A Bunch of Hypercrits

hitsgraphThe graph on the right is “unique visitors” to Rattle.com. I had to crop out the y-axis, but you get the drift. On Saturday morning we went from our usual 1,000 or so visitors a day (is that good or bad for a website? I have no idea) to 20,000, thanks to the snowball effect of online networking. A couple people recommended the poem at StumbleUpon, and “Death and Tacos” by Nathaniel Whittemore went viral.

I love it when that happens, as it did last summer with Brett Myhren’s “Telemarketer.” The only difference is, that poem was posted before I turned Rattle.com into a blog, so there was no comment feature. The tens of thousands of people who read the poem simply read it and moved on.  This time around, a small fraction (0.1%?) are tossing in their two cents.

Reading through the comments, it occurred to me that poetry is facing another epidemic not many people are talking about.  If WaLS is the Bird Flu, this is the common cold; a less debilitating disease, but extremely pervasive.  Or maybe it’s Herpes.  Out of 17 comments, about half describe what they like about the poem, while the other half bicker about line edits. It sounds like an undergraduate creative writing workshop: “I think the poem would be stronger if you cut line 22.”  “I trip over the syntax.”  “Show don’t tell!”

Part of me feels sorry for Nathaniel Whittemore, despite his sudden popularity — his isn’t the only poem that’s being critiqued at Rattle.com right now.  The rush of readers would have you think otherwise, but looking back at previous comments as a whole, across all the post, the trend becomes obvious — a large portion of the comments are always critiques.

And that word “critique” is very specific.  I think it’s one thing to express a negative reaction to a piece of writing — and those comments are wonderful, as far as I’m concerned — but it’s another thing entirely to pick at a poem and try to offer “constructive criticism.”  Who, in this setting, is received advice?  This is a poetry magazine, not a classroom.  The author is god-knows-where, not on the other side of a laminate table.

What compels us to do this?  It doesn’t happen with fiction or other arts.  No one reads a short story in The New Yorker and says, “The story was alright, but it would have been stronger if you cut the penultimate paragraph.”  No one looks at a painting by Mark Vallen and says the woman’s shirt should be red instead of blue.  Maybe you say that stories in The New Yorker are too straightforward and neapolitan, or maybe you say you prefer abstract art to realism.  But you never micromanage the artist.  So why does poetry produce so many backseat drivers?

Here’s my guess:  Poetry isn’t popular.  We encounter fiction and visual art everywhere we go.   It’s half of every bookstore; it’s hung on every wall.  Maybe the frame cost more than the print you bought in bulk at Target, but it’s there.   Poetry isn’t ubiquitous.  Even when we’re with friends who read poetry, we don’t talk about it much.

There’s only one setting in which we’re used to having a discourse about poetry:  the poetry workshop.  That’s the only social venue we have — whether the workshop is at a coffee house, in a college class, or online — and I think most readers of poetry have encountered a workshop at some point in their lives, for two reasons.  1) There’s nowhere in our society that poetry is pushed on people except those settings, and 2) the fact is, most poetry fans are poets themselves.

So I think we get used to speaking about poetry in the scripted way, talking about line breaks and imagery and so on, and have never really learned how to talk about it any other way.  Call it another symptom of academization, but we’re nothing but a bunch of hypercrits — I’m guilty of it myself much of the time.

And we lose something because of it.  The point of poetry isn’t the critique, it’s the poem itself.  It’s the spontaneous emotional and intellectual reaction to language.  To pick a poem apart is to muffle that reaction.  That’s not to say every poem is moving or interesting, of course, or that there is a proper objective reaction to any poem at all.  If you don’t like what you just read, that’s perfectly fine — say “yuck” and move on.  Just react.  There’s no need to dissect it, unless we’re actually in a workshop. Otherwise, what are we gaining from the critique?

Or to quote Edith Wharton, “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could probably have a pretty good time.”

8 thoughts on “A Bunch of Hypercrits

  1. You may have a point there. I have been thinking about running a class on form that would explicitly have NO criticism, NO feedback, and in which I would not even read the poems produced.

  2. Tim, as long as criticism is well-informed what’s wrong with it? I am not trying to give the poet advice on how to write; the poem has already been written and published. Criticism is intended for other readers of the poem, and to maybe encourage a discussion. I agree that the “spontaneous emotional and intellectual reaction” to a poem is important, but what creates that reaction? In my opinion the language and structure of the poem create it. If I read a poem with awkward line breaks and forced imagery then obviously my “emotional and intellectual reaction” (spontaneous or otherwise) will not be so great. Finally, I disagree with your point that other arts are not subject to critiques. Go onto IMDB and see what everyone has to say about films: there are millions of critics out there.

  3. That’s a good point, Cafais. There’s another level to what’s up, that just has to do with the nature of socializing on the internet. People just tend to be more critical and argumentative (less polite) in this medium. But still, there’s something about the emphasis on minutia that seems unique to poetry. People criticize movies on IMBD, but they’ll say something like, “I couldn’t stand the choppy cinematography” — they don’t often talk about specific scenes or lines that should have been cut, or specific camera angles they don’t like. Maybe that’s just because movies so much bigger than poems, but to me it seems like there’s something different here — it’s so scripted, the discourse. I’ve been in film classes and creative writing workshops — IMBD doesn’t feel like class, but poetry comments do.

    The problem with critiquing, I think, is that, as you can see with that poem, everyone’s got a different opinion, and different sensibilities. That’s not to say that all quality judgments are subjective — there are many many poems that are entirely uninteresting and unsalvageable. But with each poem I’m picking to publish, I’m trying to please a certain segment of readership — with the goal that, no matter who picks up an issue, they’ll find poems they like — the whole array of people, between those who never read poetry, and those who’ve been studying it there whole lives. So while there will doubtlessly be poems you don’t like, there will be people out there who like those poems in particular, and don’t like the ones you like.

    So unnecessary criticism seems like raining on someone else’s parade. And there’s a difference, I think, between saying, “I don’t like this style” and “This poem is no good.” A difference in tone. It’s better for everyone to encounter things with a poetic optimism.

    In his interview last summer, Marvin Bell tells a story about the first time he met Ginsberg — they’re walking as a group somewhere, and someone asks him, “What do you think of so-and-so’s new work,” with a tone implying that it’s not very good. Ginsberg says, “I haven’t read it, but whatever he’s doing, I’m all for it.”

    And I just wish more people had that perspective.

  4. Jenn–I think that’s a good idea. I’m editing our interview with Terrance Hayes right now, for the summer issue, and he talks about this:

    HAYES: I tell my students there are as many ways to succeed as there are to fail. The typical workshop suggests there are more ways to fail than to succeed and I just tend to not believe that.

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  6. The tens of thousands of people who read the poem simply read it and moved on.

    Some of us read it and then read it to friends, then bookmarked it so that we could find it and read it again.

    “I know what I like.”


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  8. In a course with Tom Daley last year part of the submission process involved his review of my critique on a poem chosen by him for this purpose. He wanted to be sure that participants were grounded in critique essentials which for me was a novel but important approach to workshopping. How much of critique involves opinion, taste or bias and how much do we really invest in discovering and analysing a poem? Tom requested that I write a paragraph detailing why and how the poem was working and then an additional paragraph offering ways in which the poem could be improved. I was asked to address the poem, not the author which demanded that I provide an analytical, almost detached response to the work. This was a major lesson in itself. Of course the subject here is about offering critique when it is not being solicited and I tend to agree with you that it is not the correct context for critical feedback. I think the poetry world is overcritical and it begins with the self and moves toward anything within target range. A prankster on an on-line workshop forum once posted a somewhat unknown poem by a famous author under a different name just to see what type of response it would receive. Most everyone had an opinion for improvement and it was on the whole a good albeit covert test of not only our tendency to try to improve on anything given the excuse to do so but that perhaps there are more great works that could be “improved” than not. Perhaps this obsession with perfection is in fact a flaw disguised as help. Maybe art needs to be less perfect and simply experienced for what it is.


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