On Critiquing Poetry
by Nettie Kestler
An email which referenced the thought and or effort put into a crit drove me to write this tome. But let me start with prefacing that I come from an internet world which basically taught me the following rules:
- Write 3 crits to others’ work for every post of my own.
- Thank the critic, no matter what I think of the comments. They at least made an effort.
- You get what you pay for and since the crits are free, it’s up to me, the writer, to take or leave advice I got. No need to get into a pissing match.
- Not all crits are created equal. Really. Not all comments are worth keeping. Really.
- There is a difference in the quality of critical commentary and those writing the crits. Really. Pay attention to who you will finally pay attention to.
- If you want to write, read.
- After you read another’s work, comment on the things you think would make the piece stronger. Start with trying to find words about what you liked and why, then explain what you did not like and why.
I never did well in school when it came to poetry. The topics of scansion, among the other topics of poetics, went right over my head. Then came the internet bulletin boards of the early and mid-90s and it was from the kindness of strangers spread from the U.K., to Georgia, to Australia and New York or Indiana that I began to understand and learn the craft of poetry. One of the most important steps in helping me improve my own work, I believe, was learning to closely read the works of others — alot of others’ works. The internet was helpful with that — poetry spread faster than viruses on the net. There was a lot of poetry to read and it wasn’t all good. I forced myself to read the poems all the way through, word for word, silent as well as aloud, and I’d read the poem more than once.
I developed my physical aversion to “hearts” and “shards” from reading not Shakespeare, Dickinson, or Sexton but 10,000 repetitions of: “I love you, you made my heart break into shards and bleed bloody red blood drops”. “Soul and spirit and roses” finally lost their brilliance around the thousandth time. One of my own early “poems” consisted of the repetition of “I want// I want// I want…” Now, maybe if I’d been trying to replicate the honking of a goose, it would have had some interest, but the point is — it felt “brilliant” (to me) because I’d never read any other work like it before — until I began my odyssey into making the effort with others’ works by writing as much thoughtful commentary as I could.
The reason I think school failed for me was because when trying to read, review, reconstruct a “perfect” poem, like Stevens, “The Snowman”, or Sexton’s “Live” — is that you can never develop the physical repulsion for the use of the phrase “heart shards” — because you will never see that written in one of their works. It was through the sheer volume of the same words, the same imagery, the same phrasing being endlessly repeated on the internet that I finally “got” the physical sensation of how a cliche impacts another reader. Worse, for the student poet, excellent writers can and do use abstractions, but only in the best sense. I didn’t “get” how the abstraction of “love”, or “soul” didn’t have a sense until I actually began “talking” with another writer about what their piece was trying to communicate. When I read enough of others’ works to understand we weren’t talking about the same “sorrows” or “joys”, or “heaven” or “hell”, I began to understand how those words were subjective, not objective experience. They were words which needed their toes nailed to the floor.
I needed to read a lot of bad work to understand what a bad poem was. More importantly, I had to read a lot of bad poetry very seriously, with the intent of trying to help the writer improve a piece to learn the language of critical commentary and thus learn the craft of poetics.
The quality of a crit comes from someone who’s given considerable thought to a piece of your work, not just a drive-by. Drive by is fun for snark, and some works are so thoughtlessly churned out that writing a decent crit would be more work than the piece itself. But I think that the fundamental scholarly analysis comes — not from books — but from the desire to understand why something doesn’t work and why something would. Do you respect the writer you’re reading enough to put the effort into critiquing their work so that it might become something more? Does the writer exhibit enough respect for the reader to take care of basic spelling and grammatical structure. Does the piece itself have the basic structure to develop something more? If not, then is the writer at least honest enough, and civil enough, to warrant taking the time and effort to be honest with? Can you tell a writer that the piece isn’t worth the effort to continue with? Sometimes faint praise is worse than “kill it”. It encourages someone to work on a piece which doesn’t have anywhere to go.
Ultimately, I think that by focusing on the quality of your critiques, you might actually find yourself looking at your own work and being able to identify its weaknesses, shore up your own technical faults, and become a better writer. Writing a critique which shows you’ve read the piece thoroughly — even if your comments are your own opinion — will at least help one identify the flaws which limit a work. Looking to improve the quality of your critiques will push your own technical boundaries of the craft of writing, no matter the genre. It might show you that you’ll never be the writer you want to be, but then you will have learned what it takes to create pleasure.
— Nettie, Poetry Editor of ERWA