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Responding to Poetry

Saturn Ring Blues
A student asked me to look at her poem today.  I'd talked yesterday about criticism, and she decided that she wanted authentic criticism of her work.  As I looked the poem over, I thought about my normal response to high school poetry, which is to find the strongest part of it, praise it, and then encourage the student to keep writing.

This is, of course, not constructive criticism.  It is recognition that they have written, which is what I think is the most important feedback I can give a high school poet.

But this student wanted more.  Her request provoked me into thinking about how could I respond.

She got the long reply from me for her efforts:

Thanks for asking me to look at the poem.  I’ve probably given you WAY too much response here, but your poem pushed me into thinking about how I read poems and how I try to help poets. 

So, let’s dive in.  There are a ton of ways to respond to a poem.  I’ll try three approaches.

Poems as inner revelation:  For many people, a poem is about saying what someone is feeling in a format that fits it.  An essay or short story, for example, just wouldn’t be the right form.  This poem expresses the persona’s anxiety that what they appear like on the outside is a lie when compared to the inner reality.  The persona is so isolated by this split in appearance vs. reality that she can only share her concern with the mirror, and the mirror responds at first by “cracking,” a sort of going away which really upsets the persona.  The persona repairs the broken mirror, hoping it will repair herself, but the mirror distorts her and laughs at her, which causes it to break again.  The persona ends up apologizing to the mirror.  That’s a complicated poem!  On this level, I think the poem works well.  Your poem is the strongest on this level.  It relates the persona’s feelings of fear, confusion, neediness and loneliness.  It’s the kind of poem that some people would read and wonder if the poet were in crisis.

Poems as vehicles to make the reader experience life:  For many readers, the measure of a poem’s excellence is how deeply it makes them feel something.  For these readers, poems divide themselves into two groups: the ones that make them as readers feel something (they do this by presenting vivid, compelling images that make the readers feel like they are there), and the ones that just tell them that the poet felt something.  This is the difference between a sad poem that makes the reader cry and a poem that the reader says, “Oh, the poet is sad,” or one that makes the reader feel what love is like and a poem that the reader says, “Oh, the poet is in love.”  Although this poem does make some appeals to the senses, it mostly reports that the persona is feeling things and probably doesn’t make the reader feel those things.  Certainly it doesn’t make the reader feel these feelings with the same intensity that the poet says she feels them.  The readers most likely to get the most out of a poem like this are the ones who say, “Oh, that exactly captures how I feel some times,” but for most readers it would be less effective.  They didn’t get to feel anything.  The poem just tells them that the poet felt something.

Poems as artistic expression of language used in interesting ways:  For some readers, what attracts them most to a poem is its artful use of language.  What they are looking for is that “felicity of language” that we said the best writers have.  They respond to unique turns of phrase, unexpected organization and surprising observations.  They want the poet to say the things they are incapable of saying themselves.  This poem is not particularly noteworthy for its artistic expression or language used in interesting ways.  The idea that a mirror doesn’t show the real person, for example, isn’t surprising for an experienced reader, nor are there unique turns of phrase or other surprises.  The strongest part of the poem in this area are the lines, “Mirror, why don’t you help me reflect/on my past instead of burying me in/my present?”

This poem’s strengths and weaknesses as I see them:

          Strengths:

  • Sincerity


  • Honesty


  • Strength of reported emotion


  • Clarity


  • Cleverness of the idea (a one-sided argument with a mirror)


  • The lines I pointed out



Weaknesses:

  • Reliance on abstractions and reported emotions rather than strong appeals to the senses.


  • Unsurprising language


  • Vagueness instead of specifics



Overall thoughts:  Judging poetry is a deeply personal effort.  Every teacher/poet/reader brings their own prejudices to a poem, as I have here.  A different reader could give you a very different interpretation.  My tendency is to judge poems by how an editor of a poetry magazine might judge them, by how strong of an appeal they would have to the readers of the magazine.  I would want to choose poems that move my readers through their originality and craft.  Many readers, though, judge poems solely on how “honest” they feel, by how deeply the poem seems to reveal the inner poet.  Craft matters that I pay a lot of attention to are less important to them than emotion.

Also, I judge poems somewhat by where the poet is.  High school poets are growing as writers.  The poems they write now are nowhere nearly as informed as the poems they will write in ten or twenty years.  If you are interested in where I think this poem sits among other high school poets, I’d say it’s way better than many (it doesn’t rely on obvious clichés, for example, nor is it simplistic), but it’s not as strong as the ones by your peers that write with the same honesty but with more specifics and more attention to interestingly crafted language.

My advice on a rewrite would be to explore in the poem more specifically what provoked the poem.  What real event or events can you share with the reader that would make them feel what the persona is feeling?  What connections to the real world through specific appeals to sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell can you bring into the poem?  I think this would improve the content of the poem and make it more original (who else could come up with your specifics, after all?).

I’d also advise looking at the language you use.  Is it possible to be more figurative in your language choices?  Stronger, evocative verbs, too, would help.  One way to judge whether the language in your poem is interesting is to identify the parts you hope a reader would notice.  What you want is for even a reader who didn’t like your poem to say, “But I really liked this line.” 

Thanks again for giving me the chance to (over)respond to your poem.  Often times my response is gentle encouragement and a pat on the back for the effort.  Anything more is too much, so maybe the best way to take the feedback on this poem is that it’s really an encouragement to write more.

The best strategy you can follow for improving your poetry is to write a lot of it, read a lot of it, and continue to pay attention to the world with the heightened sensibilities of someone who wants to make sense of it.

Write on.

Best,
Mr. Van Pelt

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Ira Creasman
Sep. 8th, 2013 02:30 pm (UTC)
I've done what you described at the beginning. Commenting on creative work is hard: I don't want to disappoint them, but I also want to help them the best I can. It's different with essays. I'm happy to critique an essay with a kid all day long. Critiquing an essay feels like we're working on something together rather than me tearing them down.

The critique you shared here is great. Will you have time to do it with every kid who wants an honest critique?

Thanks for sharing. Write on, indeed.

-Ira
jimvanpelt
Sep. 8th, 2013 03:20 pm (UTC)
"Will you have time to do it with every kid who wants an honest critique?" Hmmm. I think the phrase I'm looking for is "No way in Hell." That's the bummer. I know what good education looks like, but their isn't physically enough time to do it. We're on an assembly line that's overloaded. Our job is to polish. Sometimes we pick up a piece and really work with it, but a dozen others have slipped by while we do it.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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