woe is us

“.. what we need in poetry are more people who don’t have a stake in it, more people who don’t know the people, the real people behind the words to care about poetry enough to write about it. This is true in every other field, it seems, but us. This is a problem because there is hardly any “demand” for poetry beyond practicing poets.”

Victoria Chang making an excellent point. When was the last time you read a review of someone’s poetry by a practicing poet that said: I consider this work weak, for the following reasons…?

Either people (and that includes me) say stuff is great, or they say nothing. I’ve been on a recent roll of ordering and reading chapbooks and collections by poetry blogosphere poets. Some of it is really good stuff and I have been and will continue to write enthusiastically about it.

Some of it, though, makes me go WTF?! and wonder what the publishing world and standards in general are coming to. I could defend my WTF reactions meaningfully and respectfully in reviews, I think, but I’m choosing not to. Choosing not to even begin to go there.

For snivelingly cowardly reasons, mostly related to my self-interest as an aspiring poet myself.

Woe is me. And us. Where are we going to get the critical feedback we really need, if we’re all so busy scratching each other’s backs…?

Related post here.


Many thanks to Richard Epstein  for this illuminating comment below on a distinction that has long perplexed me:

I think you have “critique” confused with “criticism.” It is a confusion which is epidemic on poetry boards. Even if you are right, and at a certain level of competence and sophistication, critiquing is no longer useful, criticism always is. Criticism explicates a poem, unfolds it, shows how it works and what it does, places it historically, places it in an author’s oeuvre. When we think of criticism, we are thinking of Eliot and Johnson and Jarrell and Brooks; they weren’t trying to help a writer improve himself. Theirs was a dialogue between the critic and the audience, not between the critic and the poet.

Critiquing is useful, but only at a rudimentary level. Our goal as poets is to move past critiquers to the critics; our goal as critics is to find poems worth, not critiquing, but criticizing.

Here’s an old discussion on the difference between critiquing and reviewing.

Here are the not-very-illuminating relevant bits from Merriam-Webster, for what they’re worth:

2: the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature; also : writings expressing such evaluation or analysis

: an act of criticizing; especially : a critical estimate or discussion
: to examine critically : review

6 a: a critical evaluation (as of a book or play)

(Negative) Critique/Criticism

As many of you know, I have huge repositories of wisdom on this blog from heads far wiser than mine on the Ten Questions and related pages. Each interview is a fascinating read of itself, but I am also slowly working on a cross-referenced index (in the column to the left) with separate pages, each holding the collective wisdom of the contributing poets on just one of the Ten Questions. So far we have Online Workshops  and the Role of the Poet and today, I’ve added a new one, (Negative) Critique/Criticism. This was based on No. 4 of the Ten Questions, which was:

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

Some respondents focused on Prevallet’s remarks concerning the inability of many poets to take criticism and how reviews/criticism are sometimes used to back-stab or back-scratch and advance personal agendas. Rob blames “the poetic ego, which is usually huge.” Scavella talks about the advantages to meaningful critique of anonymity and/or an absence of personal relations between critic and poet. Julie doesn’t see much changing with regard to the general sensitiveness of poets to criticism and Greg seems largely to agree, while Steve says that although poets may be sensitive, it is not always without cause, given the reviews out there that “blur the lines between commenting on the work and make ad hominem attacks”. Tony is my personal hero on this one, go read his response. Howard, Katy and C.E. Chaffin focus mainly on the formal literary criticism end of things and maintain the picture is nothing so dire as Prevallet claims.

I have to say that the referenced article is somewhat all over the place, as more than one of those responding remarked, but it seemed a handy jumping off point for Question No. 4, since it seemed to me to cover pretty much the full range of criticism – from the problematic of venomous and/or simply backscratching individual reviews of a peer’s work, to the big guns of formal literary criticism, which evaluates a body of work in relation to its broader socio-politico-whatevero context.

And the two are surely part of the same continuum and what therefore might be of concern – if I understand Prevallet correctly – is that the flaws and contaminants present (writ small) at the small individual end of things are bound to show up (writ huge) somehow at the larger collective end, to everyone’s detriment.

Do they?

Anyhow, go read the page.

Warmest thanks once again to the contributing poets. Yours is most definitely the gift that keeps on giving.

Critical Slough of Despond

Still in a very plastic hot-wax indeterminate sort of state about critiquing others’ poetry. Where I used somehow to be able to just march in briskly say oh, yes, this and oh, yes, that, I now don’t seem to be able to determine what this or that or anything else is any more.

Once a writer has got beyond the usual yeek-cliches-and-abstractions stage and has stopped obssessive-compulsive telling, once they have a good grip on the basics of the craft – what is there to separate one poet from another but the personal taste of the reader? We respond to what we read the way we are.

Critiquing others’ work now just seems an exercise in talking about myself. And a rather futile one at that.  


Criticism is a misconception: we must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves, as secretary-of-his-sensations Emile Cioran would have it.

Real Life and the Internet

Another interesting post on Reginald Shepherd’s blog, entitled A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom. The post bears all the usual Shepherd hallmarks of clarity and thoughtfulness and everything he says about new wannabe writers is totally true. However, the most interesting thing to me is how I know that what he writes is bang on the mark, since I’ve never been in or near a creative writing classroom in my life.

The answer is from online workshops, of course. 

Now would that be the internet imitating real life, or being real life?

Favorite bit:

Because students look at their own poems and see not the words they have written but the thoughts, emotions, and experiences the word point to, they tend to write poems as captions to pictures that aren’t there, providing the meaning of something that isn’t present. The meaning is presented without giving the reader the object or situation that would actually be doing the meaning. If they do include images and concrete particulars, they will often not trust those to convey the meaning or “message” without such commentary or explanation.


PFFA has a talk with itself about itself here and here. Many nuances, of course, but the basic division does not seem to me to be about the overall tell it like it is, not for the faint-hearted ethos of PFFA, but over fairly specific questions of feedback phrasing and delivery. I think. I must say I’m firmly on the if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen side of things, but it’s good to see PFFA debating such things in so lively a fashion.


Which, when and where I was younger, was pack-speak for “another ghastly continuum in human affairs”. And applied, of course, wherever you couldn’t apply an absolute black-or-white down-the-line response.

Because AGCHA is GRAY. (Or GREY, depending).

A proposition is made: One should always tell the truth. Killing is always wrong. Never use abstractions in poetry.

Do you agree or disagree?

And the answer has to be AGCHA.

Neither. Sometimes. Gray. (Or grey.)

So with Julie Carter’s fascinating series of resolutions about poetry boards. So far:

  1. Reciprocal critique is worthless.
  2. Poets and others should be able to critique the critiques.
  3. The most important feature of a poetry board is the community.
  4. A poetry board without conflict is just a teaparty
  5. Nothing ruins a board faster than bad moderators
  6. Most people who stick with a single board will eventually stagnate.

After much thought, I’m concluding that all of these propositions have the same answer: Sometimes.

That’s because poetry boards, like so much else we do, are just AGCHA.

Online workshops (3)

We got linked to by someone who couldn’t pick us out of a crowd at the Thin Men of Haddam  (which is the coolest name for an online poetry workshop I’ve heard all year), which led us to this interesting discussion at the same workshop on online workshops, which in turn referred us back to a post by James Midgley at The Smug Gnome from October last year.

Hm. There appears to be something of a reservoir of feeling out there surrounding the topic of certain online workshops.

And negative criticism.  

Have some blackbirds.

Online Workshops (2)

I joined PFFA in May 2005, just shy of two years ago. I had been writing really bad poetry until then, but had almost never shared it. In fact, at that time, to me a shared poem became a contaminated poem in which I immediately lost interest. PFFA was very much a baptism by fire, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my work was cliché- and abstraction-ridden and had a hundred other faults. (And yes, it still has a hundred faults, but at least they are different ones now…)

A key life lesson I took from PFFA is how to accept negative criticism – PFFA jumps hard on anyone who pushes back against negative criticism, and although sometimes the process looks needlessly violent to newcomers, stepping back and looking at the sheer volume of newcomers to poetry who pass through PFFA’s General Forum, you can see why a zero tolerance policy is necessary. I’ve been around there a while, but I’m still oddly intrigued every time I see that lashing-out “wounded animal” reaction from a newcomer who has just posted a mess of clichés and abstractions to being told that it is just that — a mess of clichés and abstractions. (Have seen the same reaction elsewhere from much more proficient poets too, but that’s another story). Newcomers are divided into those that swallow their medicine and dig in to learn, and those that try to fight back. The latter types are promptly re-squashed and given a chance to become productive citizens. Some do settle down at that point, while some just flounce back out into the ether (and into the more sensitive arms of poetry.com, one imagines).

The three best things about PFFA are 1) the people. Some great folk there, period. 2) The fact that receiving critique at a certain level is contingent upon your ability to give critique at that same level (and at a ratio of one poem to three critiques). The mandatory critiquing has been one of the best learning tools for me, as has the security given by the PFFA no carping at negative critique policy. Over the months I found my critiquing skills improving, not just in substance, but in delivery, to where I feel comfortable giving blunt but still courteous negative feedback, as well as comfortable (actually downright grateful by this time, heh) receiving it. I realize it has required quite a bit of training to get to that neutral distanced point which focuses only on the poem. And 3) the Blurbs of Wisdom which has years and years of accumulated wisdom on just about every topic poetic, all neatly arranged by subject.

In September last year, I joined The Waters, which is a much smaller community (43 members last time I looked). Again, great people here, especially Jude Goodwin and Toni Clark, the administrators. This is a good place to get an initial “feel” for a piece before throwing it into deeper (shark-infested) waters, heh.

In December, I joined The Gazebo, which seems to be a natural step for PFFA-ers as they become more practiced. The advantage of the Gazebo is that it is not a forum for beginners (and says so), so overall, the noise-to-substance ratio is more in favor of substance, and the overall quality of both the pieces posted for comment and the comment given is higher than at PFFA (although nothing I’ve yet seen at the Gazebo comes even close to beating some of the in-depth critiques given in PFFA’s upper-level and even mid-level forums, which also carry some seriously good poetry content). One serious downside of the Gazebo for me is that critiquers rarely describe how they read a particular piece. At PFFA, it is more the norm than not for a critiquer to start with an overview of what they think is a poem’s main narrative/theme/intent, and I think this is vital to making the critiquer’s analysis of the poem useful to the writer. At the Gazebo, for example, you have someone recommending some course of action without indicating whether or not they have understood your intent, which tends to mitigate the usefulness of some of the advice. Giving this initial overview is also a great learning tool for others – sometimes you haven’t the foggiest idea what someone else’s piece may be about, and by the end of a row of cryptic comments you aren’t any the wiser (and wonder whether in fact anyone is). In her comments on workshops (see sidebar), Poet No. 10 Katy Evans-Bush says in part:

The best criticism I’ve had online – and in “real life” – has been from people […] who understand the power of simple description. A description of how someone sees your poem working is often the most useful criticism you can receive.


Our ten poets across the board seem to make several key points with which I agree:

– workshops tend to gravitate to common-denominator conformity, in which certain kinds of poems are generally regarded as more successful than others. This can diminish the value of a workshop for participants who have reached a certain level of technical proficiency and want to try new approaches.

– Quality of poems and critiques in (and therefore the usefulness of) workshops can vary wildly (!)

– Workshops are a great tool for beginners, but at some point, you have to pull away from workshops to develop and learn to trust your inner critic.

I feel I’m at the point where I should do this, and keep saying I will, I will, but then I always begin to suspect that the new thing I’ve written is either totally flat and obvious or else so obscure that no-one will understand it and am somehow inexorably drawn to post at one place or another.

We’ll get there eventually.

Ten Questions: Online Workshops

Julie’s meditations on online workshops remind me I have huge repositories of wisdom from ten poets (including Julie herself) on this blog, which require thought and sifting through. For ease of cross-referencing, I’m going to start a subject index to the Wisdom of the Ten Poets (see top of left side-bar). The first is Ten Poets on Online Workshops, a page on which I’ve excerpted what the ten poets said on that topic.

Levels of understanding?

I really like her work although I don’t understand a word of it.

From an email yesterday, batting around my head today. I’m guessing that we’re talking about levels of understanding here and that this statement actually means something like: I couldn’t stand up and explain the meaning of her work to a roomful of people, but I like it because I understand it on a sub- (or supra-) explanation level.

There has to be some level of “understanding” involved, otherwise, how could there be liking, right?

I think I’m seeing something like this more and more in my critiques of poems lately. Getting a little less wedded to exclamatory wtf!? commentary like: Hey, a minute ago your pancake was smoking blue curls off a griddle and now it’s stuck steaming upside the dark side of the moon?? What’s with that, O creepy obscure writer of disconnected doggerel whom no-one will read beyond next week?

Seeing more of: No idea what this means, but I like it.

If I stop and ask Why? the answers are nebulous: It sounds right. It looks right. It feels right. Maybe even smells right, or tastes right.

Does liking have to be articulatable to be credible?