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As a critic, make your thinking explicit.

James Elkins wrote a book entitled Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students in which he critiques the system of critiques used in art schools. In it he argues that the problem with many critiques is not enough interaction and delving into the beliefs that spur the critical comments. For instance, a critic might say of one of your poems, “It’s too abstract.” Beyond that comment is a whole rash of thought and beliefs that might go like this: “Only 22% of the population deals well with abstract concepts. Most people need sensory data and stimulation to relate well to the writing. As a poet, you probably want the biggest audience possible, so you need to find ways to include that other 78% of the people.” It may be that this all applies to your poem, or it might be that your poem is written for a special event that will have a bunch of abstract thinkers like mathematicians or physicists or futurists, so being sensible is the last thing that you want or need for the audience. If you know what is behind the comment, you can better evaluate whether the comment applies to your audience and purposes.

So, turning this all around, when you are critiquing another person’s work, give them the meat and bones with the skin. Tell them the why behind your thoughts. In the computer programming world, there are also critiques, although they call the events by names like after-incident reviews or walk-throughs. The computer and quality folks came up with a method called, “The Five Why’s.” It boils down to, when a problem comes up, like noticing something off in a poem, ask why. Whatever answer you come up with, ask why that is so. Repeat until you have gone at least five layers deep, and you might get to the root cause of the incident and find a way to fix the problem at the root so it never happens again. The same can be applied to a poetry critique. You have a comment: “Lake Pontchartrain is not spelled ‘Lake Ponchetraine.’” Asking why that comment came up might give you the answer that the poet can neither spell nor be bothered to look something up before putting it out for critique. The critic might find it more politic to just make the statement and move on without going into the root cause. It is probably also less time consuming than reforming the American educational system.

But, other comments need more depth. “The poem made me laugh, although I’m not sure you meant it to be funny.” So, Mr. or Ms. Critic, what made it seem funny to you? “This simile was too strong.” What do you mean? “Well, it was a fresh and stunning image, not at all a cliché, but it was also over-the-top. As I was moving along reading the poem, it was flowing well until I hit that simile, and it made me stop and laugh out loud. I don’t even know what the last few lines of the poem were because that stunning simile pulled me out of reading the poem.” That sort of feedback is more valuable to a poet than, “It’s a funny pome, Dude.” So, don’t wait to be asked. Try to analyze why you are reacting the way you are without having to make the poet ask and dig and probe. Rather than making them do the hard work of making us think about why we think what we think, we can be proactive and do it ourselves. We can do our own analyses and present our critical comments in a form of “I suggest this, which would do that for your poem, because I believe such-and-such.” With this being how to improve, that being what they will acheive by making a change, and such-and-such being your fundamental assumptions about the purpose of the poem, poets, or poetry that have been challenged by this poem.

A critique is not about the poem. It is about your reaction in reading the poem. You may have very different base-level assumptions and beliefs than another critic. Those assumptions and beliefs will spur a different reaction. Experiences can also come into play. Sometimes a poem will incite a visceral emotional reaction because of the critic’s experiences.

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