Friday, March 23, 2007

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 5: What to do, what to do

When some poet, who you barely know, presents you with a sheaf of poems, the product of their sweat and tears, and you quickly come to realize that they are in, shall we say, a very different place in their evolution as a poet: what do you do? How do you respond? Are you a rude and dismissive cur, or a pillowing and supportive nurturer? A true mentor, I say, is neither of those: but a true mentor must first establish a relationship with a student, before one is able to totally and honestly speak one's mind. Before then, anything you have to say is going to be misunderstood. It's not a question of crushing the fragile and delicate egos of fledgling poets; it's a case of presenting your arguments in such a way as to make them actually heard and understood.

The first thing I do is thank them for the gift of their poems. That's just basic human courtesy. It costs me nothing to be courteous, even if I later come to realize I don't like a single line of the poems themselves.

The second thing I try to do is gauge their sincerity, and respond to that, if not to the poems. If they're very very young in their writing, I try to encourage them without at the same time lying about how bad I think their poems are. Or rather, how young in developing their skills and talents they are. I'm sure I wrote poems just as bad, early on in my own career as a poet; so I try to empathize from that viewpoint, and remember what it was like. I try not to crush any fragile eggshells: handle with care. Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.

I also try to gauge how thick their skin is. Plenty of younger poets are thin-skinned, beacuse they have developed as yet no confidence in their ability, their poetic voice, or their subject matter. Their egos are of the fragile kind, rather than the self-actualizing kind. You'd be surprised how often, in the arts, arrogance and haughtiness are defense mechanisms designed to suppress deep insecurities. (Or maybe you wouldn't be surprised.)

If, on the other hand, they continue to push me for my opinion, my responses are going to become incrementally more honest, and my ability to empathize incrementally less present. It's like escalating conflict between superpower nations: don't push too hard, early on, or you won't like the response. Rather, the response you get will be one you might not be prepared for. A cornered predator will bear its fangs in warning; if you continue to push after seeing a glint of fang, you lose the right to complain that your head was handed to you on a platter. Never forget: all actions ahve consequences; so, think before you act.

Most younger poets are artistically derivative, imitative, and gullible to the winds of fashion. And you know what? That's okay—except for being gullible to the winds of fashion, which should just be ignored, at all times, anyway. We all started by imitating the writers we admired: that's a valid form of apprenticeship. Imitating the Masters is a valid form of learning the skill and craft of art. Artists do it, poets ought to as well. Just don't have high expectations for your apprentice works being seen as any more than etudes or copies: studies from life; learning-pieces; juvenilia. Keep your expectations of your own skill and talent low, at this point in the poetry game. You're building towards self-affiormation and self-confidence—towards mastery. But you won't get there overnight, or in a year; you won't even get there in an MFA poetry program. Don't rush your education, and remain skeptical if the world tries to shower you with plaudits and laurels too soon. (I won my first writing award when I was 16. Big deal; I'm a much better writer, now, than I could ever have imagined, then.) With rare exceptions, most poets have nothing to say, and no ability to say it, before they're 30 or 40 years old. Just because the exceptions are well-known, even famous, in the history of art, makes them no less the exceptions that they are. The way art history and literary history are taught, is to present a historicized litany of innovation: a litany of geniuses who contributed to the evolutionary process that culminates in, of course, us. Literary and art history are taught largely as justifications, even creation myths, for who we are now. Art history is used to justify fashion—which is why fashion should always be ignored: because it is always time-bound, time-limited, and anti-transcendant.

If young poets who hand me their sheaves of poems are arrogant, convinced that every word they write is the fresly new-minted word of god, and I sense that their arrogance is genuine and not a mask for insecurity, I will take them down a peg. They might go off in a huff, but it doesn't serve their writing to be told they are brilliant when they're not. This is when blunt honesty can be a tool for their growth. One of the names for Mahakala, the Wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is Destroyer of Illusions.

This is doubly true for poets who have poured their soul into their poetry, but who have never read much other poetry, and think that they are the very first to write with any kind of profundity about the perennial topics: death; love; sex; mystery; food; joy; sorrow; emotional upheaval; yearning; and all the rest. Such poets invariably think that they invented angst. The best thing to do with them is steer them towards anthologies with the suggestion that they read a lot more poetry than they have, and keep writing, and maybe come back later. With luck, they'll shake out the sentimental stereotypes from their palette, and find something a little more authentically themselves. Someday, they might find a mature, personal voice. It's a hope I wouldn't deny to anyone, even if I myself have strong doubts. Nothing would make me happier, in most cases, to be proved wrong; because for me to be proved wrong, in these cases, would mean that the poet in question actually get a clue, and grew up.

Sometimes I think that the Cult of Originality, along with the Cult of the Solitary Genius—which, again, is how the history of the arts is usually taught—is responsible for a great deal more harm than good. Far better for younger artists to pass through an apprenticeship, working with a mentoring master, being openly imitative as they learn, and not expected to be the next true genius before they've even finished their second book. I think it does more harm than good to put youthfulness on a pedestal, in the arts (except maybe as a model for sculpture, preferably nude), because expectations that are too high, too quickly, can crush a spirit, and even worse, crush their talent.

With other poets, who are not beginners, but still in a different place (than you) in their evolution as poets, I try to determine what their intentions are. If they are talented, experienced amateurs with lots of enthusiasm, which can be infectious, I encourage them but don't give them a lot of honest, hard-hitting critique. I just point out what I like about their work, and encourage them to keep developing what's best in their work. Give them a beer, and an afternoon of camaderie, than walk on, with no expectations.

There are also plenty of dedicated poets out there, who are not bad, but with whom I share no common ground. Their means, they styles of poetry, and even their goals, are not in my universe. Of course, the reverse is also true. Which is why I don't too bent out of shape when many poets, in the same place in their writing lives as me, so totally do not get what I'm trying to do with my own poetry. It's a big playing field, and we don't have to be in competition. I choose not to make poetry into a competition, and I don't spend my time on any poet who wants to shape it into one, with me as their designated rival. Waste of energy.

If all this sounds rather, well, nice, pleasant, and even-handed, even mature, don't be deceived. I'm not that nice. What I am, however, is compassionate. It's hard for me to get judgmental of someone when I can understand how they got to where they got, even if I wish they'd get the hell out of there, for their own good if not for mine. Sometimes silence and a polite nod is the best response. I've been on the other end of this, as a young bashful poet handing a sweaty sheaf of poems to an older poet who I admired greatly. In my case, though, I am clear that I just wanted to give something back, as a gift freely given, not that I expected to be swooned over, or "discovered" like some young actor waiting tables in West Hollywood. (And don't get me going about WeHo: it's still a ghetto, even if it's an upscale, fashionable, expensive ghetto.) It would be nice if they enjoyed the gift, but I don't expect them to shower me with praise for it, either.

But there's one other category of sincere, well-meaning, possibly well-practiced poet, that I run into far too often, who can leave me speechless, unable to either praise or damn. When the poet handing me a sheaf of poems is one of those spiritual new-age brotherhood and sisterhood All Is One and I Love Everybody poets, whether or not they are fledgling or experienced (even published) poets, I honestly don't know what to do with them. They make me wince. I don't want to crush their spirit, even as I hate their art. How can I be honest in this situation? I might even agree with the thoughts expressed in their poetry, with the spiritual truth(s) presented in their poems—but the poem's quality as a work of creative writing is so abysmally bad that it makes me cringe. What I really want to say to such poets is: I like your message, but the form you chose to present it in is thoughtless, hackneyed, clichéd, and horrid. But I love the idea. I just wish you'd found a less clichéd way to present it. Who wants to be a Poetry Support Caregiver? Not I. That way leads inevitably to the death of genuine inspiration, and kills poetry by turning it into inoffensive greeting-card verse, designed to only ever uplift, and never challenge the reader by confronting him or her with the Other.

Genuine poetry can be quite dark, in that it reflects life, which is no New Age fantasy of all Light and no Dark. Genuine poetry can be brutally honest. At some point, you have to question the honesty of poetry that is only uplifting, only celebratory, only ever nice, polite, and good. Such poetry is dishonest because it would suppress the Shadow, which only means the Shadow will pop up somewhere else, and possibly somewhere else much more dangerous and alarming. Better to face the dark night honestly, embrace it, pass through it, and write on.

The deepest, most rich, spiritual poetry comes, I think, from those mystic poets who have been through the dark night of the soul. Who have been crushed by life, and got up again, and walked on. Who tell us their stories not in contrived Victorian rhymes, but in simple, honest, true-speaking sentences. The most devastating way to tell a dark story is with simple, plain, straightforward sentences: to underplay the role, rather than chew the scenery with overacting.

So, here's the truth of my response, when confronted with such very sincere, well-meaning, and horrible poetry: I usually smile, and keep my wincing inside, thank them for the poems, and say nothing. I might wish them well, and sincerely mean it, and hope to never read one of their poems again. Perhaps my response is a cop-out. Yet I can't give them an honest opinion about the merits of their poetic skillcraft, or lack thereof, unless and until they ask me. It's rude to be blunt and discouraging about their writing, when what the poet is really doing, in handing me their sheaf of poems, is looking for human contact, not literary criticism. Such is the nature of tact.

For all I know, their bad poems are their most effective form of genuine personal self-therapy, a process which is ongoing, and dismissing the poem would kill the poet. Critiquing the poem, in this case would constitute a category error: they're not really looking for literary criticism, but human contact. A touch of a hand, in the darkness of the night.

If my response, in these circumstances, is to be considered dishonest, so be it. That's as honest as I can be, without intending to cause offense. Again, I think it's perfectly possible to be bluntly honest without being offensive. Few critics, even the best critics, seem to have learned that truth.

Rudeness is something that many (especially younger) people equate with honesty; but the truth is, it's perfectly possible to be honest without being rude, or crude. Some people call it tact.

I call it forbearance to annihilate. I am perfectly capable to using all my considerable powers to annihilate anyone who really deserves it. Today, just for today, I choose to forebear. Just for today, I choose not to kill your terrible horrible bad poetry, raze the ground with fire, and salt the earth where you once stood. Just for today.

It takes special circumstances to be able to give, and receive, totally honest critique: everyone has to be on a level playing field, and everyone has to leave their egos at the door. Everyone needs to remember that the critique is of the poem, and not of the person. Don't take it personally, because it's not about you, it's about your writing. This is as true for praise as it is for criticism: take both, when they are given, as impersonally as possible.

Most of the time, totally honest critique is a complete waste of effort, anyway. Why? Because most often those who most need to hear criticism are the least able to do so, wrapped up as they are in their protective bubbles of fantasy and ego-inflation: they are imprevous to genuine, heartfelft critique. It just won't sink in. It will just bounce off their bubble. So, don't go out of your way to give them the benefit of your opinions, as you're just wasting your own time and energy in doing so.

In particularly obnoxious cases, as with the aforementioned genuinely arrogant poets, I simply point out that their egos are bigger than their talent, and that they really should look in a mirror before they go projecting their inner illusions out onto the world. In other words, my most heavy-handed lambasting is reserved for those hard cases who need to be taken down a peg or two, because their over-estimation of their own talents has caused them to become arrogantly rude themselves.

In almost all other cases, though, I find that forebearance to annihilate is a useful working rule of thumb.

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