(About a 7 minute read)
I think it can be reasonably argued that Robert Bly — when he was active — was the greatest American critic of poetry of at least his day.
Surely to read a collection of his powerful — yet gentle — criticisms could bring sight to the blind. And he made poetry exciting — could point out how a word, a turn of phrase, somewhat echoed in emotional intensity the plot twists in a Hollywood blockbuster.
But what Bly looked for in a poem above all else — what he demanded! whenever it was appropriate to demand it — was that the poem be truthful.
The truth it told could be great or small, important or trivial, but he had no use for poetic license if it significantly misled anyone, if it strayed into irredeemable falsehood. And that was at least in part the secret to his making poems exciting — as exciting as solving a mystery.
One of the two poems I have chosen to critique today is not an easy one to “get”. It was composed by my friend Ami, an about-to-become published author of a novel. Frankly, I’m not certain I can do it justice, since I am new to this game, and dare to embark upon criticizing poems despite that my only unqualified qualification for doing so is my determination to be as honest as I can be.
Yet, I am going to employ Bly’s standard: Her poem must tell a genuine truth, because I believe that is, in the case of both of her poems, a legitimate demand.
Last point. I am not, it turns out, a critic who can give a comprehensive review in anything less than a novel length essay. So — neither poem is going to get a comprehensive critique here. I’m just going to hit some high points.
Poetry is Nonsense
Let me tell you:
Poetry is nonsense.
I know. I’m a poet myself.
Yes poetry is nonsense:
It’s words strung together
— Sounds without meaning
All feeling and fury
And quick to decay.
Surely then the poet
Knows her bounds
Sticks to the ground like a bird
Too frightened to soar,
Yet still so willing.
I know, for I am a poet.
Believe me: I’ve been one
For a full three weeks.
Of the two poems I have chosen to critique this one is — as you will know — the easiest to “get”. I included it for two specific reasons, neither of which will surprise you. First, because of its humor.
The poem spoofs the poet herself, but I think it also quite gently spoofs all or most of us poets! As I see it, that is because poetry seems at one time or another to deceive nearly everyone of us into believing it is easy.
I won’t argue that here, although I have my own strong opinions about the notion poetry is “easy”. What I will mention is that the poem works as a spoof on all of us who do think in fact that it is easy, too easy. And it does so with gentle, but effective humor, which is charming.
Here’s the second thing I wish to mention about your poem. After establishing that the poet “knows her bounds” you describe her feelings as those of a bird…
Too frightened to soar,
Yet still so willing.
Do you see yet how that might tie into Bly’s standard that poetry be truthful? I know, given the context, the “What for?” is dismissive of that notion, but that is irrelevant here, is it not? The point is, if poetry is not truthful, then how can even a pretty poem be worth more than a gaudy little marble?
But your lines get better than that, don’t they? In fact, I’ll risk saying those three lines contradict in a visually compelling way the poem’s nominal theme: That poetry is nonsense. For we may ask, “What is the poet ‘too frightened’ of if not of failing to tell the truth?”
So I see a second joke in your poem, but a much more serious one than the first: Namely in a poem that does so much to spoof poetry as nonsense there lies almost buried three lines that, when dug out and placed on display turn out to be in some sense profoundly true while being poetry!
Not bad, in my opinion. Shows your conscious — or perhaps, your subconscious — talent for word.
A Strange Land
It’s been long since I last felt this
— this apart and this belonging,
so humble and proud in one.
I have spoken to men of science,
I have spoken to women of words.
I have spoken — a creature of silence
and I’ve been seen and heard.
And like a dream it’s over
and I emerge again to a world
where I’m a stranger, and walk alone
yet still in the heart am one.
The poem must be placed in context to be understood by anyone but those who have been clued into what that context is, and so that’s what I’m going to do right now for our readers.
Folks, Ami’s poem was composed soon after she attended a convention of people with similar interests as her. Moreover, prior to the convention she was lonely for the companionship of such people — scientists and “women of words”(authors like herself). So this poem can be understood as exploring such themes as what it might mean to one of us humans to be with “her own kind” after being without such companionship for seemingly ages.
Having said that, we might ask, “Does the poem ring true?” Does it express a truth?
Well, I think it’s obvious that — understood in it’s proper context — it does indeed express a truth. Which leads quickly to follow-up on that with, “But how well does the poem actually communicate that truth — even after being placed in context?”
Of course, poetry is not prose, so we cannot demand that it shovel meaning at us in just as straight-forward and decisive manner as the purest prose, but I do believe we can fairly request that it shovel some sort of meaning at us, unless it is simply intended to show off the beauty of certain words when strung together — in which case, perhaps, it is more music that poetry.
To me, the most striking passage in the poem is the first stanza. You meet your “kind”, who most of them are more accomplished than you, and thus humble you. But, you also recognize that you, too, are nevertheless one of them, and that makes you proud. How cannot those two feelings — humility and pride — be other than a bit striking when so thoroughly entwined by some very good word choices?
I also find an overall hint of sadness in the stanza, brought on no doubt by, “it’s been long since…”, and effectively reinforced by a noticeable lack of any reference to how happy you are to see everyone.
But the next stanza no only rhymes, but swings, which gives it the missing burst of happiness without coming right out and stating, prose-like, “I’m happy now!” I like that. I like that a lot. Poetry should do such things whenever appropriate.
For me, the last stanza is more problematic. I would say it is muddled or confused, but those words are too strong and too harsh for what I mean here. I can’t express my thoughts about it better than to say, it is as if you polished up the first two stanza’s to a gloss, yet left the last stanza as a matte.
Now, Ami, to me the greatest weakness of the poem — besides the last stanza — is not necessarily a weakness. Rather it is a matter of choice, of taste. The emotions it stirs in me are like a very mild breeze, rather than a storm of feeling. And, of course, that looks intentional on your part.
But here’s why I dare question it: Would it not ring truer if you — deprived so long of the companionship of your kin (except for your husband, of course) — had expressed just how heady of an experience that was for you?
Even though I see that as a good criticism of your poem, I admit that, too, is a judgement call — for maybe you wished to show how reserved you are, or some other such thing.
All in all, I find this poem in the middle on my personal like scale. It is overall neither bad nor good, but it has elements of both qualities in it. A bit bad in the third stanza, a bit good in first two.
I would encourage you to do something. Since the event the poem is based on was so deeply meaningful to you, have a play at composing three or four more poems, experimental ones, and let each of your efforts use different words in an effort to see whether there is a better way of communicating your feelings here.
Does that make any sense?
I hope some of this has been helpful,
Here’s a link to Ami’s photography and poetry blog, Fractal Thoughts. She has an interesting style of photography, and interesting taste. Worth investigating.