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"Of All the Things I Could Have Said...": How To Critique and Not Critique a Poem

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What's Critical to Being Critical?

Your growth as a creative writing, whether in this genre or any other, depends on the development of your critical skills. And, just so's we're on the same page regarding our terminology, when editors and writers refer to "critical skills," they're not talking about taking after that one hypercritical teacher you had in grammar school, or that insufferably critical great aunt who ruined every holiday gathering by unpacking generations of baggage and bad blood among the relatives. No, we mean that skill set you use to engage, assess, and evaluate a poem, whether your own or someone else's. From this ability, the revision process follows. Your critical abilities permit you to suggest strong and weak points in the writing, to articulate what you believe to be the intentions of the writer, identify literary themes and styles, and make recommendations about such issues as language use, line-breaks, cadence and rhythms, stanzas and form, literary style, and so on. You may have encountered people with critical skills who were also unkind and were critical people, but the two are not necessarily the same thing, especially in the environment of a writing workshop or writer's group.

"I liked it. What more can I say?"

It all comes down to the semantics of the term "critic." The word "reviewer" is commonly substituted for the term "critic" in today's culture, but they are not the same.

In grade school, you might have written a book report that reviewed the facts of the book's composition, paraphrased the contents, said something of the author's background, and provided an overview of the book's critical reception; if there were any other objective, it might have been to pronounce your enjoyment (or lack of it) for the book, in which case your review was motivated by an answer to the question, "Did I like this?" Today, this same approach to reviewing is used in everything from product reviews to film reviews, to tell other "consumers" (before they invest in something) whether or not they're probably going to "like" it. Justification for this sort of evaluation stems from your personal experience, your tastes, and your predilections, which, although important to you, don't necessarily make you an expert. Expertise comes from a combination of experience and education, which build your authority about a subject. That's where the word “critic” starts to make sense.

Technically speaking, a critic is someone who is able to comment on the artistic value of the subject through a comparative examination: the work is evaluated in light of its artistic predecessors, aesthetic movements, contemporaneous works, ideological aims, philosophical underpinnings, technical proficiency, and so on. Critics establish criteria by which to examine and discuss the work in question, and they are not only versed in that criteria, but educated in it. Even if they use their critical skill sets to offer an opinion about whether they liked or disliked something, they always have more to say. This is why you'll often note on a critic's curriculum vita her advanced degrees in the subject area she writes about.

So, in a workshop, saying "I like it" is a fine start—no doubt—but it doesn't quite set you on a trajectory to become more than a reviewer. In organizing a workshop critique, you should aspire to become a critic, and ask yourself questions about why you like or do not like something about the poem, articulate what confuses you or inspires you, and so on. 

The Learning Curve

Developing your critical skill sets, though, is a process, and if this is your first time experiencing the workshop environment, no one expects you to be an expert right out of the box. Wanting to be a careful and conscientious reader so that you can offer thoughtful comments and suggestions is what it's all about. At first, you might feel at a disadvantage in workshop because there are more experienced workshoppers in the class. That's okay. They're part of the teachable moment; they've been where you are, and you can learn by their example the sorts of things that are useful to talk about.

The most difficult hurdle to jump, though, in offering your critique of someone else's writing is believing you're passing judgment on the writer. This, too, is understandable. As writer's, we have egos that are far more fragile than we let on. We want to be liked for our talents, so even a minor criticism can sometimes feel like a diss. It's hard to learn not to take workshop criticism personally. And, if we're to be completely honest, it is personal, but the bonds of trust among writers in a workshop is sacred, and the more nurturing and honest it is, the more trustworthy you and your peers become to one another. You begin to realize that a workshop is a kind of safe space for you as a writer, where you're not being judged, but, rather, your work is being scrutinized and everyone has faith in your ability to make it excellent (if it isn't already).

At the other end of the spectrum is the novice workshopper who is disappointed when the class doesn't rise to it's feet in ovation at the start of the discussion. Even if we wanted to—and, trust me, there are times when we do—the nature of the workshop isn't to reward or punish, nor to acclaim or disclaim. It's natural to harbor that fantasy of applause, but, as a member of a writer's group, you should want much more than this because, as explained above, applause or hisses and boos are the purview of a reviewer, not a critic. You may want the reviewer's praise, but you need the workshop's criticism for your own good.

Workshop Starter Kit

Here, then, to help you develop into the best critic you can be, is a starter kit of criteria to use and not use in a good workshop. (Note: Although presented here as a table of distinct factors, in reality there is a great deal of overlap among them.) 

Tone and Attitude

Craft and Technique

Topic and Objective

It should go without needing to be said, but avoid a hypercritism and abject flattery. Learn to strike a balance in your critiques. We may in jest call a workshop a “hot seat,” but in reality it shouldn't really feel like a tribunal. On the other hand, if the tenor of the group's critiques seems biased, especially if a negative bias, find a way to diffuse it and offer a supportive comment, even if you agree with the negative criticism. No one wants to feel ganged-up on. 

Focus on the qualities of the poem and its writing, rather than harping on mechanics, grammar, and spelling issues. Noting these on the draft is a good idea, and they may, in fact, play some role in a broader commentary about why parts of the poem are good or confusing, but such matters shouldn't take up the limited time we devote to a workshop discussion. 

In addition to being personal and intellectual explorations, original poems are also works of literature. Try to see the poem's potential to be literature, and measure it against what you believe the poet was trying to achieve, not what you would have if you had written it.

It's often useful to start with the poem's title (or, if it is untitled, with the fact that it is untitled).

Focus on the poem, not the writer. Avoid ad hominem criticism. Yes, our poems are cathartic, and as writer's were are psychologically invested in our work, but no one wants to be psychoanalyzed in the classroom (nor in your written critique, for that matter).

How does the poem “sound”? Accepting that the way we hear it on the page is not always the way the writer hears it in her head, comment on how the writing “sounds.”

Try to summarize for yourself and, if necessary, for others in the class what the poem liter-ally is aboutidentify its topic, its premise, and, if it has one, its narrative details. Draw examples from these to support your impressions.

Don't play “Good Cop/Bad Cop.” In fact, a workshopper who “cops” an attitude is often among our worst memories of bad workshop experiences. Avoid being “the expert” or “the imbecile.” Accept that every poem is a work in progress, and pointing out within it its potential for progress should always be your main goal.

In most cases, a poem is an argument, and the stages of the argument, or the movements in its development, can be identified at specific points in the poem. Discuss how effective these are for understanding the poem's message or motive. Examine the overall impact or impression made by the poem, as a whole.

The poet is obligated to identify which assignment prompt was used for the poem, so that workshoppers have a starting point about the poem's topic and objectives. If you're not sure what to say about a poem, go back to the assignment prompt and consider how successfully the poet has addressed its demands.

Don't hijack the workshop to talk about other topics. True, occasionally an outside topic is germane to the discussion of the poem, but remember that there's a writer in the room whose poem is surrogate to his or her voice; don't let your comments be about hearing your voice only.

Discuss the writer's craft by considering the following factors:

  • imagery
  • diction (how words are chosen)

  • connotative force (how words create implied meaning)

  • abstract and concrete nouns

  • active and passive verbs

  • sensory detail

  • figurative language (similes, metaphors)

Ultimately, no poem should be the sum of the assignment. The point of the course should be to help you produce a body of work that stands on its own. Don't let the demands of the prompt stand in the way of writing a good poem. However, if you or your peer does depart from the prompt, consider the ways in which this specifically profits or hurts the poem.

Above all else, find a way to enjoy critiquing every poem you read, even if you don't always understand what the poem is about. Your enthusiasm for the work, whether praiseworthy or not, is always the basis for a good critique, and is what we most hope for in return when it comes time to have our own poems workshopped. If you have as much fun as you can muster, then, as long as it's not intended to be at the expense of your peer, you simply can't go wrong.

Poem Appraisal Sheet

For English 140 students, an Appraisal Sheet has been provided to help beginners organize their impressions and recommendations for the workshop. However, students of poetry writing at other levels are welcome to download the appraisal form and submit it along with their critical commentary. Requirements for workshop critiques our outlined in your syllabus and on the course website, on the main “Assignments” page.

Last Updated: 01/28/2016

Contact

Karl J. Sherlock
Associate Professor, English
Email: karl.sherlock@gcccd.edu
Office Hours: M-Th 4-5:30
Phone: 619-644-7871

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