The Ramblings of an Elephant Critic

There was an experiment done in which art critics were tested in deducing whether a series of abstract paintings were made by experienced artists or by elephants with paint brushes. They were able to correctly guess which was which 100% of the time. Years and years of training in an expressive field can hone your instincts in distinguishing when a work was done with skill and intent or when it was hastily slapped together, but given the illusion of being sophisticated. I’m not at that level. I’m the guy that scoffs at the art museum, “All she did was draw a circle on a red canvas. What’s so special about it?”

I’m not a poet. I don’t mean that in a meta philosophical way, along the lines of, “how could anyone consider themselves a poet if poetry itself is so subjective?” No. I mean, for real, I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m doing. My exposure to poetry seems to never be enough, no matter how much of it I read. More often than not, on any given poem, I’ll concede that I simply don’t confidently grasp the meaning.

My background is in fiction. Workshops often worked well with me for that medium: I know how to critique plots, or characters, or pacing or dialogue. With fiction, only the most allegorically-driven authors embed meaning in their works from the very beginning. For most others, meaning arrives naturally as the work progresses from the pen. Meaning becomes a consequence of structure, so the “meaning” of a fiction piece becomes a secondary (or often irrelevant) aspect to consider when critiquing it. When the author seeks to improve the structure, the meaning invariably changes along with it.

With poetry it’s not as simple. It comes in reverse: A writer has a sense of meaning in their mind that they very carefully set to words. Therefore, the meaning of a poem is integral to its identity, and the poet can only shift its meaning through structure if they feel as though the resulting meaning is still “true.” As someone who’s only just stepping into their first foray in workshopping poetry, I feel as though I’m wasting everyone’s time if I were to come into class without being able to gleam a clear summary of what a poem is trying to say. I couldn’t give criticism, “please make this more clear,” because some would say that poetry isn’t meant to be clear. I can’t try to fix someone’s structure, because poetry has no structure.

When a poem gets me frustrated from slopping writing, I have to second guess myself. Did the author intend to invoke frustration, from sloppy wording that was deliberately placed there? Like what Pablo Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Experienced poets, from the perspective of an amateur critic, seem to pride themselves on their abilities of misdirection and ambiguity. My lack of awareness drives me mad.

So, what am I trying to say after all of this? The fiction writer in me was hoping that I’d have organically developed something evident by now. Since that doesn’t seem to be the case, I’ll spell out the thoughts I had walking into this blog post: I genuinely can’t tell the difference between good poetry and bad poetry. Because of this, I find critiquing poetry immeasurably difficult.

One Reply to “The Ramblings of an Elephant Critic”

  1. There seems to be several strands of thought here: good poetry vs. bad poetry, intention vs. accident, and the idea of a meaning imbued in a poem. Those are interesting strands, but let’s suspend them for a second.
    Consider the poem on the page. The poem’s form and content intersect and create tension in one another. The most successful poems to me have strong arguments for why rhyme is in the poem, or why there are couplets, or why the Dalai Lama is brought up into a poem about chicken soup. As a reader, I have to suspend my moral judgements (goodness/badness) and make my judgements serve the purpose of the poem. If the poem is hinting at a loathing of the Catholic Church, I want to crack that motif open, and explore different facets of the Catholic Church. If the poem hints at exploring white space as a way for the words to attract/repel one another, I want to expand that idea.
    I’m in Fiction right now and I’m struggling with how to read these fiction pieces. There seems to be a lot of prose that seems extraneous, and the words aren’t as carefully selected as the words in a poem. It was really interesting to read your perspective as a fiction writer about poetry.
    Last thing: I love modern art. I also don’t make any claims of understanding it any more than the artist can. I can look back on art history and say, “This piece is referring to this movement/artist/idea”, but I can’t claim for certain. But sometimes, I can look at that really nice shade of red, say “That’s a really nice shade of red”, and that’s all I need to know. Maybe it would be easier for you to approach a poem that way, and keep practicing your critiques and learning about past poets. That’s my advice––but if I’ve taught you anything, hold that in suspension too.

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