A poetry teacher of mine told me once that she thought (“at first,” she graciously added) that I was “not open to criticism” of my poems. I felt the sting of injustice in that, as I could think of nothing I did or said that would lead her to think that — I took copious notes of what was said of my poems, did not, as far as I recall, argue or defend.
Was it my resting bitch face?
Or was it that I rarely turned in edited poems?
After (I swear!) careful consideration (and swearing) of the comments and suggestions, trying things, putting things in, taking them out, writing more, heading in different directions, I not infrequently concluded either that the poem just could not serve the intention, or that I did not have the ability to make that particular poem do the thing the critique asked it to do, so decided to move on and write something new. In most circumstances, I think that is a perfectly reasonable response. (Or am I being defensive? I don’t think so! Listen:)
Sometimes the originating impulse behind a poem is just not clear enough or stable enough or grounded enough. So no matter how much tinkering, I still have a poem that’s shallow, merely decorative, or without deep sense. Or frankly that I lost the sense of somewhere along the way and can no longer recall.
Sometimes the critique offered is not something I can figure out how to make my own, or how to grapple with it in the given poem. Especially if I’m unclear about the problem the critique suggestions are meant to solve, I can’t comfortably settle into the solution. I can try things but have no ability to gauge the success or failure of the attempt.
Or sometimes I understand and agree with the critique, but just can’t make the given poem hold up. When I turn one screw, the whole thing gees or haws to one side or another. The center cannot hold. (Maybe a revolution should be at hand…)
At any rate, receiving and using critique is very tricky. First, I have to have sufficient distance from the piece to be able to see it NOT through the rose-colored-glasses of first-love and also NOT through the who-wrote-THIS-hopeless-piece-of-crap smeared window. I gotta be cool, man, real cool.
Then I have to be willing to play around, try anything, mess things up, break things open, dismantle and remantle. That can be hard. I know what I wanted the poem to do. Sometimes a critique wants to take the poem in a different direction. It can be very hard, sometimes impossible, to allow that process. That doesn’t mean the critique isn’t right on; it just means that I don’t have enough distance yet, or as a writer I’m not yet skilled enough to figure out how to follow through, or I just don’t want to go in that direction, for whatever misguided (or guided) reasons.
Sometimes a critique is off base. Sometimes a critique is not well grounded itself. You have to be open enough to both consider a critique, and to discard it. That takes a level of self-confidence that to some borders on hubris. Own it. You might be wrong in the long run, but at least you can be honest about the fact you considered an idea but then turned it away.
As I’ve noted before in this space, one of the most important editing tools is time. Sometimes I just have to put it all away, poem and critique and notes and versions. Move on, at least for the moment.
I have a folder labeled “B level” that contains about 50 things that I thought were poems at one point but finally concluded over time that they just weren’t worth the moniker, but might have something in them worth saving. I have a document called “drafts and notes” that is 108 pages of abandoned work and multiple versions of things. That doesn’t include the teetering pile of notebooks on the pages of which, amid the whining, freaking out, counting of blessings, screed, screams, squeals, and snarls, fodder for what I had hoped were poems but on review just were not. Nor the old computer with old folders with old poems I no longer believe in so didn’t bother to transfer into my new computers.
Only time can tell me ultimately if a poem is going to “have legs,” as the saying goes. I think of skittering spiders of poems heading for the corners of the room. Or if the critique finally makes sense and is something I can act on.
That’s why I keep all these old poems in the folders, a sort of Island of Misfit Poems. I periodically visit them, test them for some magic inside that I could now, with the capacity and perspective I have as the writer I am now, make use of.
I must admit, rarely do the poor things get out of there.
But you never know.