Critics of Australian Poetry

I must confess that I read quite a few poems in the passage of each year. I subscribe to and read a number of literary journals and occasionally buy volumes of poetry, especially new releases from poets I respect or have grown to love; for example, I ordered a new volume of Valerie Volk’s poems yesterday. I also borrow books of poetry from my local library from time to time, usually as the mood moves me.

I also write a moderate amount of poetry in the course of a year. I have never counted the poems I have written but a list must run to many hundreds, maybe 500 – 600 or so over the last 50+ years. I started writing poetry at high school. During that time I have also had many dozens of poems published in a wide variety of journals, magazines other places. As well I have on occasion been asked to perform my poems in public. I have self-published nearly a hundred of my haiku and poems on this site here. Several of my poems have won awards too.

Over the years I have written some reviews of books I have read, but rarely have I reviewed poems or books of poetry. This morning I was alerted to a major critique of the state of reviewing and critiquing poetry at present in the Australian scene. In his article “The Poet Tasters” Ben Etherington reviews the state of literary criticism of the current and recent crop of books of poetry, and finds them sadly deficient. He compares them to the lofty heights of general literary criticism – mainly novels.

The poetry critic is a different creature, evolved within a different ecosystem, whose resemblance to most critics of fiction is not much closer than honeyeaters to chickens.

The problem, as I see it, and as Etherington points out, is the result of economics. It is well known that a handful of novelists in Australia can make a modest living from their craft, but poets generally are their poorer cousins – much, much poorer.

The art form subsists in an economy of university posts, writing courses, postgraduate scholarships, literary prizes, government grants, fellowships, philanthropy and, above all, self-funding.

In the article he goes on the critique the critics, quoting extensively from a representative sample of them and concludes that the critics are far too effusive in their praise, and far too lacking in deep, incisive criticism. I confess that I too usually fall into this trap when reviewing, preferring to err on the side of praise than appear to be too harsh. I can think of only one exception where I was quite blunt and in direct opposition to the vast chorus of praises heaped upon the novel The Slap which I found written in a lazy and offensive manner.

Over coming months I do intend reviewing – and even critiquing – a number of volumes of poetry I have read in recent times. I must remember to not just end up praising the works but also digging a little deeper.

Further reading:

Writers and their critics

“Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics
is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.”

~ Christopher Hampton

The writer of the above  quote has obviously had a few poor, perhaps even devastating experiences with critics. His statement is therefore quite understandable.

Over the years I have had a few critics of my writing. Nothing as distressing as to make a statement like that, but disappointing at the time. The important thing about critics is one’s reaction to their criticisms. Most writers I suspect are like me and have a difficult time remembering that the critic is talking about your writing, not you. To depersonalise the criticism and then to take a cold, hard look at the criticism is often the path to becoming a far better writer.

This idea has been drummed into me over the past year while  I have been working on my Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Most pieces of writing, be that non-fiction, fiction or poetry, that we were asked to produce had to be presented at a workshop. The lecturers, tutors and fellow students were the critics. Having your writing critiqued like this was very confronting at first.

After a few sessions I became very comfortable with the process. I quickly discovered that I could no longer be precious about what I wrote. If ten other people are all saying that something stinks, I’d better rewrite it. We often get too close to our work. It becomes ‘our baby.’ How dare anyone say anything negative about it!

If, however, only one or two people say something is not working, I learned to listen, look at the issue raised and then make a decision on whether I needed to rewrite. Often I would make minor changes, sometimes I went with my gut feeling and left it unchanged. The final decision was always mine as the author.

Critics and critique groups can play a very important role in helping writers  improve the quality of their writing. I’d encourage all writers to find one or several trusted people they can use to critique their work. Family and close friends are not recommended, unless they are writers themselves. Unless they truly understand what is at stake they are better left out of the equation until the work is published. Then encourage them to buy a copy.

Good writing.