the book in question. We wanted writers who wrote as if there were an audience of general readers out there who might be interested in contemporary poetry. That meant hiring critics with sharp opinions, broad knowledge of fields other than poetry, and some flair.
But isn't there something in between "sharp opinions" and purely "descriptive" reviews? How about something called "critical judgment," an "opinion" supported by the attempt to engage with the work in some detail and on its own terms? If the reviews currently available at the Poetry website (only two of eight, alas) are any indication, the problem with its reviews is not that they are too uniformly negative, as some readers seem to be contending, but that they are all opinion and no critical analysis at all.
In a review of A.R. Ammons's Bosh and Flapdoodle, for example, Danielle Chapman devotes one paragraph to free-floating generalizations about Ammons's career, one paragraph to equally airy generalizations about his poetry (which includes one quotation, but unfortunately it is from a poem not in the collection under review), and a final paragraph in which she pronounces that:
The real problem is that Ammons had seemingly lost the strength, or the will, to suppress his most banal thoughts. Though the inclination towards praise still exists here, it leads only to frustration, even rage, and the scatological ruminations seem like expressions of that rage, as if he intended them to deface the page that no longer welcomed him. It’s harrowing to see how Ammons’s restless need to produce—however uncertainly—kept him from perceiving the magnitude of his earlier accomplishments, or taking solace in them. And while we can understand how a poet who sought greatness as fiercely as Ammons did would react this way to the diminishment of his gift, it doesn’t make it any less painful to watch.
This judgment--about Bosh and Flapdoodle and about Ammons's late work in general--may be entirely correct, but we have only Danielle Chapman's unsupported assertions to vouch for it, and I, for one, am certainly not going to take such assertions as evidence. These may indeed be "sharp opinions," but they are also mostly worthless as criticism. As Judith Kitchen puts it in her published letter, such reviews "elect negativity at the expense of informed analysis, substituting shallowness for depth, attitude for understanding."
The editors' response to Kitchen is remarkably obtuse, inisisting only that it "is important to publish these negative reviews along with the positive ones" to provide "some ballast and context to the critical praise. . . ." Why not ballast both the praise and the condemnation with some actual literary criticism?
Undoubtedly an underlying problem with Poetry's reviews is that the editors do not allow reviewers enough space to say anything of real value about the books under review. Poetry is mostly in the business of publishing poetry, not criticism. But if you're going to review poetry at all, it seems only sensible to encourage your reviewers to make some attempt at "informed analysis." The editors also say in their response that their review policy is a "gesture toward treating poetry as a public art in the same way that films or novels are, both of which are routinely and fiercely argued over in the mainstream media." God help us if magazines like Poetry are now going to submit the discussion of poetry to the same kind of inane blather with which the "mainstream media" currently considers films and novels!
It says something about the editors' perception of the potential audience for poetry--"there are all kinds of signs that a much larger audience for poetry exists in this country," they say--that their review policy encourages such superficial opinionizing. Why would you want to cultivate an audience that prefers such opionizing in the first place? Poetry for those who don't really like it but thrill to frivolous conclusions stated in just the right empty but perky phrases? Who have "broad knowledge of fields other than poetry" but don't demonstrate much "flair" for poetry itself? How does this provide "a service to serious readers"? If anything, it insults them.