“What an amazing poem!” The appreciation of poetry is subjective. Where one reader may say what a great poem it is, another stares blankly. What is longlisted in one competition may be a winner in another. A poem should speak to the heart and the mind, but everyone has had different life experiences that make poetry resonate differently. There’s no absolute measure of “Wow”.
Certainly, there is the body of knowledge called the craft, and one can usually pick out where a poet has followed or deviated from this guidance. But even then, have they done this deliberately for effect or unknowingly? Because of all this, when giving or receiving feedback you should do this carefully and tactfully. This month, I will share some personal tips about solicited criticism.
I see myself as an amateur poet – always learning. So, from my position, I am less keen on purely positive comments such as “Oh, that was wonderful. Don’t change a word of it.” Since I spend two months on average on a sonnet, examining every word and often finding improvements at a late stage, it seems unlikely that the first independent reader to look at it and exclaims: “it is as perfect as can be”. When someone reads one of my poems, I watch their face closely for tells, a grimace or raised eyebrow could mean there is something that doesn’t scan well. I may then press them further for an opinion. In this case, I may ask if they could offer me pointers to some weaker areas they perceive.
Sometimes, you might even hear: “I just don’t get your poem. I’m not sure what it’s about”. But remember, someone else might understand it at first reading and appreciate the complexity of the work. You should know what readership you want and whether your poem is accessible to them.
Likewise, if someone asks you to read and comment on their poem, apart from blurting out extreme positions like “that’s total rubbish!” or “what an amazing poem!” there are three levels of criticism: considered positive feedback, constructive negative feedback and informed changes, as follows:
LEVEL 1 “Considered positive feedback”:
- If you are asked to read, say, a friend’s poem, be sensitive because the emotional content may be drawn from that poet’s experience;
- Always give feedback with humility. Imagine if you were hearing this. All poets go through the same process;
- Listen to or carefully read their work. Re-read. Be positive “I really like … “ and pick out a couple of good phrases or metaphors;
- Ensure you learn to do this well for others through critical appraisal of diverse works.
LEVEL 2 “Constructive negative feedback”:
- If you have been asked to give an honest review, go beyond pointing out what works well, and pick out what you think works less well. This situation often arises in workshops, where participants are taking it in turn to read out their work in progress;
- Poets and writers often have trusted readers, who may peer review their work by swapping. You are there to encourage. START by underlining that this is your opinion and others may view the work differently. Give positive feedback FIRST to those elements that merit it, e.g. “That’s a nice line or phrase”. Avoid gushing praise, which can be seen as insincere, THEN say what elements work less well for you;
- Resist proposing solutions;
- If you are receiving criticism, you may choose to set aside any particular criticism. This is where you need to have self-belief that is stronger than the critic. But do listen carefully to what they are pointing out or implying and consider any comments carefully.
LEVEL 3 “Informed changes”:
- If you have permission to suggest change, then qualify it with “You might like to …” and give options. You should feel sufficiently informed to suggest these;
- If your work is reviewed by a poetry editor or adjudicator, we are definitely in level 3. Further, some organisations will offer reviews in return for a small payment. Some competitions will offer an adjudicator’s report on your work. They may not stop at saying what did not work so well and may suggest changes;
- In this case, you should admit their suggested changes. They know what they are doing. Consider carefully if the proffered change does work with your poem, but I suggest in most cases you should accept and incorporate the change.
Who would have thought there was so much to the etiquette of giving feedback.
Copyright Clifford Liles, February 2021