Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism

First rule: take nothing personally.

Second rule: even a personal attack doesn't have to be taken personally, because it says more about the attacker than anything else, and says nothing about the poem.

Third rule: be honest and impeccable with your word. You think that no one believes in honor anymore? Then act as if they did, because your own word should matter to you, even if it doesn't matter to anyone else.

My critiquing skills were honed at the Uptown Poetry Group, when I lived in the Twin Cities, a twice-monthly poetry crit group that was training in the trenches. (Some of the group's archived poems can be found here.) We had the right combination of personalities and dedicated writers, all of whom were able to rip a poem to shreds or praise it to the skies without it ever becoming personal. This was the best sort of training in how to be a critiquer, and radically improved my poetry writing. I learned what works in my own poems, and what doesn't. I learned to formulate and articulate how and why I write poems, and then to leave it alone, and let it develop without trying to impose an ideology on it. I regularly break most of the rules they teach you in academic workshops about how you're supposed to write poems. I have no daily poetry-writing discipline, and those times I have tried to force it, the results have invariably sucked.

My critique style, if I have one, if there is such a thing, which I question, is simple honesty. Honest response to the poem, honest comments about what works and what doesn't, on all levels of the poem, technical and aesthetic. I can be very blunt about what I like and don't like, what I think works, and what I think could be improved on.

My critique style, if there is one, is to not focus so much on the nuts and bolts of meter, rhyme, syntax, grammar, etc., but on a first pass to take in the whole gestalt of the poem. To see if the poem works as a whole, before I bend down to examine the moss on the trees of the forest. I look at overall tone and style: does the style and tone match and support the topic and content of the poem?

For example, as a songwriter, unless you're deliberately making an ironic statement by making a musical style opposite of what the words are saying, the music of the song sets the tone, and enhances and supports the words. In the case of a great songwirter like Kate Bush, the actual words she uses do not stand on their own—they're occasionally borderline clichés—but the whole gestalt of melody, rhythm, arrangement, and her gift of performance make the song a synergized whole.

So, first pass, look at the gestalt, the whole.

Then, I start to look at what supports the poem, and what doesn't. I look for cliches (which can work, if done right), I look for flab and padding, I look for congruence between poetic form and poetic content. (Would a samurai write his death-poem as a haiku or as a sonnet? A haiku.) I look for things that seem arbitrary, or not directly in support of the poem's journey. Those incongruences stick out to my eyes like a sore thumb.

So, second pass, look for what does and does not support the poem's story.

Then, I might look again at whether a revised version might clarify a point, better support a point, etc. One very common mistake that even advanced poets make is to become too didactic, too pedantic, and to pound an idea into the ground so fiercely that the poem thuds and blunders to a conclusion with no delicacy or elegance. In other words: morals are for fairy tales, not poems.

Then, I might look again at the aspect of style that I can only call music: rhythm, sound, prosody, melody. To do this, you have to read a poem out loud. Too many poets never read poems out loud, their own or anyone else's. You really want to learn how Shakespeare made his sonnets work? The best way to hear that is to read them out loud. Follow the punctuation of his sentences, which are marvelous. The music in poetry is the music of speech.

I am able to give fairly objective critiques even of a poem whose topic and central idea is one I disagree with strongly. In this cases, I again look at whether or not the elements of the poem such as style, tone, prosody, word-choice, are supporting the poem. You learn in doing this to view each poem as its own universe, its own worldview. (Whether or not you might agree with that worldview in another setting.) The goal is to see if the poem creates a convincing, self-contained, self-consistent, internally-logical experience, irregardless of whether or not I happen to agree with whatever the poem is ultimately saying.

I see a lot of critique falter on this last point: an inability to be objective about something you dislike. One has to step back and analyze the medium without slamming the message.

However, in some cases, I will point out that a poem fails because it's message is a cliché, and/or because it is presented in inherently clichéd ways. All too often, poets think their poems should get a free pass from being critiqued because they are: statements of faith (credos); raw journal entries about personal woundologies; therapy-poems; political statements (which the reader is expected to agree with). This unhappy tendency is the result of too much political correctness being applied to poetry, wherein ideology supplants artistry. I will pass such poems only if they succeed as poems. I will not pass such poems if they fail as poems, as literature.

As one might imagine, this level of honesty is not always well-received. So, since I am not interested in creating drama, I simply will no longer critique certain poets or certain poem topics, because you will get a predictable response if you bother; so why waste the energy on it?

In terms of critique style, I think it's always possible to pan or praise without making it personal. I think it's always possible to be blunt without being rude, or self-righteous. I think it's always possible to respond with expansion, if a poem really lights your fire, without being condescending, or patronizing, or arrogant in one's erudition.

Does that happen every time? I wish.

Finally, in a public critique forum, be it face-to-face or online, you will also face the choice of whether to be open to all comers, or to have a semi-closed group of friends, who know each others' work well, and can help guide each other mutually. In other words: the critiquing process is never a one-way street. If you participate in the critiquing process, you can expect other people to critique your poems, as well. In the best settings, this becomes a dialogue. Even better, when you get to know a poet's typical style and voice, you can help them develop. Familiarity and experience allow a critique to get at the root of what works, for this poet's voice, and what doesn't; what is internally consistent for their voice and style, and what isn't.

If you want to leave the door open for honest critique, you also have to leave the door open for stupid critique, ridiculously inane, beside the point critique, etc. I have no problem with someone objecting to a critique as it is given, although I prefer that civility be maintained while doing so. I would rather there be genuinely free speech than no speech at all. That is a fine balance, of course. But it is a balance that can be maintained, if there is an agreement amongst all parties to strive for civil discourse, and do their best to achieve that. Some slippage will doubtless occur, as everyone has an off day sometimes, and gets prickly. But that can be balanced, too. For a long time now, I have found it useful to live by a wise saying that goes, Never ascribe to maliciousness that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, or ignorance.

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