Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Poem of the week, & thoughts on critique

Went out to an old friend's house yesterday evening to talk poetry and have some dinner. She lives on a hill out in the country, and as evening fell, a group of deer wandered down towards the pond. The dogs kept a close eye on them so we didn't have to worry about being attacked by marauding deer, though. Good dogs.

Anyway, we talked about workshopping/critique -- when it helps, when it doesn't. In my old writers' group, which this friend was a part of, we talked about "heart" and "craft" critique -- sometimes you just need to hear whether the piece rings true and can then feel empowered to go back and work on it, while hearing about line breaks or commas or whatever would be overkill and can sometimes paralyze you from wanting to work on the poem further; sometimes you need to hear about what's working or not with the craft, the mechanics of the poem. I no longer think it's quite that easy to separate out these two facets of how a poem functions, but for a long time it was a helpful way of talking about critique, and especially a helpful way of bringing beginners into a workshop setting.

What occurred to me last night was yet another way of categorizing critique: that which urges the poet to clarify, and that which urges the poet to complicate. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course, just as clarity and complexity are not mutually exclusive in a poem. But I've realized that when I feel frustrated and unsatisfied with critique, often it's because the people responding to the poem are thinking primarily in terms of clarity. I can push myself in that direction pretty satisfactorily; what I like to get from a workshop or critique group (I almost typed "critique grope" but that would be something else entirely) is a recognition of what is complex and mysterious in the poem, an exploration of where that complexity arises and where it leads the poem, and suggestions about how to nudge the poem further in the direction of its own mystery.

In both of the workshops I've had with D.A. Powell, he has quoted Rachel Zucker: "Revise towards strangeness." I think that is, in general, excellent advice.

* * * * *

I don't remember for sure which blogger recommended Nancy Pagh's book, No Sweeter Fat. Peter, was it you? Anyway, I'm quite grateful. I actually ordered it some months ago, but my book backlog is just crazy right now, and I've only just gotten around to reading it. There's some terrific stuff in here! This one is a little different from some of the other poems in the book, but I thought y'all might particularly appreciate it:

Among the Vegetarians
(apologies to WW)

Sometimes I would like to turn and live
among the vegetarians --
they are so placid, and so self contained.

They understand the eggplant's secret
firmness, the tabula rasa the bean curd is.

I contemplate them long and long.
Death does not linger on their breath.
The darker crevices
of their cutting boards are safe.

They exist without asking another
animal to kneel and spill itself.

The gentle eyes of the vegetarian
flash liquid revelations
to me and I accept them.

Theirs is an appetite to know and be filled
with the scallop the coho the razor
clam's dignity apart.

My hunger takes
the cream-white flesh of the halibut
the migrating eye of the halibut
the scythe-mouthed strike of the halibut
the graveled bed of the halibut
the cold gray sea of the halibut
in every bite.

It is incised, protean, unassuaged
by toast.

My hunger wants more than the halibut
and finds it in the halibut.

Believe me sometimes
I think if you were as much of this world
as the halibut
I would have to eat you too.

--Nancy Pagh
from No Sweeter Fat (Pittsburgh, PA: Autumn House Press, 2007)


Megan said...

Wow. Love that poem.

Peter said...

Yes, Anne, I think it *was* me.
Glad you liked it!

Jessie Carty said...

Everything about this post was great! I love the poem and the different types of critiques you mentioned above. Have you considered fleshing that out and/or proposing a possible article about that topic to a site like poetry foundation?

Great post.

jeannine said...

I am a Nancy fan too!

Anne said...

Megan: Glad you liked it! The book is pretty terrific.

Peter: Yay! Thanks for the recommendation.

Jessie: Glad you liked it! I don't know about an article ... maybe someday when I've got more time. Hm.

Jeannine: Yay! I'm glad to have discovered her.