This rule I have for myself is one I had to embrace humility about. It helped that in college I had to sit in a group in creative writing class and have my poems critiqued by other students. At first, I thought the exercise was absolutely barbaric and unfair. How can anyone judge a poem? A poem is a free expression, a unique, emotional journey. How can anything be wrong with it?
The answer is: I have never met a poem I didn’t like, and I have never found fault with one. It’s not about a poem being wrong or right. It’s about how powerfully a concept is delivered, and if it can be made stronger.
Here is a poem I just finished a first draft on, and below I will relate some feedback I’ve had on it and why I am going to re-write it.
i once described a heart
broken into shards
with some of the pieces
they could never be repaired.
hearts are not glass
and they do not become
hearts can be broken
and made weak
but they are alive
and the cells shed
it may take a decade
but they heal.
The first thing I want to mention is that the glass-into-sand metaphor was never going to make the final cut because it’s too similar to a poem I have already written (and is posted on this blog). It was an effort to get an outline of what I wanted to say, so I could reword it later.
I ask my husband for his feedback on all my poems because he is also a writer and I respect his very constructive criticism. Ultimately though, regardless of the fact he is gentle and supportive, it is up to me to be able to hear criticism and use it rather than feel offended by it. I have grown better at this through the years and now I actually crave criticism of my work in the early stages from people I trust to tell me the truth.
My husband’s main feedback was that it has none of my passion. And I realized through that discussion that I’d gone too heavy on rule 4 (be ruthless in editing). I’d taken out too much of the extrapolation and lyrical language! So this is to be one of those times I have to go back and actually add more.
I’ve gotten a lot of constructive criticism by asking for it. Admittedly, people giving their opinion of my work in a judgmental way without my asking, it rankles a little. But even that I’ve grown more accustomed to. Opinions are everywhere, and I do have the discernment to choose whether or not it’s helpful to me.
My job as a poet is to share the beauty and power of words. All words are powerful, when put in a certain context. My aim is to create the context for them to shine. And sometimes that means I need a swift kick to see I can do better.
I want to honor words, and give them a place in a sentence, in a phrase, in a stanza, that really shows their strength. To that end, I ask for and listen to constructive criticism to hopefully better myself as a writer. So far I am enjoying this education in humility.
Humility, to me, is one of the cornerstones of being a poet.