When I walk Duncan the Dog, he reads tree bark the way I read books. He’s not interested in the tree itself, only the messages left by his canine tribe. I don’t know what he learns from his sniffing, maybe something like “Oh, that old lab was here today and that little Pomeranian is pregnant. Wow!” His own signature is writ in urine.
Critiquing poetry is much the same, though we write in ink and sweat, not pee. We don’t judge the poet, only the work. We neither defend nor prosecute the “tree.” It’s what’s on the bark that matters.
Today the critique group to which I belong, Gamuts, will share a potluck lunch and review a poetry manuscript. It works this way: the poet du jour has assembled her manuscript to the best of her ability. She has included a title page, a table of contents and the full text of each poem on a separate page. She has numbered the pages. She will have handed out print copies of the manuscript weeks ago. The rest of us will have read the work at least twice and written comments on the pages.
First we talk about the collection as a whole: the themes, style, structure of the book. We pretend the writer is not at the table, sipping her wine and crunching her salad. She’s eating and she’s listening and taking notes. After discussing the larger elements, we work through the poems one at a time, looking for fresh, precise language, rhythm, structure within the poem. What I like someone else mourns. We look for leaners–poems too weak to stand alone outside this manuscript. We name the keepers and the cuts, the pets and the mutts. We remain civil and somewhat objective. Objectivity challenges us because we often know the backstory of a piece and may not be alert to what a stranger needs to get the news.
Most of all we don’t lift a leg to offend the poet because each of us at some point will be the tree.