In a critiqual condition

I’ve recently been asked to read and give feedback on other poets’ work quite a lot. I love doing this – it is always an honour when someone chooses to share work-in-progress with you, as it’s a very exposing thing to do and means they are trusting you with something very precious. You also learn a lot about poetry from critiquing other people’s poems – you learn from what they’re doing better than you or differently from you, but, as it’s always easier to spot flaws in other people’s work than your own, you can arguably learn the most from their mistakes, because you are almost certainly making them in your own work, as well.

There are some pieces of advice that I find myself giving over and over again, to poets of all levels of experience, writing in a wide range of different traditions. This is what they are:

Make sure you haven’t gone into Poetry Voice

Example: “I do not behold the solar orb in the welkin without thinking on your visage”

We all want to be thought of as poets.The trouble is, sometimes we end up sounding like poets circa 1790. Or, even worse, like a very unconvincing 1790 poet tribute act.

Your poetic voice doesn’t have to sound exactly like your normal voice when you’re down the pub with your mates, but it really shouldn’t sound like you’re nervously doing a telephone interview with Wordsworth, Keats and Christina Rossetti and you’ve put on your Hyacinth Bucket voice in a bid to impress them.

Avoid archaism, unless you have a very, very good reason for using it,and choose words for precision, not for obscurity or difficulty. Does “visage” bring anything to the party that “face” wouldn’t, or “behold” that “see” wouldn’t? If not, use the simpler word.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is “Use contractions wherever you can (e.g. say “don’t” instead of “do not” and “we’ve” instead of “we have”) and avoid relative pronouns (“that”, “who” and “which”, e.g. say “The man I love”, not “The man who I love” and “The night we met”, not “The night that we met”).”

Make your voice sound natural and conversational, not stilted and tryhard.

Don’t provide a simultaneous translation with your imagery

Example: “The ground was covered with a soft white blanket. It had been snowing.”

We know it had been snowing. Your metaphor already made that perfectly clear. You don’t need to explain it again for the hard of thinking. Trust your own imagery. Trust your audience.

And if your simile or metaphor doesn’t make clear whatever point it is you’re trying to make without further exegesis, then you need to ditch the simile or metaphor and find a better one.

Go easy on the imagery

Example: “My heart is a balloon, a shaken-up pop bottle, an overstuffed pillow
and my heartbeat is a dripping tap, my breaths now coming as fast as a jaguar”

Yeah, yeah, we get the point – your heart is full to bursting point – but did you really have to tell us three times? And pillows, taps and jaguars are just too disparate ideas to pile up together – they send the reader’s brain off down too many lines of inquiry simultaneously. They introduce fuzziness and imprecision where poetry should be about clarity.

This is, I admit, a case of “Physician, heal thyself.” Do as I say, not as I do, okay?

Don’t use mixed metaphors

Example: “My heart is a balloon which died when you shattered it with a hammer”

A balloon can’t “die”, as it’s inanimate, and it “bursts” or “pops”, it doesn’t “shatter”.
If you start off comparing your heart to a balloon, don’t change it midsentence into an animal and then into a sheet of glass. Finish off one metaphor before starting the next.

Or, as a metaphor mixer would say: don’t change horses until your chickens have hatched.

Even better, only use one metaphor in the first place.

Yes, the example I gave was truly terrible poetry, whereas some of the mixed metaphors I see when critiquing sound very beautiful until you start trying to think them through. And, as with all “rules” in poetry, this one isn’t unbreakable – there are some greater poets than I who mix metaphors and do it with style. But 99% of the time, mixed metaphors don’t work.

Know why you are placing the line breaks where you are, especially where enjambement is involved

Some poets say you should always begin and end a line with a significant word, preferably a noun or a verb, and that beginning or ending a line with a function word (e.g. the, on, and) is a no-no. I once tried adhering to this rule and I lasted about 20 minutes – it was impossible to construct poetry that made any sense if I was always avoiding function words in inconvenient places and a cursory glance at the work of almost any significant poet I could think of revealed that they often began or ended lines with “and” and “the”, too. It’s not a rule you have to follow. It is, however, a useful thing to think about, in my experience.

Enjambement (starting a new poetic line in the middle of a sentence) can be used for the following reasons:

to throw emphasis on the word placed at the beginning or end of a line
e.g. The bus stopped. I got on. Trembling,
clinging to the handrail.

If I had started a new line after “on”, not as much emphasis would have been thrown on “trembling”.

to create a cliffhanger
e.g. The bus stopped. I got on. Trembling, clinging to
the handrail

Here, the enjambement has been used to keep the reader guessing what you’re clinging to

to create a sense of unstoppable excitement or momentum
e.g. The bus hurtled round
corners and slalomed
its way down Strawberry

Here, the enjambement, the way that the poetic line cannot contain the flow of the sentence, reflects the way that bus is moving with unstoppable speed.

to create ambiguity
e.g. I bought her a gift. Roses
were growing in the garden
where I gave it to her.

Here, the enjambement has been used to trick you into thinking the gift is roses.

Remember that any feedback given is an optional suggestion – it’s not a law which you have to follow, nor is it a terrible insult, about which you should feel aggrieved

I’ve been very bossy in this blog entry, but that’s not because I think I’m a world expert who has all the answers. This is just a subjective opinion. You don’t have to follow it. It’s entirely possible (indeed, very probable) that I’m talking through my arse here or teaching my grandmother to suck eggs. And, even if my advice is helpful to some poets, it may not be the right advice for you.

It’s difficult, when critiquing, to know how honest or how detailed to be, because you worry about offending people. Generally, though, I try to be as honest, but as constructive and as detailed, as I can, unless the poet has specifically instructed me otherwise, but always stress that it is an opinion only and they are free to ignore it. It is annoying, though, when people ask for advice and then get offended when you give it.

When the boot’s on the other foot, I always try to listen to and consider advice, but I don’t feel obliged to accept it. Sometimes I agree with what they’ve said entirely; sometimes I think about it, but disagree at the time, then six months later realise that they were right; sometimes I respect what they’ve said, but feel strongly that I had a reason for putting it like I did and it’s non-negotiable.

If I ever start thinking, “The cheek! How dare they say that? Who do they think they are? It’s not like they’re the greatest poet in the world,” then I try to check myself. If I don’t rate them as a poet, I shouldn’t have asked for their opinion in the first place – the fault is mine, not theirs. Don’t ever show people your work in the expectation that they will say, “Oh! But that’s wonderful! You’re so good!” Feedback can be painful and I don’t always like it, but it does me good.