Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 28 July 2008

This post is exempt from criticism

This is not my first go at this post. As you may or may not know my wife proofreads all my blogs before I post them. Normally all she has to fix are typos and "brain farts". Occasionally she'll highlight a sentence or a paragraph where I don't make my point too well and that's fine. However, my original version of this post came back to me in neon. She says if I'd posted it in its original form I'd start a flame war and, after a feeble defence on my part, I caved in. I'm not one to court confrontation.

Okay, let's backtrack to what got me going in the first place. There were a couple of instances where I offered up some opinion on bits of writing I found lying around, one was in a forum and the other was a blog entry. The first poem I did a decent enough job on, pulled it to pieces, said what worked, what could work if this or that was tweaked and what they might think about leaving out. The reaction was an emotional tirade saying that if I didn't like her work not to review it in the future. In the second instance someone posted a couple of poems, that I actually liked, but I suggested a couple of minor changes. The response this time was a curt one line e-mail pointing out that she had not asked for criticism and did not appreciate it. I replied, in apologetic terms, suggesting she delete my comment and we'd say no more about it. When I checked the entire post had been removed.

In the first instance the poem had been posted in a forum and she was soliciting comments. Now, I have limited experience of these forums tending to stick to Zoetrope, but I've been on sites where it's obvious that all people are wanting to hear are compliments and I stay clear of them; this site wasn't like that and so I critiqued the poem to the best of my ability, probably a good 700 words if I can trust my memory. I doubt this individual had ever had a poem dissected like that.

In the second case they were quite right, she had not asked for the poem to be critiqued but I didn't. I commented on a couple of lines and that was it. I could understand removing my comment but the whole post? That seems OTT to me.

There is a third example, on yet another forum, which is worth mentioning. This time the person misread a comment which was not directed at her and launched a tirade of abuse at humanity in general. Eventually one of the other members grabbed her by the lapels and calmed her down.

You might have noticed that the three instances I've cited all involve women. Over the years I've also seen men go off on one. I really don't think gender is an issue here. Of the three instances above I know that one was a mature woman so age is not an issue either. The one thing they have in common is that they were all poets.

Why do poets have hair-triggers?

I used to be like that when I was young and full of myself. I'd fight tooth-and-nail over every comma. I believed that everything I wrote when in an inspired state was sacrosanct and could not be looked at sideways let alone criticised. God, I was an ass.

Now, if we're honest, no one likes criticism and there was a time when I would have ended up rowing with my wife for picking my article to pieces like she did but she pointed out that I was doing exactly what I was criticising these people for doing. I had set myself on a pedestal and was looking down my nose at them. And she was right. I'm better than I once was but the bottom line is that I don't suffer fools gladly. I'm sure it's an age thing.

My justification, since I feel I need one, for saying the things I do is that I believe it's incumbent on those of us who know stuff to try and pass it on. My intention is to encourage not discourage. I tried to do that with my own daughter and met a wall of resistance. I was trying to change her. I was trying to stifle her true voice. All the same sort of stuff I would've come out with when I was her age. She wouldn’t even show me most of her poetry. To this day I've probably only seen less than a dozen although I do have the only one she ever gave me framed on my bedside cabinet.

I sometimes wish I was an old Romantic but I'm afraid I'm not and my sensitive soul has withered away to nothing.


Rachel Fox said...

This is a short post for you Jim! Was it edited a lot??

It's a tricky area this one. People have such strong ideas about poetry, in general, and their own poetry, in particular and their ideas often seem to be more fragile the less obvious success a poet has had (in terms of publishing, approval from the establishment, from elsewhere etc.). I suppose that just makes (common) sense - the more positive feedback a poet gets from one source the easier it is to deal with any negative criticism (no matter how well-intentioned it is).

Personally I'm not very interested in critiquing other poets' work. I say if I really like something - good feedback is so important and I like to give and receive that! Now and again... if I read something that is very nearly good but that IN MY OPINION just needs a little tweak...I will venture a careful comment in that direction too...but I make it careful as it is only my ideas about poetry that inform that opinion and the poet may have very ideas to me! Maybe their aim, taste and understanding is so different to mine that the change I think might improve the poem would do quite the opposite for them. At the end of it all it is their poem...I'm interested in getting my own right - I let other people worry about theirs! I try and take criticism of my own work when I find it worth reading. If a critic is obviously working from a very different standpoint to me...I'm not sure us slagging each other off ('you're rubbish' 'you don't know what I'm trying to do, you moron..') is anything more than playground banter, no matter how fancy the language. It just goes round and round and round.

Of course there is plenty of poetry (online and elsewhere) that I could pull to pieces from now until forever...but that would take time and energy and it wouldn't do anyone any good. I know the argument is 'if people put a poem on show they should be able to take criticism' but I would add to that 'yes, but that doesn't mean you HAVE to give the criticism every time'.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Rachel. I can do short by the way. It depends what the subject it. Actually I completely rewrote the article after Carrie sent it back to me, there's very little of the original left here.

It's the image of the poet as a sensitive soul that I'm really on about here. No one likes to be criticised but why are poets so unreceptive? When I was young the only people who criticised my writing were people who didn't know what they were talking about. They knew what they liked and I didn't write it. I never had the benefits of the Web back then. I was alone and writing crap. I would have loved to have had someone knowledgeable to talk to.

I think it is nothing less than arrogant to think that we are beyond criticism. I'm certainly not. I think it's a good thing both ways. It takes thought to explain to another poet what you think and, as you're writing your thoughts down, you get the opportunity to reflect on them and make sure you're really saying what you meant to say.

Knowing the individual helps. You know me and if you post a poem on your site you can be damn sure I won't write anything as banal as, "Great poem," in the comments even if I think it is a great poem. You want to know – at least I want to know – what I've done right every bit as much as I need to hear what I've done wrong. It doesn't mean you'll change a word but I'm one of your readers and when you post a poem that poem becomes mine to do with what I want.

I'm working on a post at the moment about the whole poem-as-child thing and how much it annoys the hell out of me but that's a wee bit off yet. I'm starting to rant and ranting is not good blogging.

Left Bower said...

I must say, that I look forwards to criticism when I write. My blog [blatent plug] which is at [/blatent plug]is about my wiritng, and in order to improve it, I must have criticism. If I take it on board is annother thing entirely ;).

However if someone says it is horrible, but doesn't give any ideas on how to improve, or what I did wrong - I think i can rightfully be indignant. However anything less than that is just advice to factor into my writing. The more learned or in depth a critique is, the more it helps and the mroe likely I am to pay attention.

Anonymous said...

Are irate reactions to criticism due to poetic sensitivity or just plain ego? What's one without the other?

Remind me of the quote: 'I like criticism so long as it's good.'

golfwidow said...

I don't think it's so much that poets are overly-sensitive. I believe that overly-sensitive people are poetic.

You're only dealing with the poetic people who choose to express themselves online with open means of replying to their expressions. Many of them don't actually write any poetry at all, which doesn't make them any less poetic.

(NOTE: I don't write poetry because I CAN'T write poetry. I do, however, cry over those Sarah McLaughlin ASPCA commercials. Shut up.)

Rachel Fox said...

I don't think it's an image that poets are sensitive souls...I think a lot of them just are (in their own different ways). The same is true of lots of other people of course (whatever their job or hobby) but the exaggerated sensitivity that makes a person, for example, rubbish in lots of areas can really help when it comes to writing poetry. A lot of people write poetry precisely because they do feel very strongly about things that other people can ignore or deal with without feeling the need to write a poem afterwards. The reason a poem is good (for me) is often because of the poet's heightened sensitivity - they pick up on something, they make an observation, they put the 2 and 2 together and make not just 4 but 5 and 6 and maybe even 7 too. Not all poets are the same, by any means, but are there many you would call insensitive souls?

So I guess it follows that sensitive people are often going to be bad at taking criticism, especially when they're new to it all. Yes, it's better if people can get over it and deal with criticism (though of course they don't have to agree with it - critics can be wrong and thoughtless and self-obsessed and misguided...) but I don't think it's surprising if they can't, to be honest.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's a fairly common point of view, Golf Widow, I'm just not that convinced that being sensitive is anything more than a cop-out. If I started talking about women as delicate these days I'd have my door beaten down, but back at the start of the twentieth century they were treated as exactly that and many of them gave in to what was expected of them: Oh, I'm a woman, I must behave this way or that. And I feel a bit that way about poets: Oh, I'm a poet, I'm a wee delicate flower, don't shout at me.

Adrian, valid point, and I wish more criticism was good, and by that I mean good criticism, not simply a couple of lines of gushing praise without saying what about the piece affected you. I even wrote once about a piece that I was incapable of writing a constructive review because the piece touched too many nerves and every time I tried to put pen to paper my words refused to flow down it.

Not everyone is going to like our work. It's a fact of life and I don't know why we let it get to us so much. Taste is a complex sense and some people have a more refined palette than others. Or they just like their poetry a certain way. I'm one of them. It's really not personal so why make it personal?

Left Bower, nice to have another Aussie visitor, and I'm glad you're open to criticism, especially being only seventeen. I personally hate the word. It's off-putting, it reeks on negativity. I prefer to think of what I have to say as observations and just as my taste buds are not the most sensitive in the world nor is my eyesight always that good. The thing about friendly observations is that's what they are. People cannot help seeing what they see. I watched the film Magnolia and never got any of the symbolism and subtext … that day. On another day who knows? Was it too subtle? Only by looking at the viewing experiences of a lot more people could the director decide that.

And, Rachel, you hit the nail on the head when you talk about being new to criticism. Yes, the first few times are the hardest. My advice is very simple, listen to everyone. A poem is only complete when it is read. It's then that a – what shall we call it? – a poetic reaction takes place. And some readers will react badly. Whose fault is it? Well, it's the poet's. Pills come with a sheet telling you who should and should not take them and, if they do, what adverse effects they might experience. Poems don't.

Yes, critics can be … I'm not so sure that 'wrong' is the right word here. An opinion is exactly that. It is a statement of how something affected a certain individual. What can be 'wrong' is promoting that opinion too loudly and attempting to sway other people's opinions. It's why I have mixed feelings about reviews. I think they're a necessary evil to be honest.

Unknown said...

Regardless of how much you were pummeled to rewrite this blog entry it does come across as bravely honest. I admire your courage.

"'s incumbent on those of us who know stuff to try and pass it on."

Though an admirable sentiment this incumbency I don't believe it is incumbent on anyone to pass anything on. I do like to share, don't get me wrong on that, but I also get tired of hearing from so many inspired people how we have a responsibility to educate others. I think of it as ego driven knowledge imperialism. Who says that we know what?

If I pass anything on it is voluntary on my part. It is also usually that I have put a good deal of thought into if I want to pass whatever along and to whom... those people, poets or otherwise, who get upset at critique or comments are tedious and I, neither as you, am inclined to suffer fools lightly. Though I have few qualms over acting the fool.

Of all of the poetry that floats up to view I find 99.99% of it obscure, boring, or trite. That goes for what I produce, as well. I suppose I do not say much toward my global perception of the sensitive side of humanity? Regardless, to expend any time or energy in making comments on all this crap for me is a waste of time and energy. It does lead all to quickly to flame wars. Or pissing contests, and as I often say, if we are going to have a pissing contest let us do it over money. As there is no money in poetry why piss for it? If not money then at least food, if not food then a beer?

I agree that sensitive people usually do tend to be dysfunctional in other areas of life and that it is a solace to pick up a pencil and paper and imagine oneself a superstar. One can be a superstar poet, or a superstar literary critic in one's own mind. It is like with special balloons and when you say something about the wart on your friend's balloon you are suddenly all prickly and you pop them.

Be nice to little animals.

Dave King said...

I don't know that I have any general points to make on the subject. I personally appreciate criticism that is positively-intended, even when it comes out as if negative - though it may not always be easy to spot its true nature. (I do, of course, also appreciate praise! Indeed, I think as poets we need a diet of both. Criticism to help us improvbe, praise to keep us focussed.)
I have only once had a bad reaction to a well-intended comment of mine. It was not a criticism, but intended as a compliment. Referring to a point he had made, I said I wished that I had thought of it. He assumed it was meant sarcastically, "knowing what most people on the web are like", and more or less challenged me to say it meant only what it said.

Marion McCready said...

My early experience of poetry writing was entirely online workshop based. The regular self-appointed 'experts' were a rather rabid lot wasting no energy on polite criticism, if a poem was rubbish, and most of the poems posted were rubbish (mine included), they were told just that.
If you stayed around long enough and got over the initial ego-shock then posters would provide genuine criticism of your poems. The problem was that many posters didn’t stick around, criticism of someone’s poem was taken as a personal criticism of the individual that posted it. People, especially when they start writing poetry, tend to write about strong emotional, personal experiences which make them unable to separate the quality of the poem from the experience it records.

For the most part I avoid criticism unless it’s explicitly asked for, however I do like to hear reactions to my own poems both positive and negative and I appreciate anyone who’s bothered to spend the time looking at my work but I’m not looking for a line-by-line critique or else I’d be posting them on a workshop site.

Jena Isle said...

Hello Jim, poets are sensitive because they feel that they have the poetic liberty to have a style of their own different from everyone else. No one wants to be a copycat, everyone wants to have a particular brand of poetry.

But, I would welcome you (very much) in my GewGaw writing blog - for you to critique any of my posts. I would appreciate that a lot.

As for me, I state the positive in the blog comments itself and if there are negative comments, I send these through the entrecard dashboard directly to the author.

Creative people are usually very sensitive.

Thanks for sharing.

Art Durkee said...

My friend, you just stumbled onto the real truth of life on the poetry boards and forums online. (Have you been so sheltered that you never ran into this before? I could give you whole pages of this sort of this thing, but I'll spare you.) I have been around and around on this issue on various poetry boards, and experiences teaches me that there are two principal kinds of poets online: those who want actual critique, and want to become better writers via the workshop process; and those who do not. The apparent vast majority of online poets fall into the latter category.

The vast majority of "poets" do not want actual critique, they want emotional support. Even those who want actual critique can get stuck in this, and go through phases. These poets are posting their BABIES online, and want to be told that their poems are great and wonderful.

The fundamental mistake they have made is to confuse a critique on their poem as a personal attack. Far too much of their self-esteem is tied up in their little jewels of poems, and they have become far too sensitive to criticism. Every negative remark is taken personally. THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT, it's theirs. The truth is, most of these poets confuse the journal-entry with the finished poem; most such post-confessional lyric poetry, "ripped from my soul" at great personal emotional cost, should stay in the diary, and never see the light of day. A poet who writes mostly journal-poems is particularly easy to spot, based on their reactions.

The truth is: most poetry is crap. It always has been. This is not news.

But the writer's intent about what they do NEXT is what matters. This is where you sort out the serious workshoppers from the feel-good "support group" poets. Those who want to improve as writers will take their lumps and keep going; they might LIKE hearing critique, but they WILL listen.

Having said all that, it IS considered good form to ask first if a critique is wanted. Often enough, it's not. But if one phrases it as a question, sometimes the door to dialogue can be left open, rather than slammed shut. It's all about diplomacy and tact. I for one have perfected the art of shredding a poem via critique yet not offending the poet; it took a very long time to learn as a skill, and the basic rule is: Keep it absolutely impersonal, do not offer guesses about intent, and look at only the poem. Even THEN, some overly-sensitive poets will take umbrage. It can't be avoided. But you can do your best to be clean and clear about it.

Art Durkee said...

The clichéd stereotype of the Sensitive Artist comes into play here mostly in that people who view themselves as sensitive therefore think that that automatically makes them artists. A ridiculous notion. Of course there have always been insensitive artists, too. (One can make a list of great artists who were blatantly not nice people.) So the connection between sensitivity and artistry is a stereotype, but it's based on nothing real. It's just part of the baggage that the word "artist" carries in our culture. Most of which is bollocks.

Unknown said...

I wonder what people are thinking when they get upset about receiving comments and be a writer one has to accept that this is a big part of the process.
No one likes to receive negative criticism, but you need to see it as constructive and move on. Personally I do not think there is anyone who could be harder on me...than MYSELF! Excellent post. I must chuckle that your wife proofreads for you....I do that with all of my husband's emails and Scout paperwork.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, You make a very good point about intent, and this is where I fall down in one respect in that I doggedly refuse to use smileys. We know what me mean when we write things down but what we write down is sometimes taken the wrong way. Rachel Fox for one has commented that she didn't quite know how to take some of my remarks before she got to know me a bit better. But it is also interesting that the expression "knowing what most people on the web are like" assumes that most people are negative and in my experience I've found the very opposite and I'm glad I have.

Gabe, I guess it's just my nature to want to help people. I agree, newer poets have no right to expect more experienced writers to share any of their insights but maybe it's the dad in me, I can't help it even when I know they're not going to listen and bugger off and make their own mistakes and waste years of their lives … but that's life.

For the record, I do not believe I have the answer and if you do things my way you will be happy. But I clearly remember as a young poet sitting with books from the library and not understanding a damn thing and just wishing I could ask someone: "Just what is the big thing about a ruddy wet wheelbarrow?" There was no Web then. I think it is a wonderful invention and, honestly, the majority of people I have interacted with have been dead helpful, sometimes surprisingly so considering we're strangers and on the other side of the world half the time.

As for the quality of the poetry I find on the Web? Well, I think there are a lot of people out there who are members of the 'it's a poem because I say it is' school of thought. There are a lot of people playing at poetry. There are also a number of deadly serious individuals a few of which I highlighted a while back. And this is what you would expect to find. I don't seek out the hobbyists but my site is open to anyone and I'll always do my best to respond to any questions. (I had 'answer' and changed it).

When I was growing up I learned a scripture – don't ask me for chapter and verse – which goes something along the lines of "One man sharpens his face of another" (Prov 27:17 – I couldn't resist) and I've always liked that notion. We're doing it right now.

Jena, I pass by your blog quite often as you may know. I look at so many blogs each week. But I will keep an eye out for things I can make a constructive comment. Sometimes all I might have to ask is, "Why did you do such and such?" because I think it's sometimes helpful to get a writer to explain their actions. I did that recently with a young lady who posts some very striking short poems and prose pieced. She had a sentence of one word – the word was 'And.' – and I asked her how I should read that sentence. She was delighted I'd picked up on it.

As for negative comments – or lengthy advice – yes, an e-mail is probably better especially if you know the author well. There have been a number of occasions where I've bit my tongue because they didn't provide a contact e-mail.

Sorlil, I've been a member of Zoetrope for about ten years. I've peeked at other sites but I've found it the best for me. I've got into some lengthy discussions about poetic technique there. The last one was on line breaks and that prompted by own blog on the subject which resulted in comments which were talked about. As I said to Gabe a few paragraphs back, One man sharpening himself on the face of another.

As for 'reactions' to your poems (if I can pick you up on that word), reactions are a form of critique. "So you liked it then? What exactly did you like about it?" As far as I'm concerned if any work is accessible by other people then it's open for comment.

But you're right that most people who start off writing poetry usually tackle very personal and sensitive subjects. Maybe they shouldn't be posting that kind of stuff online where it can get trampled underfoot.

I'm not going to stop passing comments. I know what my motives are and if that means having to apologise to someone every now and then well that's just find and dandy.

Finally, Art, much of what you've said we've already covered but you're right, I've been lucky in my experiences on the whole. The thing is I never critique a poem properly except in Zoetrope. I'll add an odd comment or two because that's usually all I have time for. I'd love to give every poet I come across a leg up or a pointer or something but I can't. And, if I did try then I'd probably get more negative reactions.

And I love your second comment. Cut to the chase why don't you? Just because you're and artist doesn't mean you're sensitive nor does being sensitive make one an artist. It's just another stereotype like the alcoholic novelist. Oh, and on the point of posting their babies I've a whole post drafted on that subject but it's turning into a bit of a rant so I've put it aside for now.

I just hope a few of the truly sensitive poets out there run across this post and realise that we're not all out to diss them. At least I'm not.

Jim Murdoch said...

Penelope Anne, lovely to see a new commenter. I think I've pretty much said everything in my last comment (practically as long as the original post). I knew this post would promote a lot of response but even I've been a bit surprised. Good point though, how could any writer be harder on us that we are on ourselves? I usually start off with the premise that I hate everything I write and things can only get better from there.

As for my wife, I'd be lost without her (I need to say that because she reads all my comments too), but I'm also wise enough to realise that I often get caught up in the moment and I'm reading what I think I've written.

Art Durkee said...

I'm going to stick my neck out one more time and say that I disagree with "no one likes criticism." I want to clarify that point, and find the truth behind it. Because I DO like good criticism. I like critique that is useful to me, even if it decimates one of my poems.

I think the truth is, no one likes attacks. No one likes viciousness, no one likes being ripped to shreds. It can be unpleasant—but one can still learn from the experience.

In fact, I like good critique. I learned my own critique craft not online but in a realspace monthly poet critique group. It was tough going, but the regulars all got to know each other, and could be bluntly honest without offense being taken. Some were more brutal than others.

Me, I like a bad poem of mine being ripped to shreds, to be improved. How else are you going to learn as a writer? Bad things ought to pointed out, and good things praised. This all happened in that group, and everybody DID improve as a writer; some significantly. That set the gold standard for me, which online forums have rarely lived up to. There was one, but it's long defunct.

One of the problems I've had with online forums recently, which is why I've sworn off them for now, is that I haven't gotten any good or useful critique for months. Then again, what I'm writing right now is also new and different. But when you're not getting the critique you need to help you grow as a poet, then it's time to move on, or look elsewhere, or take a breather from the workshop environment entirely.

In the online domain, tone is very hard to read. One often presumes a tone of voice that isn't there, in the absence of body language or vocal cues to the contrary. People often take umbrage at what was meant to be cajoling. This of course is why smilies were invented, even if we choose not to use them. Because words-only media are very narrow-band and limited in the information that they can convey.

Of course I'm just restating things you already know. This thread provides a good context for some reminders, is all.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, this one has pushed your buttons. I too struggle to get decent feedback on my poetry especially the stuff I've been posting of late. People really don't know how to critique. Not that I've had any lessons and that's my point. There are so many of us who've had to work out things by ourselves. That is why I despair that people don't realise what a good thing this could be. As I've said before, I remember a time when there was no such thing as the World Wide Web and the world was a much lonelier place.

Ken Armstrong said...

Criticism of new writing is a bit like gardening, you may have to be brutal now and again and you even may have to shovel a little s**t on the produce now and again but generally it's all got to be quite nurturing.

I'm with Jena in that, if I feel I have to say something negative or potentially embarrassing, I will PM it rather than post it.

Okay, confession time?

Sadly, I no longer feel I have to save the world with brutal honesty and will often lazily say that something is better then it actually is. Whenever I sense someone doing this to me, it drives me mad.

Anonymous said...

I've never got defensive about any criticism I've received, but I did get irate one time (in my younger days) when I felt that someone else was overly critical of another person's work. It was in college and the person receiving the criticism was a student in the class who had no aspirations of becoming a writer. She was just doing an assignment and I felt the guy doing the critique, though he was right in his assessments, was too harsh on her.

The only time I've ever been disappointed in a critique I've received of my own writing was when someone said to me, and I'd just returned from Iraq, "I'm going to go harder on you because you're an officer" and I thought, Well, if I was an enlisted man then you'd go easy on me? I thought he was just being full of it and disingenuous, though I didn't say anything to him. When I got home and looked at the criticisms he gave me in writing, half of them were just based on his perception of what I should have been trying to do instead of trying to understand what it was I was actually trying to do. I dismissed them out of hand.

Sometimes, you have to do that. Not all criticism is good criticism, even if well intended. So a part of the writer's job is to know what to take seriously and what to disregard. That said, I don't give criticism in writing forums. I've been to so many of them where people just write things like "Oh, that's so nice. I've felt that way before." and the poem or story was just plain trash. I don't even critique the poems. And I don't offer mine for critique either because you don't get real feedback. Zoetrope is about the only place online I've been to where you actually get valuable feedback.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Ken. I suppose in one respect I'm the same as you. I don't go out looking for poetic souls to save. But if I trip over one in the dark well that's another matter. I have to say I that I never say I like something when I don't. I tend to say nothing.

Allen, I'm pleased you can also recommend Zoetrope as a worthwhile forum. It's not perfect and a lot depends on the block of writers who are active at any given time. When I quit posting about eight years ago the place was buzzing especially the short story wing – a lot of very good feedback – but I allowed myself to get too involved and I literally was doing no writing. Now I'm keeping a low profile, staying out of the rooms, only posting on the poetry wing and only reviewing shorter pieces. There are a few fairly inexperienced poets there but, apart from one exception, they've all been very appreciative of the kind of in depth reviews I try and do. And hopefully this will make them think twice about jotting down a quick 50 words and on to the next one. Oh, and the exception was fine after a follow-up e-mail. Some people read things too quickly and all they see are the negative points.

Anonymous said...

I think if you can't handle criticism you shouldn't put it out there on a public forum. Every poetry board I post on I expect some sort of feedback of course that doesn't mean I'll take their advice.Having an experienced writer/poet take enough interest in my work to suggest an opinion or a critique is part of the process even for a sensitive poet like myself. ;)

Rob said...

Nearly all good poets I know appreciate criticism, positive or negative. I don't believe that poets are any more sensitive than anyone else.

But you know how it is. A person with a huge ego is liable to feel distressed if that ego is pricked, and the results can be explosive. The size of the poetic ego varies from person to person, just like it does with non-poets.

I think some people write simply because they want to be praised by a fawning audience and as long as no one steps out of line, they are happy. Their poetry is usually awful. If you tell them the truth (even when they've asked for your opinion!), they'll explode.

As a poet, you have to develop ways of turning a deaf (but polite) ear to those who give nonsensical advice, listen to those who know what they're about, and ultimately write poems in accord with your own vision, whatever 'the crowd' thinks. The focus should be on the poems, not on the applause (or lack of applause) for them.

Some people, including complete beginners, go in with that determined attitude. Others, including those who should know better, can't cope with their own desperate need to be applauded. There's nothing you can do about that. If you want to help beginners (a good, valuable thing), you just need to live with the out-of-control, insecure and massive egos, and concentrate on working with those who show themselves willing to improve.

Jim Murdoch said...

Writing Nag, I just don't think a lot of newer poets are prepared for how vituperative many of the remarks can be. I've just made a comment on a blog about the plotless novel – it was a lengthy response including a link to an essay explaining why Mrs Dalloway is in fact plotless and what plotlessness means – and a couple of responses were posted after this to the effect of a) he's talking through a hole in his head and b) well, let him write his damn novel and we'll see just how plotless it is. These were clearly kneejerk reactions but it does illustrate how protective people can be of what they consider important.

And, Rob, yes, ego. I'm surprised it's taken us so long to get round to that one but I do suppose that's the bottom line. There will be those who would suggest that I've got a bit of a cheek on me thinking that my opinions matter over other people's and there was a time when I did use to have an ego like that. I didn't have a chip on my shoulder I had a whole fish supper.

Nowadays I have experience. You will note I didn't say expertise because I don't think I am anything approaching an expert but I can't help having lived nearly fifty years. Compared to many other poets of my generation I really know very little. I've lived a secluded life as a writer, something I regret but there you go. The bottom line is I'm looking for the writers out there who were me at nineteen, reading everything I could lay my hands on and desperate to be able to understand and perhaps even exercise a modicum of control over all these words in my head.

Sandra said...

oh, my, what a topic. I personally feel giving constructive criticism is a real art, and one I'm learning about all the time - particularly in an on-line environment where you can't read body language/tone of voice etc.

I moderate an online writer's workshop (Diving Deeper), where work is posted up with the specific objective of getting & giving feedback.

I'd say about 1/4 of my time is spent on 'commenting'. In fact I made the group by 'invite only' (anyone can read) to try to ensure the extensive road-rules on commenting and giving constructive critcism were read before joining.

I would say that on the whole the poets in the group are the most 'touchy'. btw...I've been on the lookout for a moderator who is interested in the art of writing poetry *and* in giving useful comments.

I agree with rachel - I generally believe in being clear that whatever I say is my own opinion.

I do think the point is: do I feel I have something useful to share? Do I want it to be 'heard'? If so, how can I share it in such a way that it can be heard? If it means taking some time and care over 'how' I say it, then so be it.

Nice to stumble over your blog, Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you discovered the site, Sandra. I read through some of your site particularly the very lengthy advice on how to give and take criticism. I think the fact this bit is so long says it all. I'd have loved it if I'd opened it up and all it said was, "Play nice," but I guess not. It's like what you say about receiving criticism:

"Remember that what anyone says is 'theirs'. You don't have to agree or disagree. If the words seem harsh, they may not be meant that way at all. It can be very hard to tell sometimes. Even if they do have 'hard' or unloving energy - this is not about you, it is about them. Nothing needs to be taken personally. Nothing."

I hope you find another moderator soon. These projects can be very draining. I know.

Sandra said...

"Play Nice". Oh I wish!

And I've had people say that the reason they joined the group was reading the commenting guidelines.

Thing is, most people (well, many) just want to post their stuff up and have people say good things about it. This is death to any writing group, especially a workshop. If people actually have the patience to read through the guidelines, then they tend to be writers who are willing to do more than demand attention...

Jim Murdoch said...

Sandra, my problem (as my wife points out to me from time to time) is that I never read instructions or guidelines, I just welly on in.

Ani Smith said...

I'm late, but I really want to comment anyway!

I am always grateful to find a comment about my writing from you. I get very little actual feedback (negative or positive) so I find your comments incredibly helpful.

I don't always agree with them and often times I can't squelch the urge to justify myself. But just the act of really reading my piece and then sharing with me what you thought worked or didn't (and why) and making me really think about the process and why I did certain things and whether or not they worked FOR ME - that is invaluable.

Writers that can't take criticism probably haven't worked collaboratively or on a professional level. I worked very closely with an editor for a few years. I always felt my writing was 100% improved after our 'back and forths'. Like you, she had an uncanny knack for honing in on the things that gave me the most grief during the writing.

The difference, I guess, is that we did that privately, as opposed to blogs and forums, where the work is taking place in public. I can understand how that might be tougher for some people, but I think you have to take it where you can get it.

Ultimately, I'm jealous - I wish I had a wife to edit my blog posts, too!

Jim Murdoch said...

Better late than never, Ani, and I'm delighted that you find my comments helpful. I would be flabbergasted if you did agree with everything I did say though. That I can be of any help is something and I'm glad you realise that that is my motivation.

I very much like the point you make about taking advice wherever you can. There are so many things pulling at us and I'll be honest I always have to put your pieces aside to read later; you're not an easy read by any manner or means and it would be easy to scan your stuff, shrug and pass on. Luckily the first poem I read by you was a stoater and you got stuck in my feedreader and now I actually look forward to seeing what you come up with.

You usually do get positive comments but where I feel for you is that they're not very helpful. I'm sure you want to know what you're doing right as much as what you're doing wrong. Why is this piece great?

As for the wife ... stick an advert in Exchange and Mart - you never know your luck.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've seen you over at Dick's place, arrived here via some circuitous route.......interesting post and comments. A point I would like to make is that I belong to a community of sorts, most of us do, blogroll-based, so if I am reading people everyday, I will often drop a great poem type comment, just because I am short on time but want to show I've read, appreciated. I do make a point of leaving longer comments too. Criticism, well I try to link up with writers I like so I don't find that much need for it.
Now to the sensitivity.....I have no problems with people I know well, whom I trust and respect, offering crits, I welcome it. If some drive-byer throws out crit, I'm more likely to wonder at their manners, I like to know my readers, I guess. Isn't that normal? And yes, poets usually have heightened one of your commenters said, it's a prerequisite. My m.o. is to email the person if I want to offer changes, rather than talk out of the public eye.....just saves any hassle. I've known several poets, all men, though I don't think gender is an issue here, who leave long, intellectual commentaries as a means of heightening their status in the community....that strikes me as bogus (now I'm not suggesting for a moment you did that). But yes, the trail of saccharine, wondrous dahlinks do's a difficult balance.


ps if this is less than lucid, I'm low on sleep, kids, sigh, apologies

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you've decided to check out the site. Jo and you're right, even those of us who tend to shun formal groups are still members of informal ones. I certainly have a core of blogs that I always read and feel some commonality with.

You put it well with the expression 'drive-byer' and I suppose a lot of people might question ones motivations. In my case I'd hope they'd click on the link to my own blog and try and get a feel for who I am before jumping to conclusions but I guess once the hackles are raised it's not such an easy thing to lower them.

As for your M.O. – this has been mentioned further up the page – but I will reiterate my response: I wish more people would put e-mail addresses on their sites. It's surprising the number I run across who don't.

As for intellectual commentaries … well you're safe with me because I'm no intellectual; the blog is a complete front I assure you.

And, finally, on sleep: it's four in the afternoon and I've just woken up from a four hour nap after not being able to get to sleep last night till four in the morning and I've been fit for nothing all day … and I don't have kids, just a cockatiel and the hungriest goldfish in the world.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

On poetry boards I, too, have spent serious time and effort on a critique only to have it scorned. After that happened a couple times I quit doing long critiques and settled for commenting on one little thing that struck me. If the poet didn't care at least other people stopping in to read might see something in it.

Then the board I frequented had a big meltdown and I never got up to speed on another. I tried a bit, but couldn't sustain the interest. Frankly, when I posted a poem I wasn't getting feedback that was interesting on its own. Besides, I decided I wanted to devote my poetry reading time to finished poems.

I presume poets are more sensitive than most people because I think you have to be sensitive in order to care about right words/right order, about crafting something just right. Otherwise any words that get the meaning across are good enough, aren't they? Still, I suspect any arbiter can tell you stories about well-meant "observations" being taken as attacks.

In creative writing classes where we "workshop" poems I've certainly seen people lash out when given criticism. I remember being hurt. As I've grown more comfortable with what my poems do & what I want them to do I've found myself much less pained by criticism.

Now & then I post old poems on my LuvSet blog, then revise them in public. Anyone is free to comment on the drafts -- I tend to go through several drafts before feeling satisfied (or giving up). I rarely get comments. But that may be more because (unlike you with your ambitious community-building) I don't have many readers. My imaginary readers are pretty critical, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

I had a look at LoveSettlement, Glenn, and I think it's a good idea to show how a poem develops over time. When I was younger I was so hungry for something like this. I wanted to know why things were right. I couldn't work them out myself. I simply wasn't a) clever enough and b) nowhere near as well read as I might've been. There is a world of culture out there and, whereas a nod to a poem by Wilfred Owen would jump out at me I struggled only yesterday with a poem that referenced Assyrian history (Who the hell is King Ei?) but I got no help from the poet which I kinda hoped I might; I don't like not knowing things.

I can see why you would quit poetry boards like that. I would too. But I have also made a few decent connections. I have also learned how to temper any critical remarks and avoid going into areas that I know won't be appreciated. I rarely mention poetic structure these days because so few poets want to think about it. That said, yesterday I critiqued three poems including the one I mentioned above, and I pointed out on the second that one of her stanzas would have a much clearer underlying rhythm if she split one line and showed her how. The response was a nice thank you.

The third poet hasn't responded yet but we have exchanged a few e-mails in the past and she is so appreciative of someone taking time over her work. I've never said that Zoetrope was a perfect forum and a lot of the critiques leave much to be desired but if you can make a connection then you can put up with the weaker ones. I make no bones about it, the poems I've been posting of late are hard to critique. They're finished and polished pieces. I don't post works-in-progress because that's not how I work. If it's not coming together then it's not coming together and I put the piece aside for a few weeks or months until I stumble across it again and see if a clear head can make sense of it.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I did make a couple online poet friends out of that workshop. That was definitely good. And it did help refine my critiquing skills. Refining the skills -- that's a lifelong project.

Rachel Fox said...

That word 'intellectual''s a funny one...causes no end of trouble! If you're not an intellectual Mr Murdoch then I'm not sure who is!

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, I am willing to admit to a degree of intelligence and articulation but the word 'intellectual' has such unpleasant connotations as far as I'm concerned that I really don't like to be associated with it. It's one of those horrible words that's just begging to have an ism pinned to its arse. When I was at school because of the courses I took I had the opportunity to hang around with the nerds and the yobs and developed friendships within both groups. It was only when I got older I discovered that I could use my intellect to keep my distance from people that I started to appreciate the darker side of being clever. The thing is I am not that clever. I use what I know cleverly but most of it is smoke and mirrors. What I learned is that people assume things. If I rattle off a few Greek expressions then people assume I know Greek whereas they've probably had my whole lot in that one sentence. Now I use what cleverness I have to help and support others but and find others ways to keep them at a safe distance.

Rachel Fox said...

I understand your point about connotations...but that isn't the word's fault - more the problem with those that sometimes use it and the way they use it. Look how much you've thought about the word 'intellectual' and its use...that's using the intellect more than some people do in a year! Knowing Greek, on the other hand, is learning something, amassing information, not necessarily using the mind for anything other than processing (I was a linguist..I'm not trashing linguists!). I suppose my point is academics are not necessarily intellectual (though I suppose they should at least try to be) and non-academics are not necessarily non-intellectual. Does that make sense?

Jim Murdoch said...

I accept what you're saying here Rachel, but there's no point whinging about whether a word should or should not attract a negative connotation, the word 'intellectual' has and I don't see it shaking it off any time soon. I could probably live with being called a thinker as long as no one tries to slip a 'great' in there.

I think probably what it is with me is a fear of not being able to live up to someone's expectations. A boss of mine once introduced me as "probably the cleverest person he'd ever met" and I just wanted to die inside because I knew it was only a matter of time before he pushed me out of my comfort zone and I disappointed him. And it happened.

Being intelligent also has nothing to do with being knowledgeable and that's probably something I also fear that people assume because I'm clever that I also know lots of things. Well I do. I can list of all the actors who've played Dr. Who and I was the first kid in my class who knew what a million was, and I know the four Greek words for the love but for the love (agape) of God I still don't get why 'The Love (eros) Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' is a great poem or what all the equals signs are about in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. I probably know more about Star Trek than I do about poetry if I'm honest.

Rachel Fox said...

OK - thinker it is then! It's a good word - untainted by pride and prejudice. I suppose I am on a minor quest to repossess words like 'intellectual' from those who use them with malice (it's a family thing partly...bloody families)! Could Spock or Kirk help, do you think?

And on 'knowing about poetry''s such a huge subject, so many poets and poems and theories and methods...I don't think anyone knows it all (though some may try). Personally I have no ambitions to know it all with poetry. We all just read what we can, learn what we can, try to understand as much as we can and also...write what we can...or a bit more...on the good days...

Have you written any Star Trek poems? Seriously.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say Rachel, I've never been one for fan fiction. I hate it when good shows get cancelled (and they usually are the more intellectually challenging ones like Carnivàle) but that's it, they're dead and gone. Okay I know in science fiction terms 'dead' doesn't always mean dead but I've never taken any interest in writing about them myself. I think my aversion to that stems from a need to keep my art from devolving into a hobby. So no Star Trek poems I'm afraid.

Rachel Fox said...

Oh well...I'll just have to write one then and it will be so bad (I'm not a fan despite my beloved's attempts to convert me long ago..) that you will be appalled and have to write one to show me how it's done!
I'm not sure I have a division between arts and hobbies in my wonky world. To me it's all a galaxy far, far away perhaps (wrong sci-fi, right sentiment...)

Willy said...

Hillbilly Willy loves criticism as long as they don't say something bad.

10-4 Willy

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