Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Power of Critique

If you connected some dots through my last few posts, you realized that it is only as we let ourselves be critiqued that the fullness of the creative act emerges--not to mention our personality and character. It is in dialogue with the audience, the readers, and viewers, who always see more than you do, or at least other things than you do. And it is in dialogue with others that our true self emerges.

I regret when some do not accept this process, whether in their personal lives or their creative exploits. Everyone is diminished. But that’s life. We are either closed or open, any given hour.

But this is an hour to be open! No one has braved the critique process, but I’m going to forge ahead and give you my revised version. Or maybe you are just backed up on blog reading…in which case, you might want to read this post first, then come back here.

Here's a snapshot of the questions and comments that flew around my head in the writer’s group as they critiqued the Egret poem; remember, I'm not allowed to respond unless it's in response to a direct question (so I put my reactions in parentheses!):

“Does an egret have yellow feet?”

(Um…I think so….)

“Yes, I googled ‘egrets’--some species do.”

(Whew…saves me the research.)

“'Lucky and positive I feel' sounds like Yoda-speak.”

(Oh yeah…now that you mention it…can that work?! Too artificial?)

"I like it when it rhymes better!”


“I really like the line ‘full of grace and light’.”


“What if you drop the first stanza and begin with 'Look at the haunted ones'?”


“It really bothers me that you don’t have a verb in the last line…”

“I like that she doesn’t have a verb!”

“Does she need one?”

“Maybe a punctuation mark, to clarify….”

“Oh! NO! No punctuation, just a blank space, and then into the next line, no verb!”


Well, I gathered the comments and went home to examine and revise. And found the fundamental weakness, decided to keep a loose rhyme scheme, and sorted out my mixed metaphors. Oops...just see a mistake...ok, correcting...and here is the latest result:

Egrets are in the air—
white with yellow eyes.
Lucky and positive I feel—
full of grace and light.

Look at the haunted ones—
with yellow eyes and feet—
white with fear it seems,
and thoughts they dare not speak.

Egrets are in the air—
white with yellow eyes.
They glide above the mud flats—
I feel my own heart rise.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Egrets are in the Air!

Recently I brought a poem to my writer's group for critique—a simple poem, easily accessible, one I wrote at least 3 decades ago, and that didn’t have any great meaning to me. I just liked it, and thought it would be a good one to start off my second manuscript. I really just wanted to ask the question: which do you like better, the rhymed or the unrhymed version?

The almost unanimous, and not unexpected, answer was: rhymed! Dang. That is just not the way contemporary poetry is going, folks, but I'll think about it.

Anyway, as the critique group asked questions, it became clear that I had bigger fish to fry. Layers of meaning emerged with each question, a metaphor suddenly popped out at me that I had missed entirely, and I was on the verge of an epiphany...agh!!! This poem was supposed to be almost complete!

I took a deep breath and steadied myself as the questions continued. (Rule #1 of crtiquing is: defend your poem, not yourself. You have to justify craft, not your reason for being or your belief systems. If you feel yourself getting angry, your critique group is probably hitting a nerve; rant and rave at home, then get back to work on the poem!)

So the questions and suggestions continued (and my critique group is very gentle and kind, just to reassure you). What others were seeing in the poem astonished me. What I felt, thought and was experiencing those days when I wrote the poem fell out of some closet in my heart as they probed, and I felt quite vulnerable. It’s one thing to put oneself out there intentionally in writing (good writing is all about transparency, right?). It’s quite another when you don’t even know what you're talking about--and you're the author!

I had to clarify a central metaphor I didn't even know I was using. I had to explain the 30-year-old epiphany; I didn't know the first thing about epiphany when I wrote the poem. I kicked myself for not catching all this before coming, but this is why I belong to a writer's group. Blind spots, ego, impatience to finish something that just won't quite cooperate...any of those battles sound familiar to you?!

Finally I was left speechless, and had to admit to the group that I honestly didn’t quite know myself what the poem meant, and we all had a good laugh.

Well, I survived, and the poem finally ‘dawned’ on me. I literally discovered it 30 years after writing it. (And my heart sank a bit as I thought about revising something I thought I was finished with.) So don’t worry if you don’t think you ‘get’ a poem—sometimes the poet doesn’t either!

I am back to the drawing board, looking at this poem in light of the new insights, to see what I need to change. I’m kind of eager to get to it, though, to see if the process will reveal anything else. Care to join me?!

The title of the post is the first line of the poem…so let’s have a little fun here, and let me give you the original poem, and next week I'll show you what I did, if anything. You may not know the first thing about poetry, but you can probably tell me what works and what doesn’t work, where you get lost, don’t understand, what you like and don’t like. There’s a couple of problems with it, that maybe you’ll find along with my critique group. But how much revision does it really need?! That is the question...have a go at it, and I’ll be back next week with my conclusions!

Egrets are in the air—
White with yellow eyes.
Lucky and positive I feel—
Full of grace and light.
Look at the haunted ones—
White with fear it seems,
With yellow eyes and feet—
With thoughts they dare not speak.
I want to humanize.
Egrets in the air.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, produced in reaction to Spanish Civil War, is a great example of artwork that could be dismissed as self-expressive indulgence. It repulses; the work is grotesque and ugly. You may hate it and denounce Picasso as a fraud, saying: “My five-year-old can do better!”

This post might change your mind.

"Guernica" was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, in Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War--following a directive by the Spanish Nationalist forces. Picasso, living in Nazi-occupied Paris, was outraged, and painted it out. Then the Gestapo came around one day, in their harassment of the artist. One officer, seeing a photo of Guernica in Picasso's apartment, asked him, "Did you do that?"

Picasso's response: "No, you did."

The work went on to gain incredible status and an international anti-war symbol. It helped bring the Spanish Civil War to the world's attention.

Ever since hearing this story, Guernica has captivated me. I love what Picasso said with it--in three words. The piece communicates what no history book could. And as 'ugly' as it may seem visually, I can no longer see it that way, but as something beautiful in what it communicated.

And I have relived that experience countless times, as I’ve talked with artists, writers and poets. I do not always ‘get’ their work, but when I start talking about it with the artist, I am routinely captured. Sure, there are the narcissists, the arrogant, and the egocentric artists out there, but most of the time I hear humility, sensitivity, process and depth.

So, have I convinced you? Ready to get out there and talk to an artist?!

If you don’t already do this, by all means, start! Poetic awe awaits you...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Desperately Seeking Transcendance

Not knowing the boundaries between public art vs. private art, self-expression vs. art for public consumption, has created unfortunate rifts between the artist and the non-artist, and the artist and the church—rifts not easily bridged. The artist seeks expression, venue, acceptance; the non-artist is avoiding a rant, propaganda, manipulation. Lines are blurred between pursuing craft and pursuing the heart, as if this were an “either/or” and not a “both/and” situation.

In my first few art classes, I learned no techniques, but was encouraged to simply ‘express myself.’ For someone who didn’t know where to point the pencil, I was intimidated; putting that first mark on paper, whatever paper, and not knowing the least thing about composition, I wondered, how does one express oneself? I craved guidance, eventually dropping out of all classes. (I found my answers through some books.)

In poetry workshops, I noticed how high the drop-out rate was as soon as we moved from expression to craft. Not many wanted to meter a poem, or have it critiqued; they simply wanted to ‘express’ themselves. Now I love poetry, but I do not enjoy the Hallmark card variety, the self-expression that is often a soapbox, or propaganda poetry. I get bored when people rant, whether at the dinner table or in a poem. Dont' you?

Those I talk with who hate art and the art world are usually reacting to the imposition of the rant, egoism and manipulation, the normal reactions of any human being to such tactics.

Others disengage with a passive, polite and tepid, “To each his own. Art is a matter of taste.”

Well, yes and no. There are criteria.

I know many who wouldn’t dream of sharing what’s in their art journals; others want their expressions hung in a museum, though no skill was involved in producing them.

Propaganda has its place, as does self expression--a critical place in fact. But aren’t we all satiated with pop culture and self-expression? Don’t we all crave transcendent work?

To get there, excellence in craft is as vital as self-expression. I want both fine art and expressive art, believe both are vital, and know there is place for each in this wide world. Fine art is judged by its technical skill as well as its expression. Expressive art, if it is “judged” at all, is certainly not on its technical skill, but valued for its process in healing the human heart.

The drill is “Show, don’t tell.” Knowing when to blast and when to suggest is key to successful poetry or art. My vote is for discretion, discrimination, critique, and humility.

Rant over :)

Friday, November 4, 2011


Well, look what I found a nanosecond after I posted the last post..a review of Beautiful and Pointless, A Guide to Modern Poetry, by Daniel Orr, a poetry critic. I know, it's taken me more than I nanosecond to post, but here it is, just in time for your weekend surfing...

And an excerpt to warm you up:

"Orr claims that most people not deeply familiar with poetry assume that the form is a personal enterprise and that poets are mostly in the business of baring their souls. It is therefore considered akin to an act of cruelty to be a critic of poetic self-expression. 'Is it any surprise that an art form whose conventions are largely unknown, and whose practitioners often seem to be addressing themselves, has come to be seen — by lay readers, anyway — as presumptively personal?' Orr asks, 'As something it seems cruel to criticize?'

"But poetry isn't actually all that personal. It might seem to be so from all the personal statements contained in poems. That's an illusion, though. Poetry, Orr claims, uses the language of personal revelation as a vehicle for getting across images and ideas. We are thus under no obligation to coddle the sometimes painful personal material of poems. We are free to address them as poetic acts, playing with form and language that, seen in the proper context, have their own rules for success and failure. The first misunderstanding duly dispatched, Orr is now free to dig deeper into the mystery that is contemporary poetry."

And if you want something else to do this weekend, jump into the November Poem A Day Chapbook Challenge. Who knows what epiphanies might come tripping out of your mouth?