Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 2

Questions I always ask, when reading a poem offered for critique:

1. Am I pulled in? does the poem bring me into its world? am I feeling like I am part of the story being told, embodied in the poem, reliving it, if you will? does the poem make me care that it was written, or leave me indifferent? Is the poem a satisfying read, no matter what else is going on?

2. Does the language usage support the poem's intent and vision? Looking for the exact right word for the moment being conveyed. Granted, reading the poem's apparent intent may not always match the poet's stated intent. That, too, can be a measure of success: is the poem doing what the poet thinks it is? or maybe less? or maybe more?

3. Slack language. Is there something that can be tightened up, compressed, made more concise, more powerful? Does the poem use the most elegant, precise, condensed language possible, to convey its experience? This is often where I do line critiques, or focus on specific language problems in the poem.

4. Does the poem make me feel it, in my gut? Is it all the mind, or is it embodied? Can it recreate its world, its experience, in me, the reader? (Okay, this is sort of like no. 1 above, but it's also deeper.)

5. If the poem is in a form, does it meet the normative requirements for the form? I'm not a stickler for this, actually, especially in comparison to many other poets, since I often write "experimentally" or "break the form" myself. In the case of haiku and its related forms (tanka, haibun, etc.), I look for the aesthetic and spiritual requirements, as well as, if not more than, the strictly technical requirements. Ditto ghazal. I have little personal interest in the inherited Western poetic forms, such as sonnet or cinquain, so I'll often not critique poems in these forms, unless they catch my attention for other reasons, especially topic. As a poet, I am most drawn to "non-form" forms, that allow me a lot of creative elbow room and freedom. I tend to invent new forms rather than write in existing forms, except for the aforementioned short forms (haiku, ghazal, etc.); currently I'm writing mostly prose-poems and haibun and what Jim Harrison calls "long lines," which are inspired by ghazal but more open and freeform.

6. Does the poem's form match the subject matter? Does the form of the poem, even if it's free verse, or prose-poem, serve the spirit and intent of the poem? Are they are good match? Does the form of the poem enhance and support the theme or content of the poem? Are they integrated and inseparable?

6.b. And if the form and content are an apparent mismatch, does that work anyway? In game theory, this is called misère, a game played by conventional rules, but "played to lose." That is, the winner of the game is the one who under normal rules would be the loser. Parody is a form of misère, so is satire. Sometimes this is an elegant reversal of the norm, and the poem succeeds by failing.

6.c. Look at what we could call pattern. Pattern is often crude or missing in many poems. Pattern is the poem's structure and internal sense. Pattern and text go together in most good poems, i.e. structure and content are merged, are inseparable. They complement each other. Pattern is not only form, or rhythm.

7. Does the poem break every "rule" in the book, and succeed anyway? Such poems are relatively rare, but they are a joy to encounter.

8. How effectively does the poem use other, less tangible elements of style? aspects we can call musicality, pattern, style, tension, dynamic balance? These things are hard to discuss, even though one often has an intuitive sense of whether or not they're working, in the poem. It can be hard to language this sort of frankly aesthetic level of the poem, but it is often worth the effort.

8.b. One thing I look at a lot that I don't see a lot of folks talk about is energy: Does the poem sustain its energy throughout? Does it build to an end? or taper away to nothing? Usually a poem's accumulated weaknesses sap it of energy, and it loses power and just stops, like a fart in a snowstorm. Sometimes all the poem needs is revisions that reshape it's energy-curve (I often think about this as a graphic display, a curve against a baseline) so that it ends strongly, memorably, powerfully. Many timebound artforms can be significantly improved simply by paying attention to having a strong start to them, and a strong ending.

9. I look at the overall poem, and its implied narrative or cinematic sequence, and I look for the internal logic of the poem, to see what makes the most sense. Is the order of images, events, ideas, etc., serving the poem, or fighting against it? Does it strengthen the poem, or weaken it? Sometimes I advise that lines or images get twisted around; other times I suggest flipping stanza order; still other times, I suggest dropping a stanza or line entirely, as it adds nothing to the main argument of the poem.

A poem that lingers in the mind is often a successful poem. If it needs some fixes, they're usually in the realm of clean-up, not structural.

Of course, in the end, I break all these principles, too. It can get down to instinct and intuition, and be a far less rational process than many poets will admit to. That doesn't mean "it's all subjective," that's a load of bollocks. Most of the list I gave above can be applied quite objectively, in critique, because when you critique someone else's poem, you don't have a stake in the outcome: emotional detachment is one of the key bases of objective assessment. Still, intuition matters, even if you think "intuition" is nothing more than "internalized knowing of the rules."

The level of critique one gives is often about expectations, and honesty, and somewhat less about tact. Tact and politeness and courtesy matter, at all levels, but one can be blunt without being rude, in cyberspace or in realspace. Courtesy is the same, no matter where you apply it.

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Blogger LAEvanesce said...

Great article. The "all subjective" idea is ridiculous and aggravating (a worse blunder than the concept that meter is made up of two stresses); thanks for pointing that out. Sure, it gets down to instict (and bias, though that can be largely, if not totally, shut out by some people), but poetry, like almost everything, can be judged objectively first before subject comes into play.

By the way, I've read several of your articles (by entry from Jessica's blog) lately; I wouldn't mind exchanging links if you're up for it. Thanks,


11:22 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Neil—

Sure, sounds good. I'll post a link as soon as I'm able.

I see you're also a John Singer Sargent fan. Me too. I plan on posting something about my favorite painting of his, soon.



1:57 AM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

Aw, you're pals now! Glad to have introduced you two.


10:20 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jess Schneider, Literary Pimp!

(I mean that in a laughing way, of course.)

There are worse things to be, literarily, of course . . . .

4:58 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

here are worse things to be, literarily, of course . . . .

Yeah, like Ted Hughes, Ted Kooser... Just avoid all Teds.

5:03 PM  

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