Thursday, January 26, 2012

Poetry Criticism

There are two movie clichés that always make me chuckle.

Won’t you sit down? and, I can explain everything.

The first invites somebody in…even though I have never heard anyone put it that way. The second is the line said by a husband caught in bed with the other woman. It is usually movie code for, Give me a twenty minutes and I’ll think of something.

Every two weeks a group of four poets meet at our apartment to read their work and receive feedback. I’m allowed in because I serve the nuts and pour the drinks. I generally read a blog and offer my response to the other four poems. It ain’t easy.

Over lunch the other day with a friend who also hosts a poetry workshop the question came up how to criticize a poem. She wondered whether there was a website which suggested cogent language one might use. When I put the question to another poet-friend over lunch (we have a lot of lunches) yesterday she said something which hit home.

She felt that responding critically to a poem called upon the same faculty as relating to a friend. It entails close listening and entering into the other person’s world, suspending disbelief as well as a suspension of one’s own terms for the other. It’s a form of empathy; to meet the author, extend oneself, get on board, move with another’s cadence and take the imaginative leap.

Criticism is an unfortunate word. It implies negative thinking. Christopher Hampton, the British author, said that asking a writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it thinks about dogs. My use of criticism is the constructive variety.

Some poems seem intent on closing their portals, on confounding the reader or bringing in references known only to a select few. Sometimes I read a poem five times and only find an opening the sixth time around. That entering in process can be a mysterious aha moment, accompanied by an interior drum roll or zither.

I doubt if there is any special vocabulary needed; more a matter of courage to risk saying something dumb or hurtful or obvious to everyone else. Some poems cannot be explicated, in so many words. If a poem is the other woman, the movie guy caught with his pants down shouldn't even bother trying to explain everything.

In the late seventies I attended a ten day poetry gathering in Port Townsend, Washington. My teacher was Stanley Kunitz. In the next room the group was led by William Stafford. Two of my favorite people. Kunitz offered his wise words in a most eloquent but authoritarian manner. I sneaked into Stafford’s class one day to witness a different approach. His rule was, No praise, No blame. He drew out the poet to express what she wished for the poem and whether she felt she’d achieved it. The entire group was drawn in and the criticism was a generous offering, judgment withheld. Won’t you sit down inside my poem?

Meeting the poem as a friend is a transformational act. We get to move an imperceptible inch.


  1. en.

    Critiquing poetry is certainly not my bag. Remember when it comes to poems I am a Philistine.
    If poems ain't like Ogden Nashes
    Non rhymes make me break out in rashes.

    However I am expert at critiquing blogs
    and none of yours are ever dogs.
    Unless your renderings are political
    there is nothing in them that make me critical.


  2. Norm, I sorry I haven't been to visit much lately. I still come occasionally. Now, I remember Peggy telling me that you are a better poet than her.

    As the lamp post, I am not very fond of criticism. And I would much prefer the Stafford variety. I have given about as many speeches as I have written poems and I find it interesting that we always ask the audience what they thought of the speaker. Most of the audience members would be afraid to stand up and do what the speaker does. So we have amateurs criticizing professionals. Much of the same thing happens with poetry. People who have written a few poems and read even less try to criticize others.

    I think writing poetry is more about self-expression and the need to create something. Besides few people buy books of poetry and even fewer read it. If selling 3,000 copies of a book of poems is considered a best seller, we have a long way to go. So lets stop criticizing and begin reading and enjoying.

  3. Thanks, Harley. I always appreciate your comments. Not true that I'm a better poet than Peggy. I should made clear that the critiquing I had in mind was from peers.

  4. From peers . . . oh, in that case remove my comments.