How to Respond to Criticism of Your Poetry
This month, in a special edition of Critique Corner, we deviate from our usual format to address a topic close to our hearts: how to accept and use criticism.
Dear reader, I feel I must insist: There is only one way to do it, only one way to respond to criticism of your poetry: "Thank you for your time and interest. You have given me food for thought."
I offer these words in quotation, as a model; I offer them for your safety. I mean that—those are our poems out there. Just as you need to stop and look before you turn right on a red light, for your own sake and that of others, this is a rule of the road. You never know who's hurtling at you down the Avenue of Communication.
Of this much I am certain, as a strategy it will not fail you. Honor the risk required to offer comment; retain your autonomy as author. However you convey it, your reply will come off upbeat and brave.
It sounds simple. It's not. It can be one of the hardest things that, we, as poets, must master. Must, because, if we don't, we will never grow and learn. And if we stop doing that, we eventually stop writing.
Why does this work? Because writers are talkers, but to use critical feedback, we have to listen. Let me show you how a reply like, "I really appreciate your thoughts; they will be with me when I revise," can help you switch the talker off, so that you can benefit from the time and attention people have taken to consider your work.
Your Wish is My Command
"If this were my poem, I would cut the last stanza," and so you do.
"I went to a lecture by a famous poet and I am sure he would tell you to cut the first stanza." With that, stanza two? History.
"I don't see how the middle stanza is working for you?" So much for your triolet!
Poets are often eager to please. Poets are often impressionable. But poems are not the work of committees. If you're taking every comment, you may be losing the you in your poem. Not every comment every person makes is going to serve the poem or your vision of it. So, lift your finger off that delete key; you know what to do: "Lots of really great input! I thank you so much for your time and attention." Then set the notes aside to return to another time.
You know you have heard an idea worth heeding when the same comment, or a comment about the same phrase or quality, arises again and again. You know you have heard an idea worth heeding when it refers to the very line or image you were uncertain of yourself. Sometimes a little "aha!" will sound within you when someone offers an idea you wish you'd had yourself. Wonderful!
The Defense Rests
Someone has just commented on your poem. They're wrong, of course. Obviously. More than that, they're insane, boorish, and wouldn't know a good poem if it took off the top of their head. Of course, you're too refined to say so (or at least you know that if you do, you might not be asked to return to the group, class, or forum you are working with). So you sigh, patiently gather your words, and present your case—or worse, you interrupt—"You're not seeing my point..." you say. No one contradicts you. Clearly you have persuaded them.
Well, the last sentence is true anyway. Everyone is now convinced that it's not worthwhile to offer you honest opinions. Ask yourself: what would they have to gain by arguing with you about your piece? They will either stop offering you feedback altogether, or, if it's a situation where comment is required, proffer vague blandishments.
This can become a dangerous cycle. Your defensive posture makes it uncomfortable for anyone to give you anything but praise; you receive nothing but praise and believe there is nothing to improve.
How to avoid this? "Such smart and interesting replies! I can see you gave this some time and I want to thank you for that." One thing that helps, if you are working with other people in a room, is to take verbatim notes. You may be head-down, biting the inside of your cheek the whole time, but your hands will be scribbling away. You won't have time to formulate push-back. If you are working online, massage the input somehow. For example, make a separate document and turn the notes into some sort of outline. This way you can process them without actively responding.
In both cases, set the notes aside to return to another time.
Straight from the Horse's Mouth
If a horse made a comment on one of my poems, I'd like to think I would listen. But what if it came from a jackass? Using criticism is no different from reading an op-ed page: you have to consider the source. I regret I must add, dear reader, though once again, for your own good: be sure to ask yourself if the source stands to make any money from your continued allegiance.
This is actually more important than whether you like the source's poetry. A better question is whether you think his or her comments on other people's poems improve those poems? Do they reflect your sensibility? Sometimes wonderful poets, even famous ones, have no talent for helping someone else achieve the poem they'd intended.
Which is not to say that they have nothing to say. Everyone has something to say, even—maybe especially—non-poets. We write for the response of readers. Be grateful for it. Honor every comment as you would have your own met: "Dear Online Poetry Editor, I know you receive a lot of mail, and I thank you for the time you've taken on my work. You've given me new ways to see this piece." Then set the notes aside.
Sometimes poets, perhaps from an impulse to focus, censure: "Thanks, but I'm only looking for comments about my title." Beware. For one thing, you never know what comments will resonate or spark inspiration in later pieces. Besides, you might happen to be seated next to a large animal veterinarian with a specialty in dentistry: someone with just the right instrument for the job.
Love is Blind
You wake up from a feverish dream and grab your pen. Your very words flush with bright vitality. Mama was right; you are brilliant. Just wait until you show it to the gang tonight. You leave the poem you'd prepared standing at the altar as you take your new love in hand. But ah, will you still respect her in the morning?
To benefit from criticism requires distance. Fresh work, the kind that still reverberates in our inner ears, is not yet seasoned for outside influence. Hear me now, you know I care: when possible show your penultimate poem, if not something even older. But should your crush prove too irresistible and you find yourself wounded to the core, summon your courage, you can do it: "I see. Thank you. A lot to think about. I'm sure I will." Okay, that might not be the best response, but, hey, you did it! And the notes will be there when you're ready.
The Twelfth of Never
We have been setting an awful lot of notes aside. Now what? A big bonfire?
The time to take up a revision of a poem is, of course, any time the mood strikes you. Reading newsletters like this one, full of opportunities and deadlines, can provide inspiration, as can a class. If you have some sort of regular exchange with other poets, set aside some of them each year for revisions.
New perspectives are especially fruitful. If you admire someone else's poetry, ask yourself why, then revisit your old work. Reading critical essays or attending live intensives and craft lectures can also re-open poems in a useful way.
This essay appeared in the December 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).