Discussion #9 Critique Part 2

This aspect of the discussion on Critique is a bit about what it is, and what it isn’t. Many people confuse critique with criticism and actually interchange the two words as if they meant the same thing. They do not. There is, at times, a fine line between the two, but it is there and needs to be addressed.

Critique is mostly a matter of suggestions, about any aspect of a written piece: structure, form, breath line, word usage, grammar, clarity etc. Criticism, however, has a negative connotation. And all too often, when it is used to ‘critique’ a piece of writing, it is aimed at the author, not the expression of that author.

It is one thing to tell someone that he/she might want to soften a certain line or phrase, because that would better emphasize the true tone of the overall piece. It is another thing to tell that same author that he/she appears confused and has simply made a mess of things. Do you see the difference?

The first is a direct suggestion about the poem, the second one suggests there is something wrong with the poet who should have realized he/she was in over their head. It is a direct attack on the skill and ability of the author and does little to help the poem. If the author is seeking critique, then more than likely he/she has some misgivings about the poem itself and what it is saying. Before making a judgment, it might be wise to ask about those misgivings and what the author was aiming at to begin with. Then the person who is doing the critique can begin by saying he didn’t get that, or that she feels the poet has done exactly what was intended in the first place.

Just because we all read and write does not mean we have all achieved the same level of understanding. And much of critique is an attempt to bring clarity and understanding where there might not have been a great deal. The problem sometimes lies in the ability to say, “I don’t understand.” Many, if not most of us, don’t like to admit to that reality.

Since becoming a member of the poetry circuit, there are a few poets that I find difficult to understand. That doesn’t mean I don’t like to read what they have written. They have had different experiences than I have. One in particular writes with an incredible flow of language that fascinates and intrigues me and makes me wish I could do the same. I may not fully understand, but I like what I am reading, like the flow, like the word choices, and find myself going back to read several times. And many times, in that process, some of the understanding actually begins to seep through.

Which brings me to another point about critique. It should not be done quickly or without thought and consideration. Someone has put time and effort into the creation of this piece of writing. Another human being who also incorporates some share in human frailty. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received about this subject was to stop and think about how I would like this to be said to my own person.

A few weeks ago, Mike said that he would like critique, even harsh criticism. I kinda cringed when I read that. But, again that has more to do with my own background than anything else. I have been the recipient of harsh, even unfair and unwelcome criticism. It didn’t kill me, but it didn’t really help me either. And, on the other hand, I have been the recipient of difficult critique. That made me sit up and notice and start asking questions about what it was I was truly trying to achieve.

The last thing I would like to address is the  very real fact that most prompt sites specifically remind us that comments are welcome, but there is to be no critiquing unless specifically requested by the author. I have seldom asked for any sort of critique. That is not because I think I do this so much better. That would be far from the truth.

When I post a poem online, most often it is done to a prompt. I don’t feel that these are finished pieces. I want to live with it for a while. And if I like where it seems to be going, I will go back and play with it. However, I don’t want to have it critiqued at that point. I’m just not done with it yet. When I am, I do send them to certain individuals and ask them to take a look and tell me what they think. The pieces on my blog are works in progress. I will wait until I have taken it as far as I think it will go, and then ask someone to take a look at it.

Several of you, but specifically Neil, broached the issue of respect. That should always be a cornerstone to any critique experience. Respect for the individual and respect for the piece of writing she has offered up. And Mary mentioned that her group actually takes the time to try to critique within the style of the author. I like that idea a great deal. Critique is definitely a learning tool, how better to learn about what we are doing by getting to know the style of the author. And that can only happen if one respects the work and person of that other individual.

Margo has spoken of having a mentor. I have had the same and both of us seem to be somewhat aimed at being of a similar ilk. I believe that both of us are motivated by a desire to encourage others to get on the page and stay there. I believe that another basic premise of critique, good critique, is that desire to see the other individual prosper and continue doing what they already have begun.

We have come to this community and have all enjoyed what it has to offer. I think part of that is to respect that  request to refrain from critiquing unless asked to do so. Several of you wrote about doing that in private email. For now, I consider that an excellent idea. Should we decide to do some amount of critique within this group, I would definitely prefer small groups and something that is not open to the general public.

These are some of my personal concerns with this subject. I would hope that if you have others, you would express them here and share them. If you have ideas about how to go about creating a critique format that works for the majority of us here, please feel free to put those before the group as well.

You have the mic:


About 1sojournal

Loves words and language. Dances on paper to her own inner music. Loves to share and keeps several blogs to facilitate that. They can be found here: http://1sojournal.wordpress.com/ http://soulsmusic.wordpress.com/ http://claudetteellinger.wordpress.com/
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15 Responses to Discussion #9 Critique Part 2

  1. Mary says:

    Perhaps I will have more ideas as time goes on, but I agree that things that I initially post are poems that I may go back and look at again in a week or a month or six months and see things that I myself wish to change. (I also realize this about other poets’ poetry!) Eventually, I run some of my posted poems past my online critique group, and change things (or not) based on their comments. I never feel compelled to change something that doesn’t feel right to me, nor should anyone else. In the past I have greatly appreciated when someone here on the poetry circuit has sent me a private email letting me know that I spelled something wrong, forgot a punctuation mark, etc. in my haste to post. I would not mind at all forming a ‘critique group’ of some sort from the group that posts here. I think we all could benefit from this. We all have different styles, but also have different things to offer. And none of us presents ourselves as THE authority. I will come back to see what others say.

  2. neil reid says:

    Well to begin I have to say this is about what I don’t know about.

    Yes, I understand here the difference we can say betwixt critique and criticism as already here defined for us. But do I really know it from the fabric of my experience writing? No. I have thoughts and understandings, feelings too, but that direct participation – that’s something new to me.

    I’d like actually to extend the meaning of critique to also mean a kind of writer to writer collaboration wherein each individual adopts and informs a greater whole. That’s my notion of a sort of partnership in group and community.

    If this group of us here does become seed for some group critique I do, despite my absence of experience, have some thoughts about its’ formation.

    01 – I would like to have a common statement of purpose that reflects both our intent and our shared regard for support and creative encouragement. This topic has already been addressed in some detail.

    02 – Inclusion within the group would be simply by acceptance of that stated purpose and a genuine desire to contribute to each other’s learning and growth.

    03 – I would prefer that the actual critique blog be private and not publicly visible so as to grant a greater sense of freedom in communication. This also is acknowledgement of the commitment with each other in the group.

    04 – I might think a public aspect of the group could continue, as it is right here, for discussion of general topics about writing (and as a visible “front door” for others who might become interested). (There are still many topics I’d like to look at further in an open venue like this!)

    05 – Both blogs as said above could be done here, or maybe done using a new pair of Word Press interlinked blogs (simple blogs like this are easy to do).

    I like very much what Elizabeth shared about saying, “I don’t know.” (And maybe that’s one more good reason for having a private critique blog – me for one, will be more at ease about admitting what I don’t know or understand!)

    I personally feel very comfortable about what and how I write (not making any other sort of claims), but I’d acknowledge while yet holding the notion that the author is the author and solely right about what they write – however there are two truths about what we in general write. ONE The author’s point of view is rightly so their choice. TWO However a poem will produce what result it does, partly because of what it is as read and experienced by others – so their point of view is also right within itself. I do care about the “results” my poems produce, even while yet committed to my purpose and styles in writing. It, like many things, is a balance. I don’t mind if my poems are challenging, even difficult sometimes to understand, and maybe rightly, purposely so, however neither do I want them to be totally incomprehensible. Make sense? And I can’t know that second part without there being a “you” to respond.

    06 – I would love to see a statement from each member of the group, how they regard writing for themselves both in general and specifics. There is such a variety of ways to be I think that would assist us (me) in understanding the background of other writers. (This is something more than just the ordinary sort of poem by poem commentary or process notes many of us currently include.) It’s sort of an “introduction” and “hello, this is something of what you might expect of me”.

    I’d like to share a moment of how I watch movies (my little analogy here). I believe in surrendering to the internal reality of a movie (even if it’s a stretch for me, thus the more to understand the movies point of view – and it’s more fun that way). Like they say, if you can’t believe in the story, no worry because shortly the movie will be over and we can walk away with our own bias and attitudes fully intact. Poems I think in their nature can be even more visceral, more personal, but also even more subject to our individual bias.

    Recently I ran face first into just that – the phrasing of a poem was just emotionally outside what was comfortable for me, and strongly so. Perhaps because I’ve had this topic on mind of late, I got to a point that I no longer needed to “react” to the poem but could just “respond”. That don’t mean that I then agreed with the language or even personally liked the poem, but it did mean I could then speak about the poem without my personal bias standing in the way. It felt like making life more easy. Make sense? That too is part what I’m looking for by doing critique – being more open to honestly listen.

    It’s a process I don’t think I (or we) can really know until our feet are actually in the water doing it.

    07 – If such a group does come to first breath from us here, I think also its’ continued growth and existence be organic – that is, it continues for so long as we (whomsoever) are participants participate. It should not exist because of any one person but rather reflect the interest, willingness and participation of each person a member of the group.

    OK, that’s more than a dimes worth of my lighter-than-air comments for now!

  3. Irene says:

    Elizabeth, it’s laudable that we want to look into critique as a group. If that’s the desire, then I say, let’s try it out. You, as a group, could offer one poem up for critique (meaning more indepth response). Maybe as a first practice, we could make this blog private so as not to cause embarassment to the writer. I’m game for it.

  4. anl4 says:

    I got nothing… just want you to know I came, I read, but right now have no real comment. I’ll think about it. (Am a bit like a bird with a broken wing right now.) Public or private? I make mistakes, and of course I could make my work stronger, sometimes I really need an objective eye… get too close to the forest to see trees, sometimes…Thanks for the thoughts….

  5. Elizabeth, I am all for a private critique group. I make mistakes, and wouldn’t mind extra eyes telling me where I could improve a piece. On the other hand me critiquing someone’s work, might take me a bit of getting used to. However, I am willing to try. Writing is a learning process for all of us I believe.


  6. neil reid says:

    I appreciate what you said Pamela; and you too Annell. Me thinks willingness counts for a lot.

    I came across this quote from a poem, “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin that seems right to share.

    I asked how can you ever be sure
    that what you write is really
    any good at all and he said you can’t

    you can’t you can never be sure
    you die without knowing
    whether anything you wrote was any good
    if you have to be sure don’t write

    Think that says something about being sincere, yet not serious. And the risk we take in writing, and in one part “never knowing”. That seems about right.

    And so we can also ask, whom among us is qualified to do critique? Maybe one? But I think, really I do, all of us. One may have more training and history in some formalized way, however we each read, we care about language, expression and how we feel – and, we each write. I think that more than qualifies! Who do we write for – literary critics or mostly, really, for each other, for anyone who dares read and look? So our thoughtful, engaged, interested and caring responses to a poem are in thought and feeling perfectly valid. There are details of language in which to frame a response, but that’s part what we have available to learn. But the rock beneath the words – that we already are. (so much for doubt) 🙂

  7. pmwanken says:

    Elizabeth –

    I’m so tired I can hardly think straight…let alone know if my thoughts can be transferred to my fingertips in order to type words in the proper order. But here is my attempt at a response, before I leave town for 5 days.

    I am so grateful you’ve taken this suggestion and moved forward with it! I really would like to learn more about writing and improve upon what I’m already doing. I believe that can happen with practice, but also believe that interaction with others on what works or doesn’t (and why) will be valuable. As others have said…this interaction will come from observing others’ ideas and suggestions for another’s work…as well as on my own. AND…practicing my own analysis of another’s work.

    As I had suggested previously in an email, I believe a closed group for critique could work right here on this blog by creating another page which would require a password or designated authors–those who participate. We could take a poem a week or every other week…on a rotational basis.

    By the way….Neil, I love and appreciate the thought you put into your very thorough response and agree with you on so many points! One being that we need to be on the same page, so to speak, with expectations, etc.

    OK…just ran out of steam. I’ll be in touch again after the holiday weekend.


  8. Mike Patrick says:

    My background is such I can say I don’t fear critique or criticism. I worked for a very progressive police department, and after any major incident (like the Guns and Roses riot at the amphitheater), we had a debriefing and critique. A riot is an extreme example, but we had them for any unusual incident, and for all of them, we were told to leave our egos at the door. Of course, the whole idea was to find out what we did right and what went wrong. The critique became a training source so we could practice the good and eliminate the bad. There were no recriminations; matter of fact, the critiques were kept upbeat thorough the use of humor—lots and lots of humor.

    With critiquing a poem, there probably won’t be any lives at stake—unless you gentle-sounding ladies have a mean streak (I know the men are okay). Since matriculating into the poetry blogging circle, I haven’t seen, and can’t imagine, anyone needing something as harsh as criticism.

    Now, who would do the critiquing? Some of you are, or have been teachers (God bless you), and might feel somewhat normal in that role. Like most of the other hobby-poets (although I have dreams of grandeur) I feel inadequate to critique most poetry—but I may have a niche. I love meter. I live and breathe in iambic meter; but that’s not very handy in a poetry generation that mostly writes free verse. Still, even unrhymed free verse usually has an internal rhythm. I read about 40 poems a day, and often I see a poem’s beautiful flow broken up by clumsy word or two. I for one would be willing to make a suggestion in those situations. I have done so in the past; but I’ve always done it through email.

    The thought of a public critique is enough to intimidate anyone, but if the idea is for the group to learn from the experience, more than just the author would need access to the critiques. I like the idea of the critique being semiprivate, perhaps available to small groups, but I’m not techno-savvy enough to know how go about that.

    I’m also intrigued by the idea of critiquing from the style of the author. I’d like to try it just to see if I could do it. What better chance will we ever have to truly become absorbed into a poem? Either we would become better poets with a wider view, or we would become method actors.

    I enjoy my association with this bunch more than I can possibly articulate. Whatever the group decides to do, if anything, I will support. If I can help in any way, I will.


    • neil reid says:

      The technical part Mike, as regards privacy, is a piece of cake. Either here or on a new blog, posts are setup with a password key (which we’d share by private email). Only people with the PW would be able to read such posts and the attached comments. Easy-peasy as Irene said.

  9. Paula Wanken says:

    Only people with the PW…hmmmm…what if I actually AM a “PW,” Neil?? 😉

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  11. viv blake says:

    I’m in agreement with most of what’s been said. I have a fairly extensive experience of critiquing and being critiqued, and it can happen that too much critiquing can be counter-productive. Several critiques can be conflicting, even diametrically opposite. I am a great believer in private email critiques between friends, be they real or virtual – on a one-to-one basis there can be a ‘conversation’, question and answer. That would be my preferred way forward, rather than a formal critiquing forum. It allows us to choose who we ask for help, to find someone who understands what we’re trying to do, who is in sympathy with our style. I am finding that I am spending more time reading and commenting on others’ work than on my own writing, and have decided to ration myself a bit.

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