So not only did you teach me about writing memoir, you also taught me about reading and thinking about how others write memoir. Thank you so much! Rebecca

Monday, February 13, 2012

Robert S. King, guest blogger, on Critiquing Poetry

Critiquing Poetry: A Delicate Literary and Social Art
I tend to approach critique a little differently than some. I am more interested in first identifying the soul of the poem than in recommending word changes. In fact, I don’t think I could be a good critic if I put the cart before the horse. To me, one first should understand the levels of meaning in the poem before daring to insist on changes. Of course, some poorly written poems are inaccessible at any level. Obviously, I don't want to get a headache thinking about a poem that even on the surface has nothing to recommend it.

What do I mean by levels of meaning? I mean that any good poem should have a literal level and one or more branch levels or connotations. Too often I read poems that are simply literal statements with a few emotional buzzwords or a few intellectual talking points that do not go anywhere. In my opinion, a poem is not fully written unless it makes you feel or think beyond the literal words. Well-done poems sometimes generate the “electric effect,” perhaps causing the hair to stand up on your neck. That’s a tall order that only the truly gifted poets can fill. Even the gifted ones often fail to achieve this effect in most of their poems. The muse is truly fickle and fleeting. Consider that even the greatest poets in history are each known and remembered only for a handful of poems.

Criticism should not be taken as personally as it often is. This is easier said than done, I know, because most poets feel very close to, and protective of their literary children. Poets are usually willing to consider word, phrase, or line changes, even stanza revisions. However, when you suggest that the poem has no connotative level, many bristle. When you suggest subtly that they failed to identify an obviously more appealing, accomplished poem that could have sprung from their superficial words, many take it as an insult to their intelligence. Such attitudes do not make for a friendly, constructive workshop. I have met some poets who take pride in the fact that their poems are literal, therefore “accessible.” I say that you can have multiple levels that are accessible, so why would you want to limit yourself to the superficial?

I remember a workshop I attended that had a good mixture of skilled and wannabe poets. Unfortunately, one of those poets thought he was skilled instead of wannabe. He begged for comments and criticism of his work. When suggestions were offered, his face reddened. Instead of considering the criticism and exploring the possibilities for improving his poem, he soon erupted from his chair and stormed loudly out of the room. This is not the temperament of someone who wants to improve his poetry.

As a critic, I have my own point of view. As a poet whose work is under evaluation, you need also to assess who is offering the criticism. If you work with someone long enough, you often can predict what he/she will say. With that in mind, you can understand better how much or how little of that person's criticism you should take to heart.

It gets a little tricky sometimes. I know a poet who zooms in on and condemns any phrase sounding remotely cliché. None of us wants a cliché, but we should first examine if that cliché has been cast in a new, fresh context that might deepen the meaning of the poem. In other words, all critics may have knee-jerk reactions or stubborn preconceptions. Consider the source before you revise your poem.

The approach to criticism should also account for the experience level of the poet. A raw beginner should be encouraged with kind criticism. But how do you handle a poem from someone who clearly has not even a modicum of ability? I often feel it isn't my place to tell the poet that talent is lacking, though it bothers me when that person vows to devote his/her life to the art. I consider this aspiration analogous to the TV show, “American Idol.” The audience and judges know a bad singer when they hear one. The family and friends encouraging the singer, however, seem to be tone deaf or far too kind in their assessment of the singer's talent.

Should we as critics break the hearts of wannabes, or should we let them continue to totally waste their time? Should we encourage the poet with honesty to cease and desist? Or should we hypocritically skirt the issue and offer some positive comments on the poem? That's a tough decision.

I think I would opt for compromise. I'd wait to hear more, try to establish a level of trust, and then perhaps be as honest and compassionate as possible. The wannabe poet, like the singer who cannot carry a tune, is still likely to be crushed by any negative comment.

Clearly there are good critics and bad critics, good poets and bad poets. The combination of social beings, the mix of workshop members, dictates how well the critique session will go. Some groups of poets get along very well and offer each other a very positive, helpful environment. This sounds like a good thing, and maybe it is. I wonder, though, if the comments a poet hears from friends are the real truth, or if there is something vital held back that might benefit the poet more.

I suppose there is no perfect answer. One can only hope to find a critique group that at least inspires its members to write, a group that is just honest enough not to discourage. Groups like that do exist. If you are serious about poetry, I advise you to seek out a group and become an active member, no matter your current skill level. Vetting one's poems is vital. The greatest poem I've ever written is always the last one I wrote—perhaps until someone else reads it.


  1. Once again, I so regret geography! How I wish I could take advantage of Mr. King and your workshop! In 15 years, I have not found a critique group for prose or poetry that is not a) too large, b) does not meet at night, or c) comprises members interested in the kind of writing that I can do. I'll be thinking of you with considerable envy.

  2. Glenda, thanks very much for posting this article. I was also pleased to see you at the Netwest critique group recently where you presented, in my opinion, the best poem of the night.

  3. Robert, I appreciate your kind words about my poem at critique group.
    I think many of the problems you address in this post could be solved if the group used the method I discussed on Thursday evening. People seldom storm out of a session of critique if they don't feel they are being attacked personally. Being a shy and insecure person myself, I know I'd not have gone back to our poetry critique group way back in 1995 if the members there had spoken to me directly with all the things wrong with my poems in those days.
    I posted on my other blog: how the critique group was run in the past.
    I know some writers who quit going to critique groups because they felt they were attacked personally.
    I feel it is very important for new poets and writers to be encouraged as well as have helpful comments about their work.
    When we talk about the work instead of saying "YOu should do...."
    the poet doesn't feel defensive.
    Thanks so much for your post on this blog, Robert. I hope you'll do it again.

  4. Hi Joan,Thanks for your comment. I wish we were closer to you so you could participate in things here.
    Robert King has an online poetry workshop and I'm sure he would give anyone the directions on how to use it. I plan to get on soon.
    Also, in March the time changes and maybe you can attend a night meeting and still get home before dark.
    Many of us have that problem.

  5. Thank you for sharing a great article about critiquing poetry. I belong to such a group, and we not only critique each other's work, but we also write for about twenty minutes before we do any critiquing. We take turns facilitating our monthly sessions, and the person in charge comes up with a writing exercise that we do together and one we do for homework. We've been getting together for years, and a lot of my poems were inspired by this group.

  6. Abbie, your group sounds like fun and filled with writers who want to improve. Lucky you.


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