There is much to be said for the maxim that the best way to learn is to teach. This remains true for the grand master and the novice, and everywhere in between.
But it brushes over something important: the pure enjoyment of digging into poems.
The only way to write well is to read, not only widely but deeply. A favourite poem almost certainly stands up to rereading. Mary Kinzie, in her book A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, advises that to really enjoy a poem on all its levels, we should read with one eye on how it was written. Ask, “why is that line there?” “What choice has been made by the poet?” The single read-through is only one way to experience a poem.
Sometimes I forget to read that way. A new book of poems spends an hour or two in my hands then sits on the shelf for another six months. So,lately, I have begun reviewing books for magazines. Nothing causes me to study a book to the same level as writing about it, thinking, “What is this poet really doing?” I’m never sorry to have done so.
When completing a first draft of a poem, there is a strong need look for assurance, one way or the other, that the poem is worthwhile. For many of us, an online community provides a welcome interim space, a testing ground or buffer zone before the poem is released into the wide world.
This is missing a trick. As poets, we all need to develop the faculties that allow us to self-critique, and have the confidence as well as the ability to know when our poems are ‘ready.’ This is where a feedback community becomes particularly useful. Not so much as a place to seek confirmation but as an area in which to keep our lust for poems fiery and our sensitivity to them sharp.
Can there be anything more enjoyable than spending time discussing the craft of poetry, its nuances and intrigues?
Which is ultimately why offering others critical feedback is not so much an act of altruistic generosity as enlightened selfishness. Perhaps it can occasionally feel like an obligation or chore, or like paying one’s way in order to be rewarded with feedback on our own work. In fact, the real rewards are manifold and often the reverse: to immerse ourselves in poetry and open ourselves to the observations this entails is probably the most rewarding way develop as a poet. Perhaps the only way to avoid being a naval-gazing, solipsist one.
Giving critical feedback to others, we learn how to receive it with grace. It shouldn’t sound grand or intimidating. I offer a professional critique service but no matte our level of experience, each of us should do this for someone. Poetry makes us think and feel. Let’s say so: how, where, even why.