I’m a poet. I write poetry, I read poetry, I have a master of fine arts in writing poetry. My husband even introduces me, every so often, as a poet. Words are important to me – not only what they mean, but their rhythm, how they sound when they’re strung together into lines. So I guess it should be no surprise that sometimes people send me their own poems and ask what I think of them.
Oh, if they only knew. I must confess, my heart sinks when I open my inbox and find another poem from another nice person who just wants me to tell him or her if it’s any good. Because, let’s face it, that’s not what they really want. They want me to fall to my knees and cry, “My God! This is the best thing I’ve ever read!” or at least not tell them to keep their day job.
I’m sorry. I feel guilty revealing this, but I believe I am speaking for many writers when I say: The next time you read something you admire, please, please, resist the urge to send that author your own work.
Why? Why in the world can’t I just spare a few minutes to give a fledgling writer a few tips, a crumb of encouragement?
I’ll tell you why, and I hope I don’t sound harsh. I mean, you see this all the time in the movies, don’t you? Starving writer, waitressing at some L.A. dive, encounters famous screenwriter at her table, slips him the script she’s been working on for years along with the bill, and before you know it, her name is in lights.
But we’re talking about poetry here, where only a few make it big, like Maya Angelou or one of the poet laureates. But even Billy Collins, a two-term laureate, peppers his poems with snide references to “the intolerable poetry” (his words! not mine!) of others. If he’s insecure, how can I be expected to be kind and helpful?
So why won’t I critique your poem? Let me count the reasons:
- Done well, critiquing a poem is hard work. There are entire books that dissect one poem by T.S. Eliot. Granted, “The Wasteland” is long and a masterpiece to boot, but I could write ten pages on one line of verse. It’s exhausting!
- If it’s good, I’m just going to be jealous. There are so few places for a poet to be published these days (The Iowa Review prints only 100 of the 5,000 poems it receives annually), why in the world would I want to encourage yet another bright star to compete with me for column space?
- If it’s terrible, how can I tell you without breaking your heart? And losing sleep over having done so?
- People pay good money to take courses in poetry. My MFA degree cost more than a hybrid car, and that’s with leather seats and heated outside mirrors. Why should I hand out for free the kind of education other people pay for? I’d be suspicious of any advice that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
- Critiquing a poem requires a workshop. In a writers’ workshop, a bunch of wordsmiths sit around a table, coffee and snacks at hand. The poet whose work is under discussion is required to shut up and listen while the rest of the gang have at it. Every line break, every comma, every word choice is up for grabs. A workshop leader once told my group that, in her considered opinion, every poet should get a lifetime limit of five colons, and we’re not talking body parts here. I disagreed vehemently, but kept it to myself because she was the one with the literary prizes and the agent and the contract for her third hardcover book. What did I know?
- I didn’t go to grad school to become a teacher. Many people do, but I just wanted to learn to write better.
- Telling you what I think of your poem is like telling you what I think of your favorite child. Oh, sure, you may say, “Be honest! I really want to know your opinion!” but believe me, you do not. I don’t want to make you cry.
- On the other hand, I don’t want to pump you up so far you think your writing doesn’t need any work. One of my favorite writing teachers was Our Lady of Perpetual Revision, and that’s a compliment. A poem is never done. When you think it is, put it in a drawer and forget it for six months, at which point you might, just might, be able to encounter it the way a reader would. With a cold eye and a hard stare and not a lot of time.
- Critiquing requires trust. I used to be in a writing group, five women poets who met in each other’s homes. We created a safe space for the hard work of appraisal. It’s not wise to hand over your newborn poems to a stranger.
- Wonderful you may be, but you’re not Jennifer. Jennifer is the only person, these days, to whom I show my work for judgment. We met in the MFA program, and hit it off at once. Now we exchange one poem each month, flinging them back via email all marked up with questions and suggestions. It can be grueling work, but each of us wants the other’s poems to be great.
Here’s my free advice, worth every penny: Take a class! Form a group! Send it out for publication! And by all means, keep writing (and revising). Poetry rules!