In Which I Critique a Book of Critiques


The following is my Goodreads review of H. L. Hix’s Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation. As it is instructive and a cautionary tale, I thought I would share it with the WordPress community as well:

Like writing workshop on steroids, this, as 33 poets critique each other’s work and the result isn’t always pretty. Hix’s method was to strip the author’s name from the poem and randomly select six poets to respond not only to each poem but to each other’s takes on each poem.

It’s hard to believe that this book might appeal to any but those who read poetry and those who write poetry (what many would call “the same thing”), but maybe. There’s much to be learned here, too, especially about the mysterious world of poetry. Is there “good” poetry and “bad” poetry, for instance? This book gives that notion pause.

How? Well, in many cases, a poem is lauded by one fellow poet and ripped to shreds by another. The number of times this happens is mind boggling, giving poets like me some measure of comfort when it comes to rejections from poetry journals. Meaning? So much depends on the personality and tastes of the reader, whether he or she is an editor or a fellow Goodreads poster or your spouse. Did I say comfort? Cold comfort, then.

Example, in response to a poem called “Smithereens”:

CRITIC #1: “A death wish? I don’t think so. But a poem perched on the fine line between life and death, consciousness and its absence. Obliquely I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem 465, “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–.” This poem invites me back through its precision and mystery, its dashing and reformations. I feel, as I often do with the very best poems, just on the edge of understanding.”

CRITIC #2: “The run-on sentences and ungainly imagery (‘snow flops’) give this poem a distinct first-draft quality. Nor is the process particularly illuminating; after all, everyone dies and reenters the physical world. This poem approaches transcendence, but I need more.”

You see what I mean. One expert compares the poem to Emily Dickinson’s best work, and the next compares it to a first draft. Ouch! On the other hand, the excerpts above provide a taste of one of the book’s strengths. These two quotes are SMALL compared to most of the critiques. If you are a writer who has been frustrated with the brevity or the poor quality of critiques you’ve requested from fellow writers, this book shows how it should be done. Would I offer my work up as chum to this kind of shark tank? Boy, howdy, YES! The various responses would give grist for the revision mill in a big way.

I guess the worst take-away for me is that this book explains why so many lay readers, of which GR is representative, shy away from poetry in general. For them, the genre of poetry is often too crazy-ass confusing or oblique–everything their high school teachers made it– so it is best left to those who write poems because those who write poems are inevitably those who read poems. This is true of “modern” poetry, at least. I know some lay readers are happy to read older, more classic authors such as Frost comma Robert, hallowed be his name.

And me? If you say “J’accuse!” then I say “Mea culpa.” I liked precious few of these poems myself–and understood even fewer. Me, a practitioner of the trade! Still, it was interesting to hear the poet/critics carp. They spoke the language of poetry–in tongues, in other words. More than once I heard criticism of too many prepositional phrases, for instance. Note to self: Watch the prepositional phrases. And meter! Lots of talk about blank verse and beats and stresses.

Hoo, boy. Meter drives me crazy. I haven’t even invested in one of them bad-boys yet. Maybe it’s time to see Lovely Rita, Meter Maid, eh?

Pray for me.

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