Poetry Critique. Really?

Originally posted on April 8, 2011 at 9:00 AM

Today’s guest post courtesy of Jan Spence.

On Tuesdays for almost four years, I’ve enjoyed going down to a local coffeehouse on Denton’s downtown square to join other fellow poets for a small, intimate critique group. We only meet for the lunch hour, but there is ample time for each of us to read one poem and receive suggestions.

What is the nitty-gritty of poetry critique? Some writers question the value and the efficacy of critiquing poetry. Like art, they say, poetry is personal preference. And to a certain extent, that’s true. But also, like art, there are basic precepts and structures that are hallmarks of skilled artisans. While we might not “like” a particular work of art enough to pay big bucks and hang it on our wall, we can still appreciate the skill of the artist and recognize the worth of the creation. In my humble opinion, the same is true for poetry.

For me, this weekly gathering has yielded a few benefits not connected to any one specific poem. First, it keeps me writing and creating new work to take to the meeting. Although it is considered acceptable to go without bringing a poem, I’m stubborn, and I don’t want to show up empty-handed. Secondly, I get to listen to other poetic voices in the group who write very differently from me, and I learn from them. However, perhaps the biggest perk is the feeling of connection to and trust in the other writers in our group. A biggie.

Beyond these general benefits, what are the types of critiques that tend to emerge and prove most helpful? Each of us, at one time or another, has been encouraged to lop off a line, a stanza, or a word to make the poetic ending more succinct and powerful. The judge of the first and most well-funded contest of National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) was asked what he/she saw as the most common problem for those poems which did not place. The reply? “The poem went on after it could have been considered finished.” (See NFSPS and follow the Poetry Contests link.) I was surprised. Are you?

Would I or my fellow poet buddies be able to eventually arrive at this conclusion on our own? Maybe. In some cases, probably. But not always. For me, once words have found their way onto my page, they tend to claim squatter’s rights. Some are easy to slice away, but those which become favorites create a screaming blur of angst before disappearing into the dark hole of deletion. So hearing the suggestion to cut, cut, cut from another objective, trusted writer helps rescue me from my own word infatuations.

Want to try something new? The group can tell you if you are on track. Personally, I think mystery is fun to weave into my writing, but creating those shadows for the reader that tell her what she needs to know while withholding or only inferring the rest is a tricky balance. More than once, my fellow critiquers have pinpointed the place in a poem where they got lost or were led to a faulty assumption. That’s invaluable feedback in creating just the right amount of intrigue. Your “something new” may be different, but you get the idea.

Other simple observations can serve to speed up the editing process: Spotting unintentionally repeated words; offering a possible substitution of one or two words to achieve assonance, alliteration, or internal rhyme; letting me know if a rhyme scheme feels forced. Those are elements that all writers go back and assess, but the critique interactions can keep the revision process moving forward at a nice clip. I like that! Patience isn’t my finest virtue.

Still resistant? No problem. Critique in a group setting may not be for you. You may be a writer who wants to follow a solitary path to the completion of your work. You may not be ready to expose your tender creations to the eyes of others’ honesty. However, if you are in the company of other poets who are close to your writing level, and if you trust that these fellow wordsmithing friends want the best for you in your writing, you might decide to give it a try. Being willing to hear others’ ideas about my poetry has been the right choice for me.

So, poetry critique? Absolutely!! The nice thing about any critique you receive is that the work is still your creation, and you can decide whether to follow the suggestions – or not. What do you have to lose? Poetry does lend itself to critique, and the process can enhance the skills of both the poet and the critiquer. I have experienced it. You can, too, if you take the plunge. Start your own group and never look back! You can thank me later.

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Jan is one of the few people who seems to be on the same wave-length as I am (God help us); I instantly liked her for that. She is graceful, sharp-witted, and an unabashed realist – just like her poetry. Her critique is unfailingly honest. And perhaps I am only luckier to have her as a critique partner in having her as a friend. She makes me (and my poetry) better on a weekly basis.

Jan Spence is a writer of short stories, creative non-fiction and award-winning poetry. Her work has appeared in or will be forthcoming in Versifico, Poetry Society of Texas Book of the Year 2009, Book of the Year 2011 and Collections I. A charter member of the Denton Poets’ Assembly, she currently serves as Treasurer of that organization. She lives in Denton with her husband and enjoys teaching and practicing yoga.

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