Thursday, November 03, 2005

Poetry Appreciation 101

Jeff and Josh have had a minor exchange over poetry critiquing the last couple days. It's very interesting to me, as someone slowly climbing the steepest part of the learning curve into the universe of creative writing, to see two voices I respect in disagreement. Let me try to cull a couple critical learnings, and (natch) interject an opinion or two of my own.

Jeff starts by pointing out that in poetry forums (critique groups), the tendency is to "microcritique", going line by line and identifying flaws, where discussions in blog entries tend to focus on the "strategy" of work(s) . I see this is a community norming issue, influenced by the form restrictions: in most blogs (Silliman excepted), entries of more than 100 words (like this one) are darn near unreadable. Of course, most blogs are darn near unreadable, but that's a different issue.

Josh came back to compare forum critique frenzies to fraternity hazing, and I think he's right on: it's pain you volunteer for in exchange for community membership. Now, my experience with these forums is limited and mostly second hand, but I'm not aware of anyone serious about writing who takes seriously, or can point to a piece significantly affected or improved by, comments from codenamed online writers.

And Jeff (whose motto seems to be "The only thing I really know about poetry is, occasionally, how to write it") returns with acknowledgement of Josh's good points, with a question of whether tactics really follow strategy in poems. If I understand properly, the issue on this count seems to be whether a poem can be judged outside of its context (the poetics or ambitions of its author or its surroundings in a longer work). I have a strong bias here, being a practitioner of short forms: I think a poem needs to stand on its own as a work of art, including consciously practiced elements of craft. It can be improved by its surroundings (as in novels-in-verse), but if an individual poem fails to present itself well (cliche-free, aware of its own sound , etc.), it fails on its own. On a side note, poems cannot be improved by their messages. A bad poem for a good cause is still a bad poem.

Josh made one statement on this point that intrigued me: "The result is a poet getting beaten up for playing chess on a checkers board". This may be an apt analogy, but I can't help but read a little disdain for checkers - for poems without ambitious literary construct - and I don't know if this was intended. I would certainly disagree if it were.

Jeff also noted that he sees no "correlation between brilliant poeticists and first-class poets". This is a fascinating issue for me, and it takes me in the direction of great teachers not needing to be great artists, but I'll come back to that in the weeks to come. Remind me if I forget, would you?

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