Down with mutual backscratching

Following receipt of an anonymous comment g r a p e z meditates on his practice of critiquing published net poetry on his blog. I hope he never stops. That goes for Julie at Weirdness Evaluation Engine too. The you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours ethos in the poetry blogsphere really bothers me, I have to say. How are we ever to learn anything, ever, that way?

More on revision

Galway Kinnell on revision in the New Yorker (hat tip Poetry and Poets in Rags):

I read a poem thinking it’s done, and put it down, and then I pick it up a few days later, thinking I might send it to you, and I see something that seems a little wrong. So I work on that. Then I think it’s done, but, the truth is, there are a dozen places where it might be wrong.

I’m a little bit ashamed about my revisions. I’m ashamed that I didn’t see what had to be done soon enough. Or, to put it another way, I published my poems before they were completely done. Once a thing is in print, all its faults seem to leer out at you. And then I have no alternative but to try to fix them.

“Once a thing is in print, all its faults seem to leer out at you.” Heh. On a different scale (altogether, I know), that’s one of the useful things with a blog, I’m finding. Once you post a piece to your blog, it’s as if you snap on a different perspective (like when you go the optometrist and he clicks different lenses in front of you and says: Is that clearer? Or not? I usually give the wrong answer, but I at least I can tell it’s different). Probably not as good a perspective as you would get seeing it in actual print, but a minor start, a useful revision tool.

Revision as perilous activity

The Chain Reading poetry project is clipping along nicely, thank-you. Am discovering that much of the stuff I have been berating myself for not having read has in fact been read somewhat. Fragmentedly, in a passing-by sort of fashion. Not quite enough for me to say: aha, this is my impression of this book on this day, which is what we are going for now. One of the more recent reviews I’ve added is of The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. Beyond what I left on the Chain Reading site, this stuck with me. On revising poetry:

Revision is the poet’s most difficult, demanding and dangerous work. Difficult because it’s hard to let go of our original inspirations or ideas or our best lines, as we may have to do in the service of the poem. Demanding because it calls for us to reach deeper or further than we may want to, or feel we know how to. Dangerous because we feel we might, in the act of trying to make a good poem better, lost touch with the raw energy that drove the poem into its fullness to begin with.

True revision is just that: a re-visioning of the poem’s potential and the strategies it has used so far. In an early draft, the language on the page should be considered temporary language, ripe with possibilities, with the gifts your subconscious mind has offered up.

Almost a counter-intuitive conclusion to come to, that revision is more than just tidying up and putting a bow on inspiration. It’s a weight-pulling workmate to inspiration. At least.

Books rights

Who remembers Alleluia Cone? From Satanic Verses? Here’s a bit about her:

“‘At that time I was keen to use advanced puppetry techniques in a picture, maybe to depict demons or other supernormal beings. So I got a book.’ I got a book: Gibreel the autodidact made it sound like an injection. To a girl from a house that revered books – her father had made them all kiss any volume that fell by chance to the floor – and who had reacted by treating them badly, ripping out pages she wanted or didn’t like, scribbling and scratching at them to show them who was boss, Gibreel’s form of irreverence, non-abusive, taking books for what they offered without feeling the need to genuflect or destroy, was something new.”

I had a crazy dad like that (hear that, you crazy dad?) and although we never had to kiss books that fell on the floor, it was only just not, let me tell you. Folding over a corner to mark your page was death-by-firing-squad-worthy; as was folding a paperback book outward against its spine so you could hold the whole folded inside-out thing in one hand while reading from it; as was placing an open book face downward on the table to keep it open at the place you wanted (and I have to admit I still can’t see any of these things done without cringing, and really painfully, and I admit I terrorize my two sons along the same lines). As for writing in books, that was a sparking sulphurous crime spoken of in hushed voices, if spoken of at all, and one that no punishment imaginable by us could ever really properly fit.

So why am I now not only suddenly writing in books, but thoroughly enjoying it? Today, as I have done several times in recent days, I sat down with a book and got up again because I didn’t have a pencil in my hand with which to write in the book! (Yes, I know – the next step on the road to perdition will be writing in pen, as opposed to pencil.) And this has only just happened. What happened? Possibly I am just boringly and belatedly turning into a rebellious Alleluia Cone-like teen in my middle-age (better late than never, after all). Not sure it’s that mundane though. Stay tuned. While I sharpen my pencil. Heh. 


Chain reading (and Levertov)

I have a terrible habit of seeing one or two pieces or a fragment from a particular author I like and jumping on Amazon to order the author wholesale. Usually by the time they get to me I’ve moved on and, not lost interest exactly, but can’t remember exactly why I was interested. And so I end up with a huge number of all kinds of books that I haven’t read, but really truly honestly will read, very soon. I estimate that between 25% and 30% of the books in my library are currently UNREAD. (But why would that stop me from ordering more?)

Unread Masses of Books are a fact of my life and are also a source of constant low-grade minorly festering guilt. So I admit I was both intrigued and excited to read of yet another good idea from Julie that may help manage this chronic problem. I decided to limit the exercise (which may, after all, not work, given me) to poetry-related stuff for the moment, and had a good time sorting out what I actually own in the way of unread poetry/poet/poetics books and making a plan to actually read some of them. Not counting a diverse range of poetry collections that are more refrence works (I hope I am not supposed to sit down of a Saturday morning to read the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry or the Oxford Book of English Verse — or am I?) this is the plan so far, based on what we have to hand.

And so far, so great, in that I was actually spurred by putting it on my current reading list (it wasn’t there before, ahem) to finally finish my way through Selected Poems of Denise Levertov today. And very glad I did, I am — not least because I got to move it off the Currently Reading to the Here’s A Review list, heh.

So there we are. As a random wind-up, here are some enjoyable perspectives on the schizophrenia of being a woman from Levertov – three separate pieces that tie into each other and that I had never connected before. (Love the opals and feathers – they come up in other pieces, too.)

The Earthwoman and the Waterwoman

by Denise Levertov

The earthwoman by her oven

tends her cakes of good grain.

The waterwoman’s children

are spindle thin.

The earthwoman

had oaktree arms. Her children

full of blood and milk

stamp through the woods shouting.

The waterwoman

sings gay songs in a sad voice

with her moonshine children.

When the earthwoman

has had her fill of the good day

she curls to sleep in her warm hut

a dark fruitcake sleep

but the waterwoman

goes dancing in the misty lit-up town

in dragonfly dresses and blue shoes.


In Mind

by Denise Levertov

There’s in my mind a woman

of innocence, unadorned but

fair-featured and smelling of

apples or grass. She wears

a utopian smock or shift, her hair

is light brown and smooth, and she

is kind and very clean without


but she has

no imagination

And there’s a

turbulent moon-ridden girl

or old woman, or both,

dressed in opals and rags, feathers

and torn taffeta,

who knows strange songs

but she is not kind.

Then there’s a third piece called The Woman which I can’t find on the internet, but it’s a addressed to a man and combines these two portraits. It ends like this:

“they are not two, but one,

pierce the flesh of one, the other

halfway across the world, will shriek,

her blood will run. Can you endure

life with two brides, bridegroom?”

More stuff on critiquing

Some interesting feedback on my recent fretting posts about critiquing – its value, necessity, perils, etc. There seems to be a general feeling among readers that critiquing in the open blogsphere (heh, I like that expression and concept) is indeed a perilous operation and not, in general, a game worth the candle. It interferes with inter-blogger relations and leads to all sorts of bad feelings. Unless it is specifically requested, it seems that presenting critique to anyone’s published-on-their-blog poetry is pretty much a Category One breach of blogger etiquette and generates varieties of grief one is generally more comfortable without. (This in the not-actually-published sphere. I’ve only had very minor experience in the actually-published sphere so far and am hoping what I’ve run into so far is not typical.)

So one thinks – as one surely always should, whatever the topic at hand -: Things are this way, but should they be this way?

As noted previously, I was much struck by this comment by grapez:  

A better man than me would point to the sentiment and dog and honor the humane intent, but a better man than me wouldn’t understand the damage a bad poem can wreak. Someone has to warn the unsuspecting public of condemned buildings. Someone has to help the architect avoid the crooked nail.

Optic on the public good. Nice one, indeed. One reader (Rob Mackenzie, quoted with permission) had this really interesting response to my speculationing on grapez’ comment:

..this kind of lyric poem – the domestic scene, the flat language, the false epiphany, and the fakery of emotion (no one really gets so paranoid over the possibility of stepping on a dog – one simply is careful with one&apos;s steps, and the whole idea of oneness with the silence of the walls etc. blaaagh!) – is so ubiquitous in poetry magazines today. It has become almost the only style of poem that some editors receive and publish. Some readers, I am sure, can imagine no other poem having currency in today&apos;s poetry scene. These poems are the Simply Red, or perhaps even the faceless boy bands / girl bands of contemporary poetry. Popular, populist, but unmemorable. The lyric flourishes cover for their lack of a human heart. Scratch the surface and they’re gone…

If Rob is right (and I suspect he is), more power to him and grapez for saying/doing something about it. 

To continue: I went to grapez and asked him about what he said, and he said, as you will have read at the link above (and NB, grapez, should you happen to read this: the visual verification box in your comment box is messed up – one can’t comment on your blog, it seems):

.. this concept has actually been behind the “Show” since I restarted it a few weeks ago. And I’m verily struggling with it still. I believe in the power of positive criticism. Yet I know from past experience that “positive” does not necessarily mean benign. There’s a fine line there, and I’m hesitant to cross it, yet I fear I cross it every day. One of the things I’m most anxious to stress is that I’m criticizing the poem and not the poet. I wish this exercise to be as impersonal as possible fully understanding that most poets including myself take their finished work much too personally. Nevertheless, the work is there alone.

I’m hearing and really applauding this attitude. grapez continues:

Personally, if pushed to define my ‘crusade’, it’s one against the crushing weight of secular materialism. Too much poetry has bought into this ‘religion’ and prides itself on tradition or progression, without questioning the underlying field such a game is played on whatsoever.

OK, this is paradigmatic and I need to think about it. Personally, I agree that no-one can crusade too hard or too long against secular materialism as a general matter, but seeing it put up as a prism/paradigm for evaluating poetry makes me stop and think. Because it makes poetry political? I’ve ranted on about political/ committed poetry before, but this seems different, way out of that league. I’m not sure, but I think this makes me uncomfortable because it limits good poetry to a particular ideological focus. Surely secular materialism, like religious ascetism (or any other paradigmatic –ism), can produce both good poetry and bad poetry. Surely? Is it reasonable to blame the –ism for the poetry?  OK, now I’m developing a mental squint and need to go away and think some more. In any event, major kudos to grapez for both tackling and trying to implement a practical response to such sweeping questions. grapez notes that his thoughts on this topic are still a work in progress and still await refining — I look forward to following his thought development on this one.

Messing with time

As one chronically messed with by time, I freely welcome opportunities to mess with it and here are two rare ones. Consider these two items added to my wish-list, O Buyers of Christmas Presents for Me. You know who you are. 

The backwards clock for savoring orange days when Things Go Right (and not just machines and bosses, but lovers and poems and elections in benighted bastions of oppression).  


The day clock, for big-picture-only days.

Critiquing for the public good & evil poems

Hm. Just when you thought you had at least the ghost of a handle on something, someone else comes along with a whole new handle, from a different planet altogether. Check this out and I quote:

A better man than me would point to the sentiment and dog and honor the humane intent, but a better man than me wouldn’t understand the damage a bad poem can wreak. Someone has to warn the unsuspecting public of condemned buildings. Someone has to help the architect avoid the crooked nail.Critiquing for the public good, huh? Well, all power and the most excellent of karma to g r a p e z,  but I’ll hold off thinking about checking that particular box until I have a good few more years at this lark under my belt. But!  What is this about “the damage a bad poem can wreak”? I thought bad poems just fell wailing into oblivion, or got crushed to nothing by the inexorable weight of neglect. That bad poems are active proponents of any kind of evil had not occurred to me. They are? 

No-one ever tells me anything.

On Feedback

These are things all you accomplished poets and writers know in your sleep, but I came to active poetry reading and writing relatively recently (just call me Late Developer) and my thoughts on feedback in poetry are still very much forming.

It’s becoming increasingly – and surprisingly  – clear to me how central feedback (both received and given) is to learning poetry as a craft. Thanks to Julie Carter, I went out of my way to find a published poem to review each weekday this week. At the end of it, nudged towards crystallization by the experience, I find I have some Notes to Self on the Subject of Feedback, along the following lines:

Giving feedback
— Do so, often. It’s the best way to learn. Unfortunately, it’s about 10 gazillion times easier to see weak spots in other’s work than it is to see weak spots in your own, but the better you become at evaluating others’ work, the better you become at constructing/evaluating your own.

– Sharing your work and sharing your critiques are two sides of the same coin – both are scary activities that expose and make you vulnerable, but both are necessary to keep learning. Don’t shy away from either.

– It’s published, so it must be perfect is a myth. 

– Remember there’s a person on the other end of your critique. Be courteous. Try to underline positives as well as negatives (while still telling it as you see it). Acknowledge that your read is just one person’s read and that other takes are not only likely, but probable. 

– Seek out other reads of the same material and compare them with your own. Think about the points you differ on – be honest with yourself. Some differences are a matter of taste, but some are points of craft. Work at learning the difference. 

– Don’t let yourself be bullied out of giving feedback by negative feedback to your negative feedback (heh). Be courteous and honest and stick to your guns.

Receiving feedback

– Say thank-you for positive and negative feedback alike. Feedback is how you learn.

– Receiving negative feedback: PFFA says it best: Do you value the judgment of the person who offered the negative review?

If so, thank them for taking the time to read and comment, pay attention to whatever specifics they may have pointed out, think about what went wrong, and try to write a better poem that will elicit a better reaction next time.

If you do not think their opinion is qualified, ignore it. Thank them politely, and pay no attention to whatever it is that they said. If they are unqualified to judge whether your poem is good or bad, why should their opinion bother you?

– Don’t quibble with a critic or tell them they have misunderstood or know nothing or that your work is fine as it is. They will be reluctant to offer feedback the next time around, and if you quibble often enough, you will end up having to make do with fluff feedback from friends and family or those who just want you to fluff their poems in return.

Do ask for clarification if you haven’t fully understood what you think is a valid criticism.

Don’t stop thinking about these things. Ever.

Review for Friday

This has been in my head. Good poems make you feel; really good poems make you feel and think. This is a really good poem, in my book. The downsides – minor, really – are the title (there’s surely a much better one in this material) and the last line, which rings a bit overly fanciful and a tad telly to me. But the stations, the elsewheres, the spider, plum, the pebble and the kite – the kite! – and its string, are to die for.

A kite tugging on its string gives you a sense of what&apos;s up there,

though it is translated, and by a string.

Thursday’s review

Is this some kind of diabolically clever satire? Or is it a bundle of repetitive and clichéd questions lacking any original insight or perspective? wild desires? ripping off of clothes? the fire that used to rage? the runaway locomotives of our lust? derailed and frozen in our Arctic hearts? Yeek.

Zimbabwe on Wednesday

Looking at Poetry International Web today, at this out of Africa, by Zimbabwean poet Ignatius T. Mabasa. His poems are originally written in Shona and what you have on the site are translations into English by the author himself. The translations are not word for word, nor are they meant to be direct reproductions of the originals, but are intended to function as original poems in their own right, says the site. Okay.

A lot of work still needed on all of these, in my view. I was struck by Poetry, though – mostly because every poet and ersatz-poet you have ever known in whatever country has a poetic opinion about what poetry is, which makes it an excellent transnational topic of poetic conversation.  And one which always starts: “Poetry is..”

Mabasa seems here to be defining poetry as the legitimate domain of the politically and economically downtrodden. Well, why not. Committed poetry. Collectively, we probably need it more than we acknowledge and surely someone has to keep feeding the committed base fires, somewhere, while the rest of us are not. 

That said, if I had the editing of this one, I would be pretty savage – I&apos;d cut S1-3, 6 & 8 completely and draconianly tighten up the rest. That said, I find this scenario particularly appealing:

Poetry is an old man in dusty fields
A scarecrow, talking to himself
Poking the stunted
rapoko crop
And asking himself
‘What happened to the land
That the government redistributed?
Was it all taken by the news-reader
Because he got the news first?’

Miniporc on Tuesday

This, the next thing down the Bloglines feeder this morning, is charming, lots to like. I’ve been over it several times today and keep finding good new stuff. I like the short lines and clipping pace and the slant rhymes you keep going back to savor. I’m a sucker for religious references, and love the way the piece is pinned down by Judas-Lot&apos;s wife-Jezebel-Satan. Some super cool line- and strophe- breaks (favorite: I am tall//in my sins). A bewildering-in-a-nice-way array of really strong images that hint at theme-upon-theme and keep you going back to work them out. On the down side, some of the odder line/strophe breaks don’t work for me (you already know//this and the exact edge I’m//on (can see the thinking behind this last one, but it ends up too gimmicky for my taste)); and some obscurities that trip me up semantically and sonically (I am chrism/in the mouth.//Schlaf, Traum) and just seem to  get in the way. The last line is totally to die for. All in all: More, more!

Miniporc (cont’d)

Hm. Yesterday’s act of reckless self-endangerment  yielded some interesting fruit (in addition to a wildly crazy spike in the traffic of this humble blog, I might add). One thing I did this time was to focus exclusively on the piece I was looking at, without due regard for the person behind the piece — that certainly was ill-mannered and I do apologize for it.

I very much liked this thoughtful comment at the second link above, directed at the subject of criticism at large:

This is interesting. Situations like these always raise the question, “What should people be asked to expect when they publish or post their poetry?” Many people hold the firm belief that published poets should be prepared to see their poems subjected to harsh critique, because artistic endeavors that have been released into the public arena are fair game for both criticism and praise. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this position. I do wonder, however, why poets should really be asked to expect the sort of end-stopped evisceration of their work that occasionally occurs and, moreover, to greet it graciously when it comes. I think poets can well be asked to expect discourse, but a critique that answers its own questions does not really invite discourse. These days I tend to judge critiques, online and otherwise, by whether they sound like the beginning or end of a conversation. Otherwise, what use are they?

I liked this, too, from Julie: Each day when I write a review on WEE, I expose myself to potential ridicule. The act of criticism is a vulnerable one, a revelatory one.

Thanks to all who participated in creating this experience and in laying down food for continuing thought.