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.