Critting the critters

Since my Arvon course last Octember I've been mainly focused on poetry rather than short stories or novels. I've parked my latest attempt at a novel, under the bed - I may come back to it, but there's no hurry.

I've always loved poetry and grew up on Charles Causley, W H Auden, T S Eliot and others, but until the Arvon course I was a little out of touch with contemporary stuff. That seemed remiss if I wanted to publish any more poems and I set out to rectify it. I subscribed to a mass of magazines and bought piles of poetry books. The advantage of heaping verse on your bedside table is that you can stack up a long list of poets before they topple. When you are gorging on novels, if you get up in the night for a pee and blunder against the unread pile you are likely to be killed by falling books, like felling a tree on top of yourself. Poetry is admirably slimline.

I've also engaged in poetry critting, both online and live. Now, there's a big difference between critting poetry and critting prose. Gathering criticism of poetry is easier because the critters can read the whole piece. Assuming you haven't written something the length of Don Juan, you can quickly amass twenty or thirty responses to your poem. Conversely, there's a limit to how many people are willing to read your entire unpublished novel, and you need to choose those people carefully. By the way, I'm trying to use the lovely word crit (and its variations) as much as possible today.

The quality of criticism I've been fortunate enough to find, is high, and the depth of analysis people are prepared to offer is astounding. But the thing it highlights for me is the oh-so-obvious-and-oh-so-easy-to-forget truth that so much is a matter of taste. When people criticise fragments of a novel that truth is obscured: the comments can usually only stretch to whether a scene works or how language is employed, rather than a holistic impression of the work. But with poetry, critters respond emotionally/aesthetically to the impact of the poem, as well as offering technical insights. And highly experienced and talented people have completely opposing views of the same poem.

I've noticed how different the comments are when one reads and critiques an entire novel - when you are able to make big points like, "I loathed your main character." I'm not certain whether this is an advantage or disadvantage for poets versus novelists, and I'd be interested to know what others think. It does mean that you can roadtest a poem to the point where you have a pretty clear view of what people make of it before you submit it to those who will ultimately decide its fate. That's much harder with the novel.


Caroline Green said...

Hmm, that's very interesting Rod. But my concern would be that I would get so many opinions, I'd just get bamboozled. I stopped posting work for online critting for that reason..but you seem to find it useful overall?

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Interesting, Rod. Made me think about the editing process, too - and whether it's easier to edit a poem because you can always see it in entirety? And do you come to it fresher too?

Fionnuala said...

I'm sort of with Caroline in that because of the shorter length of piece, I'd almost be scared that too many people have an opinion to offer. But I guess it comes down to the same thing - if more than one person says the same thing, it might be worth hearing? Only 'might' mind...

Roderic Vincent said...

I think there's an art to interpreting the feedback. It certainly helps to know who is giving it, and where they are coming from.

And Susie, yes, poetry editing is a joy compared with the novel. You can get the whole thing back into your head in three minutes and then work on it, unlike the distance problem with a novel. I sometimes work on each of a pile of poems in turn in one editing session, getting as far as I can with one and then moving on to the next.