Welcome all – today I’d like to introduce someone you may already know, Julie Watkins (Carys), a fine poet, critiquer, teacher and a long-time admin on our Crit Board Facial Expression Poetry Circle. She has an important aspect of the Craft to discuss today. Over to her…
First of all I want to thank the folks at d’Verse for giving me the opportunity to contribute to Meeting the Bar: Critique and Craft.
I’d like to look at an aspect of poetry that crops up again and again on critique boards – that of tackling big topics such as life, death, love, relationships, war, the passing of time, etc. All of these topics have been written about extensively in poetry over the centuries. Our job as poets is to present these universal themes in a new light, to find fresh and interesting ways to look at them, a new perspective that our readers can identify with. One way of doing this is to change our thought processes and instead of approaching them in a frontal way, to focus instead on an object of interest or intrigue that will draw our readers in. When I begin reading a poem I look for an ‘in’, a ‘hook’, a way of placing/orientating myself in the poem and therefore connecting with it. As a reader I have a pretty low attention span and if a piece hasn’t hooked me in the first few lines I tend lose interest very quickly.
So as an example, let’s say I was looking to write a poem about relationships. I might start with something fairly innocuous and seemingly uninteresting – a brick wall perhaps. Small bricks (some smooth, some with a few rough edges) held together with mortar to make a big strong wall. The bricks could represent the various people in my life, some close to the brick in the centre, some further away. The mortar could represent the relationships/friendships that bind us together. Over time the mortar, if neglected, can dry and crack, bricks become loose, some fall out of the wall, break on the floor. Moisture may get in, this could represent sadness which would undermine the strength of the wall. I may, at some point, need help to repair/support/rebuild the wall. So something as ordinary as a brick wall can be a very powerful metaphor for relationships.
One poet who uses this poetic device to great effect is Billy Collins. Collins has been the US Poet Laureate and has held the position of New York poet in situ. As Poet Laureate, he instituted the program Poetry 180 for high schools and has been instrumental in raising the profile of poetry within the educational system. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to communicate the profound by focusing on the minutiae of everyday life. The first poem I read of Collins’s is a wonderful example of this, and in fact had an incredible impact on the way I write poetry. The Lanyard is a poem about how much we owe our mothers – for giving us life, for feeding us, nurturing us, protecting us and sending us out into the world with the tools we need to survive, but instead of tackling it head-on, Collins chose to focus on a lanyard (a woven rope or chord) that he had made at camp as a young boy.
The Lanyard ~ Billy Collins
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past —
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
I recently wrote a piece about loss – about how when we’re suffering a tremendous loss, be it physical/emotional/psychological we worry about making others feel uncomfortable. We often cover up our loss, even if it’s painful and distressing to ourselves, adding to the difficulty. We lose sight of what’s important. I did this by making the piece about losing something physical, an eye.
after all, who wants to look
at a gaping pink pit
where brown beauty once lay.
Evisceration so visible –
a patch perhaps?
Would draw too much attention,
never welcomed, certainly unwanted now.
No, better this way;
barely discernible at a distance,
a double take followed by
an embarrassed look away.
The biggest tragedy
not the loss of asymmetrical loveliness
but the vision that once lay behind it.
So, this week I’d like to offer you the opportunity to link a poem that tackles one of these big themes. You may want to link an old piece that you feel you have tackled head-on and would like some pointers about how to make it more accessible to the reader, or perhaps you’d like to post something new that you’ve written using some of the suggestions I’ve mentioned above.
Thanks Julie, wonderfully informative and important discussion. I might add that if you have a poem that isn’t tackling a big theme, that’s OK too. What I would like to stress, however, is we are aiming increasingly at participants beginning to offer even just a little critique on one another’s work, though if this still feels uncomfortable/beyond your reach, please comment in the normal way.
A brief reminder:
▪ Use tact.
▪ Know that all critique is meant in the best interests of the poem, and never directed at the poet personally.
▪ State points as opinion, never fact.
▪ Be objective as possible.
▪ Be honest.
▪ ‘Sandwich Technique’ – useful – start with what you thought worked/what you liked, move on to aspects you felt could be improved on, and finish with an encouraging overall comment that extrapolates the positives.
As you can appreciate, it takes quite a bit of time for us to offer in-depth critique, so please note: the Mr Linky will only be open for 24 hours, rather than the usual 33. Helping me at the bar this evening are – with Julie – Avril Yospa and Christi Moon, both also Crit Board admins and fine poets.
So folks, bar is open…