Tuesday, July 11, 2000
An unpublished essay on the art of critiquing by Dean Blehert
I encounter much confusion when I critique poetry or discuss critiquing with poets. I know talented poets who consider critiquing a bad, useless and/or dangerous thing, others who have it confused with teaching a beginner how to write poetry and others who simply don't know how to begin.
My dictionary says a critique is a critical estimate of a work of literature or art. "Critical" is both "Inclined to criticize, especially unfavorably" and "Exercising...careful judgment; exact; nicely judicious"--not necessarily negative.
I'll be talking about critiquing poetry, something I've done a lot of, but it should apply to critiquing any art.
A critique is a communication about the strengths and weaknesses of a work of art. Its nature will vary greatly according to whether it's a communication by a critic to the artist, a teacher to a student, a critic to an audience of readers or the artist him/herself to readers. The intentions and methods are different in each case. I'm mainly interested in critiquing designed to help an artist improve his/her work. [From now on, please accept "he" as short for "he/she", etc.]
Most writings on criticism discuss aesthetics: What is a good line of poetry? How can you tell a good poem from a bad poem? Etc. In this discussion, I consider the act of criticism itself as a form of communication and describe, not the ideal content of criticism, but guidelines for making criticism useful to an artist. Where criticism goes bad, it's not usually because critics don't know what they like and why or because their notions of art are stupid. It's because they don't understand the purpose of a critique. Here are the key considerations:
A. Who should be critiqued?
Criticism is an attempt to improve quality and viability. It should not be attempted until the artist is able to produce in quantity. Most people who've taught poetry (or other arts) to school children will agree that critiquing plays no part in it. You just get them writing lots of poetry. It stems the flow to start telling them what's wrong with their work when they're just building up the nerve to write at all. The best critiquing at this stage is simply telling the student when you particularly like something. This is a time for broad praise, not criticism.
Criticism becomes useful to an artist when he's producing in volume and has attention on improving the products. He may despair of equaling the power of masterworks he admires, or he may simply be puzzled why others don't recognize his excellence. In either case, he's ready for critiquing, though in the second instance, this would take the form of telling the artist what others don't care for in the work and why, not saying what's weak in it; you can help an artist who thinks he's perfect (as long as he wants more acceptance), but it takes tact.
Ignoring this distinction between teaching and critiquing creates upsets about criticism. Most people who hate the very idea of critiquing received it mixed in with early teaching. When they were just beginning to grope for the nerve to think it might be barely okay for them to express themselves, someone took a critical look at their crude work. It may not have looked like a critique, perhaps was condescending praise, "Now isn't that just darling!" It may have been a tired father's rough joke or the absence of expected lavish praise. Maybe someone thought something was naughty to say.
People critiqued too soon may stop writing altogether. Or they may revise a single work endlessly, trying to achieve an Absolute--finishing nothing. One revises to improve. When art works (gets the message across), it's good enough. It can always be improved. There's no end to that. An artist who revises endlessly, waiting for a revelation of perfection, hasn't learned to decide that something is done. A professional FINISHES works of art. He may later decide to revise them further. But he doesn't wait for the art to attain to some impossible standard, usually imposed on the artist by an early critic.
Trying to critique a beginner in a helpful way is like walking blindfolded into a minefield.
How much production is enough? When an artist has produced enough to want outlets, when he's tried to improve his work himself (and it's hard to revise or toss out poems when you don't have an abundance of them), when he wants opinions of his work and not just patting on the head, he's ready. But don't mix critiquing with teaching a beginner. The teacher wants production. The critic wants to improve quality and viability.
B. How do you improve an artist's quality?
The main benefit an artist gets from criticism is increased ability to view his own work from the viewpoint of its audience. An artist is professional to the extent that, wanting to create a certain effect, he can sense whether his work will create that effect on his chosen audience and can revise the work as needed to create that effect. To the extent he can do this, he is his own critic and needs no critiquing from others (but any artist can gain from sharp enough critiquing.)
Imagination includes the ability to occupy a diversity of viewpoints. In a poem the poet may occupy the viewpoint of a bird, a flower or a madman. Should he not also be able to occupy the viewpoint of his reader reading the poem?
A work of art is a communication from an artist to an audience, where the artist wants the audience to receive his intention. As with any communication, it will work only to the extent that the origination point (artist) can confront the receipt point (audience) and put an intention across directly and exactly to that point (not over its head or falling short) so that the receipt point GETS it.
A poet writing in his room doesn't have his reader at hand, can't see the response. He has to imagine his reader, assume the reader's viewpoint--BE the reader. Critiquing helps him do this. For one thing, the poet hears what one reader (the critic) has to say about the poem.
But critiquing is not just saying "I like the poem." Fellow poets, to the extent that they are professional, are able not only to say what they like and dislike, but what in the poem creates that effect.
By "professional" I mean someone who is not just affected by art, but also is aware of how the art is doing what it does. He can be moved while also being aware of the techniques that move him. Through his sobbing, he hears the background music fishing for tears. He knows how it is done, having done it himself.
From readers and critics a professional gets a sense of what works for others. He can look at a poem he personally dislikes and see that it will please some other audience or that a poem he likes will not suit a particular editor. Thus the very ability obtained from good critiquing ( to occupy the viewpoints of readers) also increases one's value to others as a critic.
Critiquing others well improves an artist's work: A good poetry critic reads the poem intelligently, notes his own response to it AND what in the poem caused that response. Also, using that same ability to duplicate the viewpoints of others, the critic understands the response INTENDED. For example, even though unmoved by a poem, he can sense (if he's a good critic) that the author intended him to be moved in a particular way. (Note: This doesn't mean he knows the poet's reasons for writing. By intention here, I mean, simply, the effective vector of the communication. For example, if, in a restaurant, I say to the waitress, "Maam...", and she turns to me and says "Yes?"--she got my intention. She may not know what I want from her, but she knows I was trying to get her attention. Similarly, when a poet is trying to be ironic or funny or tragic, a critic should be able to tell--or should at least know that he isn't getting it.)
Finally, the critic should be good at communicating his response to the poem (and since the critic is a poet himself, he's likely to know what to say to get across to another poet.)
Then he can say, "Look here, this line falls flat. It's supposed to be funny and moving, but it's anticlimactic because..."--and if the critic has done a good job of getting the poet's intention, the criticism will make sense to the poet.
C. Guidelines for critics:
1. Don't critique someone who doesn't want to be critiqued-- unless you want to get rid of him. (It's usually safe to praise what you like.) Someone's having written a lot of poems doesn't mean the writer is willing to be critiqued. Some writers have had bad experiences with critiquing (giving or receiving) and can't stand the thought of it. Some, despite obvious talent, are terribly insecure and want only support.
Some people SEEM to ask for criticism, but send subtle signals to the contrary. To survive emotionally, a critic must learn to tell when a poet who asks for an opinion is really asking for praise. It's an old joke: Wife asks, "How do you like my new dress?" and inexperienced husband foolishly says he doesn't care for it, thinking she wants his opinion, when she's fishing for admiration.
If you admire an artist's talent and want to help him become more professional, you must first handle his objections to being critiqued (all critiquing is bad, no one should ever criticize a work of art, the artist creates for himself alone, etc.)
Usually such an artist has experienced (or done) bad critiquing. There may be words in the areas of critiquing and art that he's never properly understood. He usually prefers not to realize that bad critiquing happens all the time whether he invites it or not: Total silence, no one aware of his work, no one wanting to know about it, rejection slips, seeing a poem in print that's inferior to his own unpublished poem, even polite praise from friends--all act as criticism.
GOOD criticism disarms BAD criticism. A poet who has experienced sound critiquing is surer of himself and less daunted by the sloppy criticism the world inflicts on every artist.
2. Know your hobbyhorses. If you can't abide formally rhymed and metered poems, realize that you don't have much to say to a writer of rhymed and metered poems. You could advise poets to work in free verse and give your reasons, but you'd be doing a disservice if you told a poet his rhymed poem was lousy without also telling him that you consider all rhymed poems lousy. You'd be criticizing a poem's failure to live up to your own intentions, not the poet's. A professional considers not only his own tastes, but what others may like.
Beware, in particular, of criticism of another that is really a defense of your own poetry. A poet who feels under attack because his poems are too surreal for current tastes, for example, will be tempted to attack poems by others that are too logical in their linking of images--and vice versa. The game is getting another's viewpoint, not solidifying one's own.
There are uses for criticism that attacks the givens of a form. For example, suppose a poet has had his approach to poetry attacked because it's outside the mainstream. You may be able to encourage him by assailing the limitations of mainstream poetry. Critical essays for readers often do this sort of thing to give literary credentials to new or old forms.
But it's awfully hard to help a poet if you invalidate his intention in writing the poem. That criticizes not the poem, but the poet. A critic should help the poet distance himself from his poem and view it from a variety of viewpoints. An upset introverts and makes the poet less able to be anyone other than a very narrow outraged self. Attacking the poet and not the poem upsets the poet; it doesn't help him improve his work. It may stop him from working at all, a dubious goal for criticism.
Critiquing of intentions has no place in a discussion of QUALITY (how to get your communication across with impingement, power, clarity, wit, etc.). It has to do with VIABILITY (Will the poem sell, last for millennia, save society? Is it a GREAT POEM?). An artist must stably achieve quantity and quality before it will do him much good to consider viability. Just as a young poet first beginning to write will be stifled by too much concern about quality (whether imposed on him by others or by himself) and must be taught to loosen up and produce, so a poet who's written lots of poems but is just beginning to hone his quality will be overwhelmed by too much concern with viability.
Viability critiquing (often something a poet does for himself) is a long-range concern: developing the ability to view his work from the viewpoint of large numbers of readers in the distant future. It's "I'm writing good poems. Now how do I get them to survive?" It may be "I can create any effect I want. Now what effects SHOULD I create?" A writer who can view his work from the viewpoint of a CULTURE over a long period of time will achieve viability. In its narrowest form, it's being able to take the viewpoints of editors and contest judges.
Concern for viability does verge over into critiquing intention: "Your poems are great, but they're not the sort of poems we're interested in," says an editor. He's not criticizing the quality of the poems, but (implicitly) the poet's choosing to write about certain subjects or in certain forms, etc.
It's not that the poet shouldn't dream of future greatness or popularity, but that the development of quality requires that he learn the tools of the trade, work out his own "voice" and themes, find his audience, etc. If at this point he's overly concerned, for example, about selling a poem to a prestigeous magazine, he's likely to produce lots of pale imitations of the poems in that magazine, to take no chances, to find out little about what HE wants to say as a poet. (Trying for a particular magazine or type of poem is probably not harmful if done as a light exercise.)
Similarly, criticism that tells the poet he's writing the wrong kind of poetry, trying to communicate the wrong feelings or ideas, etc., will be ignored or will simply impede.
Viability in any field is a concern that can easily lead to dispersal. One must continually modify the product for each market. Unless the poet has a firm grasp of HIS product and a flexible mastery of his tools, he will soon feel he is no longer producing his own product, but simply giving people what they want, like a short-order cook. Flexibility requires strength.
After a poet has "found his voice"--is competent, knows who he is as a poet and what he's doing and can critique his own work easily, he is tough enough to put attention on viability. Critiquing of intention becomes possible. The poet can now spot it. When such critiquing slips in as critiquing of quality, it undermines the poet.
There's no absolute line to be drawn between quality and viability. It's a matter of emphasis. For example, telling a poet to stop writing in meter & rhyme because it's out of fashion could be one or the other. It's critiquing of quality if the critic has noted that something about the theme and rhythm of the particular poem would come across better in free verse or that the poet makes a hash of rhyme and meter (though then the poet probably needs to do MORE rhyme and meter). If the critic simply considers rhyme and meter obsolete, we're getting into viability. We're saying, "You do this well, but would you please do something else to be in fashion."
Examples of putting attention on viability: "This poem is very powerful, but it's sad. You write so many sad poems. But the world needs happy poems." "I personally love the way you use obscenity in this poem, but it's not suitable for our public, so could you please cut that part?"
To CRITIQUE viability, the critic would have to explain WHY happier or less obscene poems are needed. For example, the critic may have social concerns about the scarcity of happy poems. Nothing wrong with such concerns, but it doesn't mix well with criticism of quality. More legitimate at the quality stage would be, "All this sadness seems hackneyed to me. You really belabor it. Don't you think this line here pours it on a bit heavy? Every time you mention the sky, it's 'the weeping sky'."
Even the narrowest approach to viability (e.g., pleasing an editor) can subvert quality. The first step is for the poet to learn to communicate with high quality using the tools of poetry. This includes working out what he wants to say and to whom. By "to whom" I mean that the poet, in addressing a reader, becomes increasingly aware of who that reader is. And that reader is not necessarily an editor. If a poet sends lots of poetry to editors too soon in his development, editorial rejections and acceptances may be overwhelming and may prevent the poet from ever finding his readers. He'll be too eager to please or defy editors. After a poet can stand up to critiquing and knows what to ignore, he's ready to stand up to editors.
This doesn't mean a young poet should be cautious about sending off a few poems just to get the feel of it. But when, after a few submissions, he feels like not writing anymore or that there's something basically wrong with the sort of poetry he writes (that can't be defined in terms of quality), it's time to back off from submitting--and KEEP WRITING.
Critiquing with the idea of making a poem suitable for a particular market, then, will not likely be fruitful until the poet has achieved a stably acceptable quality.
My own worst excesses as a critic have come from missing the above distinctions. Once I told a gifted student that her poems were beautiful, but equated beauty with loss. All beauty needn't be sad, I asserted, challenging her intention, far from addressing the poem's quality. I drove her to tears. She never showed me a poem again.
Once I objected to a poem's glorifying a victim (an abused prostitute). I leapt in doctrinairely. It led to lots of heat and no light. (For one thing, I had a minute in which to try to make a point that would have taken hours of discussion. I was attacking the poet's philosophy.)
3. Know when you don't understand something and don't be ashamed to say so. If you don't get it, some others won't get it, and that's data the poet needs--and all too seldom gets. Most people, being social (not very useful in critiquing when it goes beyond basic manners), when they don't understand a poem, will praise it in a vague way. I've often seen the following: Poet X reads a poem--long silence. Then several people say it's a very strong or interesting poem. More silence. Then I say, "I don't really understand this poem. You lose me at line three." And suddenly it turns out no one else in the room understood either. Or the poet says, "Well, I meant blah blah blah...". And one of the poets who just praised the poem says, "What! I thought you meant...".
No one had a clue, and we were about to let the poet leave thinking he'd communicated clearly when he hadn't.
4. One specific example (of something in a poem that's weak, for example) is worth any number of generalizations. If the poet just wants to hear "I like it" or "I don't like it", he may as well survey on the street. (Of course, if the critic is someone the poet looks up to, just the "I like/don't like it" may be of value.) Generalities disguised as ultra-professional dicta (such as, "This poem needs to be cut to about half its length") can be stultifying.
5. Sometimes you have lots of time to give a poem a good reading. Sometimes you get only one quick hearing and don't even have a copy before you. Criticism is possible in either case, but don't try to be painstakingly detailed in critiquing a poem you've just glanced at. Give your impression and stress that it's a first impression.
6. DON'T LIE. Polite praise of the strong points of a poem is a tactful way to lead into a critique, but never call strong what you feel is weak. Don't compromise what's real to you.
The most common lie is a subtle one: The critic praises the poem because the poem seems to do what such a poem is supposed to do, but pays no attention to his (the critic's) responses AS A READER. A boring poem is praised as moving when, clearly, no one in the room is moved. Of course, when the poet is writing about his grief at the death of his mother, it takes tact and guts to say that the poem can be improved. And if the poet is too close to the poem, it may be best to say nothing. But don't simply compute "poem is supposed to be moving; therefore, I must have been moved by it." Be true to your own responses.
7. Don't give the poet more than he can use. If he's got a mediocre poem, help him make it a good poem. Don't tell him it's galaxies away from being a GREAT poem. (Greatness is a viability concern.) Ok, it's one more poem about young love, it's been said a million times before. Well, help him say it again and say it well. Help him eliminate some of the corn. Point out the image that draws you into it. Don't tell him that it's a tired theme at best--not until he can do it easily and is ready to tackle something more ambitious. Don't overwhelm him.
8. Criticize the poem, not the poet. Sometimes this isn't easy. For example, you may sense that the poet is writing about something he knows nothing about (that is, that the poet needs to "live" differently). But there's always some way to approach this in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of the poem, and that will communicate better. Implying that you or your experience is better than the poet or his experience is a sure way to break off all communication.
9. You're there to see that the poet is helped, not harmed. If you're in a workshop and one of the other critics is making hash of a good poem, speak up. Take responsibility for seeing that no one leaves maimed by stupid criticism. This doesn't mean getting into long arguments with another critic to prove that he's wrong. Usually it's enough simply to let the poet know that there's more than one viewpoint available.
For example, everyone in the group knows that poet X goes on the warpath against dirty words in a poem. No one takes X seriously on that point. A shy new poet who doesn't know about X reads a poem with a naughty word in it, and X dives in. The poet thinks, wow, my poem sucks!--or wow, this group sucks! Don't leave it at that. Say something sane, something positive about the poem, even about THE word.
The above are the least understood points I've encountered in critiquing. Obviously it helps if you, yourself, are a good poet and an experienced reader of poetry. It helps if you know something of the poetic tradition in your own language and perhaps in some foreign languages (but the importance of this has often been exaggerated).
It is essential that you know such basics of communication as being able to get your point across, not interrupting others (something that's gotten me in trouble), being able to listen to and acknowledge others, etc. It's important to know the difference between exchanging viewpoints (which is what's wanted) and arguing (which is useless, because arguers are simply fighting off the viewpoints of others). The writer answering a critic isn't arguing if some exchange of viewpoints occurs.
There are many other points that particular critics advocate. Some say the poet should present his work, then sit silent, just listen, not try to respond to criticism. I don't think it's always bad to respond. It can get the critic to clarify his point in a helpful way. On the other hand, the discipline of just listening is useful, especially for a very defensive poet.
Some critics think it essential that someone other than the poet read the poem to the group. Certainly that can help a poet get distance from the poem. But it's also good for a poet to get practice in reading his poem aloud.
Some prefer workshops led by a guru, a well-known poet who leads the critiquing. Others prefer critiquing among groups of equals (taking turns). The former may or may not provide superior critiquing, but it can be useful politically: getting to know the established poet, getting guidance from him in getting published, etc.
D. Guidelines for poets being critiqued:
For criticism to be useful, the critic must know how to critique, as discussed above. It also helps if the poet being criticized knows how to RECEIVE it. Here are some guidelines:
1. Offer for critiquing a poem about which you feel uneasy. Perhaps you've been struggling with it and know it isn't quite right. If you think a poem is perfect, why would you want it critiqued?
Actually, it can be educational to submit one of your "perfect" poems for criticism. It can open up your eyes. But it's harder on you. It's something you should do after you've been seasoned by successful critiquing of your weaker poems. (By successful, I mean that you feel you've improved the poem as a result--and probably others feel that too.)
This point is tricky, since there's a temptation to show off by giving your critics the work you're most proud of. Go ahead, but be ready for a jolt: If you're dealing with professionals, no poem is likely to be perfect.
2. Get the idea that you're there to get someone else's viewpoint, not defend your own. When others are critiquing your work, the most useful things you can say are requests that a critic clarify something you don't understand. Some critics say that beyond that the poet shouldn't speak up for his work at all. But if a critic totally misses the point of the poem, I'd point that out, then find out what the critic thinks of the poem once he's on the right track. I already know (from the critic's initial response) that the poem is unclear to him, which may be a weakness in the poem. Now I don't need to hear all the additional misconceptions he bases on the initial one. I'd rather direct him back to the poem.
Suppose I write a satire in which I take the viewpoint of a Nazi attacking Jews with the purpose of mocking the Nazi, and suppose a critic misses the irony and starts chastising me for being anti-semitic? From the point where I see the critic has missed the poem, my time is being wasted, because the critic is criticizing something other than my poem. I point out that the poem is a satire. Then the critic can say things useful to me, for example, point out why the irony doesn't come across.
In other words, communication that clarifies is useful. Defensive communication is not.
(Personally, I like communication free and easy and favor as few rules as possible.)
3. Learn which criticism to accept, which to ignore and which to put on a back burner to be reconsidered later: Learn to spot the critic who's riding a hobbyhorse, always objects to certain types of poetry without regard for quality. Learn to spot the "critic" who loves everything. Be wary when several poets whose poetry you consider sloppy and sentimental "love" your poem, and several poets whose work you respect are conspicuously silent. (Ask them what they're thinking.) Don't buy a criticism just because it comes from someone you respect. Learn that the critic with no blind spots is nonexistent. Don't change a poem if the change doesn't feel right to you (the changed poem will no longer be your own). Reject the criticism or put it on hold.
It's particularly educational to join a large, diverse group of poets who critique each other's poems. If you receive critiquing from a single teacher, his opinion becomes excessively weighty. In a diverse group it is often revelatory to see how one person hates the poem that another loves, how the line that one poet pinpoints as a weakness another considers a strength.
The diverse opinions don't necessarily cancel out. One of the critics may make more sense to you than another or may be, simply, a better poet/critic. Still, there's something liberating (perhaps confusing at first) about seeing one's poem evoke such a variety of contradictory responses. And after all, what do we seek from critiquing? The ability to assume the viewpoint(s) of our audience. Such diverse critiquing can make us very limber at leaping in and out of viewpoints and being stuck in no single stance. A poet gets a sense of who is likely to like what. He can pick his targets, aim and fire.
And all this diverse opinion drives the poet to learn to recognize what feels right to him. The most useful criticisms I've received made sense to me, either immediately or over time. Before I changed my poem, I was able to "own" the changes. Most criticism I've fallen afoul of I accepted despite its seeming not quite right to me. It not only weakened the poem, but in some cases stopped me writing for a time.
Maybe I accepted it to please someone influential or because I could see no good argument against it. I've never profited from such criticism. Even criticism I've later come to agree with wouldn't have helped if I'd accepted it before I'd been ready to agree with it and make it my own.
With lots of varied criticism, all sorts of idiocies and truths fly at you, so that, to survive, you fall back on what makes sense to YOU. At least that's how it's worked for me. You develop a taste in criticism. Just as you've learned to spot a good poem, so you learn to spot a sensible critique.
Note: When you reject a criticism, there's usually no need to explain your reasons or even to say you plan to reject it. Just note the suggestions and use those you like.
4. Different groups have different atmospheres and prejudices. Find one to your taste. If you go to a group for critiquing and come away feeling lousy, it's the wrong group for you (maybe for ANYONE). It should be fun--work, but fun. You should come away feeling that people read your work and got something out of it and that you've learned something.
If it's not fun, probably the critics are violating one or more of the guidelines for critics above. Perhaps the group has a guru who thinks all poetry should be a certain narrow way and whose word is law. Or the poets spend so much time on social chitchat that the poems get slighted. Perhaps one critic/poet has a superior attitude that offends others, is rude, talks too often and too long. Perhaps a critic is dense, has no sense of humor, no sense of meter, no appreciation for logical use of imagery or allusions to broadly shared cultural traditions, etc. Perhaps he makes a joke of everything, keeps the proceedings brittle and snide, is more interested in witty insults than in helping another poet. Perhaps his virulence (even if not directed at the poet being critiqued) is troubling, the sense that he's fighting off invisible enemies on all sides. Perhaps he has bad breath.
5. Go to such a group session with the intention of being a critic as well as being critiqued. Intend to improve your poem (not sell or defend it) and help others improve their poems (not prove that they aren't as good as you). If you give as well as take, you'll enjoy the session more and learn more. And critiquing others teaches you to critique your own poems.
6. Some trivial points: Bring a poem that will be accessible in the time allotted and not deprive the others of time to get their poems critiqued. (I remember my own embarrassment, the first time I came to a meeting of a very professional group: I brought a 17-page epic. Everyone else had a poem of one page or less.) Bring copies for everybody. It's difficult to critique a poem on just one hearing, especially a complex poem. Also, in a large group, people who don't have time to say all they have to say can make notes on their copy for you. Read the poem loudly and clearly. (This is particularly crucial if you didn't bring enough copies.) Use the group to improve your ability to read or recite your poems aloud.
7. Find a group (or several groups) you can work with and stay with it (or them). I've had best results meeting regularly with a group of poets whose company and work I enjoy. We're diverse enough to keep it interesting and have enough agreements about basics to keep it intelligible. It's a social occasion, although we stay closely with the critiquing.
We get to know each other from these sessions. Because we critique so much of each other's work over the years, we understand each other's aesthetic strengths and weaknesses, so that our critiquing is usually close to the mark. Since we consider each other professionals and like each other's work overall, there's no need to waste time on excessive politeness. If I say, "This poem doesn't work for me. It's not up to your usual standard," the poet criticized feels no need to be defensive, knowing how much I like most of his work. Usually his response is, "Yes, I just can't seem to make it work."
Also, the regular meetings provide incentive to write new poems.
Perhaps one needs to be jarred now and then, get fresh viewpoints from outside the customary group. It's not hard to do. Simply show or read your poems to as many people as you can (for example, at open readings), send them to editors, etc.
When all the above points are observed, critiquing becomes fun and useful. When a group of people all have in common an interest in poetry, what could be more natural than communication about their common interest? The problem is that when that communication concerns judgment of each other's work and when these judgments are exercised sloppily or cruelly, the harm can exceed the fun. But learning to critique well removes the sting, so that all the other benefits of networking become available. Poets recommend reading to each other, suggest markets for particular poems, give each other contacts, do public readings as a group, etc. The ongoing workshop becomes a poets' support group. Magazines and anthologies, perhaps cultures, grow from such groups.
* Some of the ideas above are taken from my studies of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard. The analysis of production into three factors--quantity, quality and viability, comes from his policy of 29 Oct., 1970, Organizing Series 10, The Analysis of Organization by Product. The discussion of art as communication, with communication broken down into source point, receipt point, intention, etc., and with stress on the ability to occupy (or "duplicate") someone else's viewpoint borrows broadly from many of Mr. Hubbard's technical writings on the subjects of communication and art.
Copyright c. 1998 by Dean Blehert. All Rights Reserved