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.

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

8 thoughts on “Critical Slough of Despond”

  1. I still think there is more to comment on beyond the basics. Since making a good poem is such a huge undertaking and one thing can send it astray, if a critic finds than one thing and conveys it to the author, they have helped. Just saying HOW we read a poem can help the author see how much of their intent came through to the reader. There are many complex issues in examining a poem beyond the basics you describe. Many poems appear well written in the sense of no common errors and yet just don’t work.

    It is true that it may get harder to articulate why something works or does not work once a writer is past that basic writer part. But I think that is where it gets really interesting and more learning is possible by both the author and critic.

    Let’s just take sound, for instance. (My favourite topic heh!) Just looking at sound and seeing if the author takes advantage of the possibilities is huge. Do the sounds have some relation to the content? If not, why not?

    Does the metaphor employed work to further the poem or lock it up in a claustrophobic frame?

    I think the more we think about the complexities of poems, the more we learn.

    Lately I have been spending a lot of time examining the function/non-function of metaphor and asking myself what really makes metaphor work — or not.

    Given the great complexity of poems, I don’t think we will ever run out of things to comment on or need fear that the author is somehow beyond comment. But certainly we have a responsibility as critics to learn our commenting craft as much as our writing craft. The better a writer becomes, the more care we should take.

    I think we can examine a poem for craft and forego our own taste to a large degree.

    We won’t always be “right.” But if a writer offers something up, they obviously want feedback. Feedback does not have to critique in a “I hate this but love this” fashion either. Again, just telling a writer how you read their poem can be very useful.


  2. 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.

  3. I think Barbara puts it better than I ever could have. If you look at a draft poem I posted on my blog at this link, and then the comments of CE Chaffin afterwards, you’ll see a good example of how critique can be useful – although his “critique” is also, in part, “criticism” the way Richard defines it as it engages the audience. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

  4. I’ve recently become part of a small poetry group/workshop, having not done such a thing in several years. I find it much easier in person than on line.

    When I was heavy into an online poetry workshop I would write comprehensively about the poem, which was a lot of work and, even when appreciated, it was hard to tell what got through to the poet, what mattered to the poet, what was needed, what a waste of time. When I stopped learning through the experience (a big part of why I did it) I shifted to quips — making quick comments about a particular piece of a poem, praising a sharp metaphor or chiding a lazy one, for instance.

    It’s a relief to be working with two poets face to face who have writing poems 20 or more years whose egos seem not easily bruised. In workshop I go thru the poem top to bottom, giving a reading as best as I understand it, saying what confuses me or delights me as I go along, making general comments about poetic strategies, and summing up with what pleases me most &/or what leaves me unsatisfied. The idea (at least in my mind) is no longer offering fixes for another poet’s work, but exposing to the poet what is going on in this close reader’s mind as he is going through the poem. If the poet sees that his poem is not doing on the page what he thought it was doing perhaps he can see a way to shift it toward doing so. But I’m mindful not to make prescriptions. It’s better for me not to, as then I won’t feel I have some stake in (my view of) the poem’s success.

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