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September 04, 2009


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Thanks for filling in this week, Jim, and thanks for this interesting and thought-provoking post. Thanks, also, for providing us with an example of courteous but diligent criticism that does indeed leave room for further discussion.

I think that responses to poetry in general, and this poem in particular, are so vehement because poetry demands that very personal investment by the reader. We must bring ourselves to the poem; that's part of what makes poetry live. So when we are disappointed by a poem, we take it personally - because in a weird way, it IS personal.

I think this can be extended to all art criticism. "Disinterested" criticism is difficult, because the experience of art requires the reader to put himself/herself out there, or maybe "in" there. How can the critic step back and look objectively at a work of art? I don't think he or she can. But maybe the critic, if he or she feels the blood and the temptation to make pronouncements for the ages rising, should ask himself/herself honestly, why am I responding so strongly? What chord does this piece strike in me that makes me want to shut the conversation down? Why am I so pissed off?

Hard to do. But really, what is the significance of an unsuccessful poem? It isn't going to bring the halls of contemporary literature crashing down on our heads. It's just a little poem that maybe didn't work. All poets - ALL - write poems that don't work. It isn't worth being mean about.

Also - it might help for some critics to remember that a person wrote the poem. It didn't just appear on the page in a mysterious cloud of ink. Someone wrote it - and, at the risk of sounding like the mom I am, how would these critics like it if someone ripped their work to shreds in public? There are ways to say poems don't succeed without resorting to viciousness.

Finally, I would refer anyone who is tempted to dismiss any poet out of hand to go read contemporary reviews of John Keats' work. Or Whitman's. Or Dickinson's. You get the idea.

Both Jim and Laura make very good points here, and certainly give respectful attention to Shaindel's poem -- Jim to what it says, and Laura to what it is.

At my point in life I find it very uncomfortable to speak ill of anyone's sincerely offered work, especially if there are clear vulnerabilities. Glib writers -- not necessarily more talented ones -- eliminate the targets and create well-fortified, dead texts. In that case, "I withdraw my attention and think on Tom Thumb." (Johnson)

A few things to consider:

In "The Dyer's Hand," Wystan Auden states that negative criticism should not be undertaken as it's always showing off.

In "Chronicles," Bobby D strikingly discovers something interesting in virtually every artist he mentions, whether it's The Royal Teens or the Kingston Trio. What! He doesn't show contempt for the Kingston Trio? "The Lybian lion hunts no butterflies." (Jonson)

Similarly, Charles "Yardbird" Parker once took the stage to sit in with a band that was being ridiculed by the audience. He told the players, "I see what you're trying to do."

As we tap our comments on our keyboards, let us see what a writer is trying to do. Let us also clearly see what we ourselves are trying to do, and inquire if it is worthy of our calling. Good evening.

Bravo, Mitch. Anyone who has ever tried to write a poem knows - or should know - how difficult it is to do. Creating art is an act of courage. As you say, the very least we can do is honor the attempt.

Thank you, Laura and Mitch. As you both know, in any given post there's so much to say, so little time; thanks for filling in some blanks and opening up other lines. I do believe that giving any poem serious consideration, even if one is critical of aspects of it, is a generous act.

This truly needed to be said -- and the comments from Laura Orem, mitch s., and Jim Cummins form a model of what a healthy dialogue can sound like. Bravo, I say.

Stan, thanks & I hope you keep feeling this way about the next couple of posts.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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This Way Out

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Ringfinger was nervous
Pinky terrified
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.



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