How and How
by Kary Wayson
Yesterday I met separately with two different students—one a man who has been making poems daily, privately (i.e., without an audience or publication) for the past twenty years; the other, a much younger woman, relatively brand new to the whole idea of making poems, but wants to pursue poetry in a committed way. What I found interesting was that they both had the same two questions for me. One: How do I make my poems better? And two: How can I be an objective critic of my own work? (at which point, in both meetings, I wanted to jump on the wagon and say, Yes, tell me how!)
So, how do I make my poems better? Good question! And I do mean that as both a compliment and a shrug. As Anton Chekhov continues to remind us, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” And I really do believe that. Especially with poetry. We need poetry because of its aim to elucidate or even embody mystery without trying to solve it. Of your poem, I say this: Don’t try to wrap it all up at the end. Or at least that’s what I said to the gentleman—let your poems open out. Give me an image or a metaphor or a repetition or some sound play in order to let me (the reader) participate in the poem’s meaning/experience. Because that’s what poems do. They do not paraphrase themselves. They ask the reader to participate with them at a very high level. That’s why reading poems is harder than reading prose. In any case, I say resist the urge to sum up at the end—cultivating that resistance is one nearly surefire way of making your poems better.
The other advice is this: Read. Read poems! Read about poems! Read other stuff too! Then read more poems—and try to make those moves. Imitation is your best teacher, next to reading. Oh, and think of yourself always as an apprentice poet. The anxiety of influence be damned.
Which brings us quickly to this: how can I be an objective critic of my own work? (i.e. how can I discern if my poem’s any good?) That one’s easy: most of the time, and especially at the beginning, you can’t. That’s why poets need trusted readers—readers who are both honest and kind—to tell us what works and what doesn’t, and, even better, why. You can get this input most easily by taking classes—both workshop-style and generative classes—out of which I’ve watched, time and time again, the formation of writing groups that go on meeting and critiquing for years after a class has ended.
In the mid-nineties, I had to enroll in an expensive, time-consuming (and totally worthwhile [I’d do it again in a second]) MFA program in order to find the readers I needed. Nowadays, with places like Hugo House, massive online courses, week-long workshops, and low-residency creative writing programs, it seems easier than ever to find supportive criticism of your own work. Or you could make an appointment with me and I’ll try to tell you what’s what; that is, I’ll help you with ideas towards intelligent, creative revisions. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dispatches is a weekly posting on our blog that is written based on meetings that take place in our writers-in-residence office. Make an appointment with Kary for poetry critique by emailing her: email@example.com.