I recently submitted a poem to a contest based on votes from readers. Then I sent an email asking friends and acquaintances to read it and vote (or not) on the contest website.
‘On The Road Past Thrumsing La, Bhutan’s Wild Mountain Spirits’ reflects my impressions about nature, mountain spirits, and “foggies” encountered while riding across Bhutan with Dochen, my friend and driver. It starts like this:
‘many, many foggies’ says my driver, grinning
as we enter soup-thick cloud along the bluff
below the pass called Thrumsing La
Dochen has that way of speaking English,
so jovially therapeutic
he sets the tone for what’s an otherwise long rough mountain ride across Bhutan
up-down-around the twisting road . . .
Some voters posted complimentary remarks: “Wonderful!”
“I appreciate the wealth of life and place you develop with this poem”
“Oh, thank you for taking me on that winding ride through bright and varied vistas, and allowing me to experience the joyful Dochen and sacred encounter of the ‘foggies’” and “In reading your poem I could feel and sense what you saw with your eyes. Very beautifully done...” Thank you, kind readers!
Then an email came from a critical reader, a stranger, rejecting the poem outright in rather broad strokes. Now mind you, not everyone may like the poem, but severely negative criticism is exceptional. “Darling,” he began, then went straight to the point (with bad grammar, syntax, spelling and spacing, and many ellipses...):
“Its useless.It posses not any poetic qualities. [...] Common sense and common rules are missing... To vote and win is not what a true poet practice. ”
“I am a poetry teacher and my students compose better than these,” he wrote. “Only emotion and feelings donot make poetry. There has to be a balance of intellect, playfulness, careful use of assonance and alliteration, pun, stress,.[...].Better luck next time.”
I replied: “better than these’ is highly subjective. Every poet has his or her own muse, style, quality, emotion, result. It is a lot like viewing modern art. Some like it, but someone else thinks it trash. It is all subjective...”
In return he called me “darling” again, then while laughing in my face he turned spiteful:“It is not so much easy darling... to write a trash, plagiarize from net, and trying to do publicity for getting some awards is not modernity... first read yourself..your interest...your mind...your intuition...your inner reality... then only at your old age come to me and say that u are in the process of becoming a poet... there i shall agree with u.Not now.”
Accusing me of plagiarism is the ultimate put down, a very blunt weapon. (Who is this guy!)
What’s needed instead is sincere advice and constructive commentary. Show me where and how to make imiprovements or explain techniques that might enhance the creative outcome.
And I must ask: Can poetry be taught? Did Byron, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Devkota, or Robert Frost take lessons?
And what, precisely, is a poem, to be so critical of one? “...no one ever has come up with a satisfactory definition of poetry, just as no one can define music or art,” writes Frances Mayes in The Discovery of Poetry. “Those who want to proclaim what is or isn’t poetry have thankless work cut out for themselves. No umbrella is wide enough to cover the myriad versions, subjects, and forms,” she says. “If a poem interests you, better to just go along with Walt Whitman’s assertion, ‘...What I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you’.”
And the moral is? - Several. But none advises quitting. Writers and other creative artists must have thick skins and be prepared for rejection (every writer’s soulmate). It’s easy to trash a poem, and though difficult it is far more helpful (and positive) to suggest ways to improve it. My critic’s only good advice is his very last, a recommendation to one and all: “Keep on trying to write.”
Don Messerschmidt is a contributing editor to ECS Nepal magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read the entire poem about Bhutan (and judge for yourself) on his blog ‘Himalayan Snows’ at dmesserschmidt.blogspot.com.
Then vote for it at writelink.co.uk/springfever/entryDetail.php?id=114.
You can see Frances Mayes’ book, The Discovery of Poetry (2001) at
www.HarcourtBooks.com. As ‘A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems’ it is an excellent primer.