“Would You Critique My Poem?” (Gulp!)

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According to the prophets, when someone asks you to review their book, you make like Donald and duck (the exception being a good friend). But what about a request that you critique a poem? Tougher, as it’s such a small basket of kindness, the sort you might decline only if it’s a stranger.

But…but! If you’re up to helping a friend by reading and reviewing a poem, consider the hazards. Critiquing is not an easy basket to prepare, Red Riding Hood. There’s a wolf’s teeth worth of dangers once you jump in!

First off, critique requests usually come without specific questions. When on such vague grounds, the honest reviewer, left to his own devices, must decide where to begin. I like to start with the overall, then go to the nitty gritty.

The overall amounts to some parts emotional, some parts technical, but all considered as a whole. As a unique piece of literature, how does this poem hit me? What does it accomplish? What, pray tell, is its purpose? And once I convey that to the writer, I look closer and try to figure out the parts or techniques that were responsible for this general feeling (Part II of the critique).

Maybe I’m wrong, but I always feel like Part I–the overall effect– is the most important aspect of a poem. Still, the closer look (trees, as opposed to forest), which attempts to dig out the why’s, provides the true fodder for revision.

The key to answering these “why’s” involves the Good and the Bad technique. Usually, God help you, SOMEthing is working in this piece. Point this “Good” out by hunting down specific words, figurative language, or structural touches. that strengthened the poem’s purpose and/or struck you as powerful and unique.

Then it’s on to the “consider this” part (a.k.a. the “Bad,” which we don’t utter, as it is a 3-letter word with aspirations). As a receiver of critiques, I value “Bad” parts of a critique the most, for these are the constructive criticisms that represent one (hopefully sharp) reader’s reaction to my work’s weaknesses. The responder’s job, in this case, is to state what’s not quite working for him and why. The writer’s job is to consider it.

Considering isn’t as easy as it sounds. Yes, you can accept a suggestion, reject it, or put it on hold, but often criticism takes to task one of the writer’s babies. What, pray tell, is a “baby”? A baby is a particular line, word, or flourish that the poet-writer loves.

How crestfallen is the poet when the baby, of all things, comes under the scrutiny of a critical reader? Very. And you can bet THAT change will be put on “hold” as a “maybe, maybe not” change for future revision.

It’s like the dentist hitting a nerve while drilling teeth sans Novocaine. (Ouch!) The poet, clearly convinced that this was the best part of the poem (and often its genesis) must now realign his universe. It will take time. He may stubbornly hold (and lose the hand later on) or, in time, give the baby up with the greatest reluctance. That’s the nature of giving and receiving critiques.

Does expertise in poetry affect the quality of criticism? It can help or hurt, in my experience. Some university-trained (do the letters M, F, and A mean anything to you?) or self-appointed experts who are widely published can go overboard and get all tangled up in their own advice. As Whitman would have it, they come off as “Learn’d Astronomers” who look at heavens clouded by pride. Leave these good “professors” to their telescopes. You want people who just enjoy stars.

And it goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway because I talk too much) that second and third opinions are a great help. But yes, this is assuming that good poetry critics are easy as New Orleans and as plentiful as mosquitoes during a rainy spring.

Let’s agree on this much: Criticism is a fine balance of subjective and objective, brain and gut. Not everyone is good at it, but if they are and if they’re willing, they are invaluable poetry friends and you owe them in kind, if they write as well.

Good critiques take time and effort, after all. Going through the motions doesn’t fly.

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