Understanding AAPC

If you have read the FAQ, but still have a problem with some critiques or comments on aapc, it might be helpful to read through some of these saved posts. This is what some contributors have said about poetry and critique.

Pewter's (unauthorized) "AAPC for Dummies"

[Chapter 13: Troubleshooting]
  1. Symptom: Rude, vulgar, or just plain stupid comments.

    Causes: The poem is either exceptionally bad, or you are encountering a troll.

    Cure: Put ego on ice. If the poster limits their comments to the quality or nature of the poem, say thank you. Ask for details at your own discretion, but apply this chart to whatever answers you get.

    If the comments are personal attacks then ignore the poster, or indulge in a flame war. Be warned, flame wars almost always reduce the number of comments you will get.

    If there is any doubt about the nature of the comment, assume it was not personal, and proceed accordingly.

    Read some poetry.
  2. Symptom: Comments, short and to the point, often accompanied by rude suggestions to learn, study, or read some poetry.

    Causes: Poem is considered bad by poster. Poster is unwilling to spend the necessary time give a line by line critique. Nothing in poem stands out enough (good or bad) to provoke detailed comments.

    Cure: Douse ego in cold water. Say thank you. Look up references to grammar, spelling, or poetic terms. Refer back to poem for comparison as needed. Read some poetry.

    (Note: Attempts to defend poetry by defining poetry in some way as to make your poem acceptable almost always results in inflammation of the thread. Wait two or three weeks for swelling to recede and try again.)
  3. Symptom: Comments on overall impression. Some details and suggestions given.

    Causes: Poem caught the interest of the poster. This may be positive or negative. Specific sections of the poem are of significantly better or worse quality than the rest.

    Cure: Douse ego in cool water. Say thank you. Consider each comment while referring to poem. Try to detach your knowledge of the poem's meaning and read it as a stranger would. Consider the comments again. Keep log (mental or real) of your observations. Occasionally refer to this log, modifying poetic beliefs and techniques as seems appropriate. Read some poetry.

    (Note: Failure to thank the posters will significantly reduce the amount of feedback received. Giving comments of the same quality will often increase the flow.)
  4. Symptom: No, or very few comments.

    Causes: News servers vary in speed. Some people may not even see the post for days. News groups get busy, people will often skip replying to posts for lack of time. Poems most likely to be ignored are those that are mediocre (neither very good or bad), from people who post large numbers of poems at once, and from people who have not been active in the group for very long.

    Cure: Be patient. Post no more than one or two poems in a given day. Comment on other people's poems. This will draw attention, and establish you as an active participant. Be patient.

    Read some poetry.
  5. Symptom: Positive comments: Kudos, hosannas, nice, pleasant or other signs of pleasure.

    Causes: You have written a decent poem, or attracted a following based upon the subject.

    Cures: Bask in the warmth of success (one minute maximum). Douse ego in cold water. Say thank you. Write some more poems. Read some more poetry.

    (Note: Some posters are easier to impress than others. When you receive praise from one you have identified as a 'hard case' you may bask for one additional minute.)
Mikel Potts

the myth that negative=discouraging

I am in a poetry class in college. Because of the "supportive" and "positive feedback only" nature of the workshop environment, I have been told over and over what is good about the poems I've written. I can only take so much of this before it rings incredibly false. I have the sense to know that what I write cannot be all that good - I have too little experience to be very adept at this. I came here (AAPC) in search of honest and experienced opinions. The feedback I received in class, while flattering, was unhelpful. Most of the students simply lacked the experience to see what was wrong with my work. This environment did only one thing for me: it made me a sloppy writer. I didn't have to be too rigorous with my work because - hey! - I'd get a pat on the back anyway!

I came to this newsgroup for the NEGATIVE feedback that I needed. Yes. That's right. I desire negative feedback. I prefer KNOWING what is wrong with my writing. If I were learning Spanish and people just pretended to understand what I said, how would that help my ability to communicate? Is this not the goal - to improve my ability to communicate? I don't like writing badly, and I really hate it when people encourage me to do so.

You've suggested in several posts that people pass some competency test before issuing critiques. This makes no sense. A poet can be a good critic, but be myopic about their own work. If we were each our own best critics, there would be no need for this newsgroup. I certainly don't agree with every critic, but I am grateful for any perspective other than my own. It broadens my understanding of how my poems might be perceived. If an illiterate responds to my poem, then what I have learned is what an illiterate thinks of my poems. Irrelevant feedback, maybe. I am free to dismiss it. Also, I agree that rudeness and sarcasm are unnecessary in a critique. Most of the people here are not rude. Most of the regulars that are rude become so only in response to mixed messages - from those writers who wander in here, post their work, invite criticism, then become bellicose upon receiving it. This discourages everyone here from responding to newbies. Who knows what the response may be - whining? Profanity? Threats and insults? For some, it has been all of the above.

Okay, now to the blanket statements. Anyone here that does not appreciate negative feedback is not serious about improvement. Only people who do not want to improve their work would be "discouraged" by negative feedback. You could flat out tell me: "Lorinda. Stop writing, you are so bad that you will never improve." Though it might be a presumptuous statement to make, it is your prerogative. I am under no compulsion to agree with you.

Finally. If you believe someone has a poem of merit which has received only bad crits, tell them. Not us. Post your encouragement. The poet will appreciate your positive feedback, if that's all he's looking for. But no one here is obligated to share your tastes, reach your experience level, espouse your educational philosophy or concur with your superior judgment. If it is your belief that positive feedback is the only road to improvement, then, by all means, follow that path. Just don't insist that I goose step behind you.


On Readers

Good poetry does not focus on the poet or where he/she is from. It stands on its own feet.

The benefit of reading good poetry by others is that you broaden your awareness of the images that are possible and of ways of seeing and thinking about this world/universe in which we exist. Not reading widely leads to a tendency to communicate in cliches. The English language is a deep well to draw from, and if you let yourself believe that you don't need to read widely to write well, your work will be shallow. You need to fill your subconscious with the language so when you write you can tap into that well -- unconsciously and (relatively) effortlessly (then you go back and rewrite/polish).

Billions of humans have preceded you. Please don't succumb to the hubris that leads you to believe that the language that grew out of those billions is something that you can disregard and yet still write things in which your fellow humans will find some resonance.

If you don't care whether your work resonates -- well, it's always considered tactful to masturbate in private.


Developing Your Craft

Third thing: the first time I ever submitted a piece of writing for criticism it got torn to shreds by people who had been practicing writing with a lot more discipline and guidance than I had. It was not gentle. I had to make a decision whether to stop showing the stuff I was writing to people like that and seek out only people who would praise me, or I would try to learn how to write better.

I began learning that poetry is largely a matter of craft. Ideas and agendas are better argued in prose. If you tried to write this out as an article for a magazine for example, would you even want to read it?

Fourth: If you decide to keep practicing to develop a craft, you will find a voice inside you. The voice has no vocabulary at present. It is centered in the desire to make something meaningful, beautiful, something that will move the inner voices of others, something responsible. You have to teach it how to speak. This voice, the poetic voice inside of you is your own. You need to read poetry. Great poetry. Poetry that excites you, that kicks you in the stomach with its crisp images and oddness and magic. Poetry that breaks your heart and purifies you.

When we were infants, we learned to speak by listening and by identifying the sounds that others made with the things and feelings that we had. The special voice that is the creative voice has the same job. You must learn to speak again in this special way. When you write something in English and present it, you are injecting what you have written into a tradition of poetry in English. You are implicitly asking to stand in that tradition. This is not the only thing you are doing. You are also speaking, or attempting to speak for what Wallace Stevens called "the voice that is great within us." Us being all of us. The one for the many. It is an exercise in transcendence.

On Bashing

Obviously, you like the others that feel a need to bash me, are compelled by either jealousy or my magnificent writing. Why else would you waste your time bashing someone. The thing I do not understand is why do I get such attention?

First off we might all claim to be writing in a style known as "mirroring" and wonder why you don't understand that none of us are like our critiques. Or we could let you know that as doctors give much of their attention to disease, but this - in no way - implies they are jealous of the disease, only that they know it is part of their job. This is what people involved in poetry critiques DO: they critique the good and bad. You are getting so much attention (and it isn't even really that much) both because your errors are so egregious, and because your attitude seems to imply that you have nothing left to learn. Of course, all of us being the kind-hearts we are, wish to save you from a lifetime of writing absolute poo, and so we linger about your name (for some short while) hoping against hope that you might come to realize - as we all have - that poetry is eternally perfectible, and that the love of language is - like all love - a melange of exultations and depressions, requiring a certain command of imagery and rhythm and grace to get you over the rough spots. DMH

A 'House Style'?

After reading posts of trolls, regulars, transients and anyone else, I have come to the conclusion that there is indeed a 'House Style' at AAPC. I have gotten to the point where I can pretty well guess the replies to a poem before I read them. Is this because I have good critical skills in poetic analysis? Not hardly. Put there are DEFINITE patterns in what is liked and disliked here.

  1. Well crafted. Simply put, anything that is poorly written will be roundly criticized, regardless of content. Common mistakes include incongruous line breaks, rhythm that doesn't flow, inversions made for the sake of 'sounding poetic', and constructions that are forced to allow end-rhymes. I'm sure others can add to this list.
  2. Emphasis on concrete images. In general the poems that are well received here have a heavy focus on concrete imagery. Gary's poem about the mason's building a cobble stone wall is a prime example of this. My effort under the long forgotten thread "Nothing concrete here . . ." is an example of how abstractions are viewed. It garnered exactly zero comments.
  3. Overwrought sentimentality is to be avoided. This isn't an outlet for Hallmark Cards. The problem with this kind of effort is that has all been done before, a million, jillion times. If you want to write about love, trust, truth or whatever, you had better do it in a way that is fresh, original, evocative, and really well thought out.
  4. No cliches. Lips like red roses, eyes like limpid pools. ACK! If you can't describe her lips and eyes with some new twist, then don't do it. Sometimes a well worn phrase fits perfectly, but before you use it, think long and hard.
  5. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER post a poem that violates more than one of these rules simultaneously, or any one of them repeatedly. You will get crucified.
I have yet to see a particular subject singled out for uniform derision. I have yet to see a particular form promoted or panned (reckless use of rhymed couplets is often hissed at).

There have been numerous comments about the regulars being pretentious prigs and stuff like that. Some here are, shall we say, more intense about their opinions than some would like. But that's life. If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen (an egregious violation of number 4).


Lurk First

We also need a "Read Before You Leap" sign on the door. I think that if more new people kept their itchy digits off the "send" button for a few weeks, they'd get a better idea of what kind of response to expect. They'd know whether or not the atmosphere suited their needs, and whose inflammatory remarks to disregard. Brutal honesty is not for everyone You may get strong medicine in here, but it is undeniably therapeutic if you have the constitution or, as you say, the distance.

I didn't trip coming through the door, only because I had observed the group for days before beginning to participate. I realized that I'd better think damn hard about whether I had really put forth my best effort. That intimidation factor alone made me a better poet and a more ruthless reviser - all before I ever posted a single poem here or got my first piece of feedback. I also realized how easy it was to be lazy in the "everything is good" groupthink of the poetry workshop from which I came. For a community freed of that useless ethos, I am perpetually grateful.


On Form etc.

The length of the line helps modulate the speed of the poem. Tall, skinny poems often lend themselves to an unnecessarily rushed reading. Also, typically, the shorter the line, the more emphasis that is placed on each word in that line. Are the words "spitting" and "hissing" really of such importance that they deserve their own lines? Nah, not really.

Many new poets claim that they don't write in meter, despite many of their poems being predominately metrical. What they're really saying is that they don't *intentionally* write in meter. We all mimic the cadences and rhythms to which we've been exposed. It's part of developing a voice.

There is no such thing as a completely unstructured poem. Not all structures are detectable by the ear. Some authorities claim that the ear cannot hear syllabics (where corresponding lines of different stanzas have the same number of syllables, but stresses are ignored), yet Marianne Moore, as well as many others, wrote quite a few poems in syllabics. If a poem appears to be completely unstructured to you, it doesn't mean the poem lacks a structure, just that you haven't found it. But don't worry about that right now.

There is no "break de jour". Realize that the line break in poetry is an essential element and can be used for a number of reasons. The most obvious is to establish and maintain a certain metrical standard. If I'm writing in iambic pentameter (a line of ten syllables, consisting of five two syllable feet that alternate unstress/stress), it's pretty simple. When I get to the last iamb, I start a new line. Line breaks can also be used to create ambiguity or additional layers of meaning within the the broader meaning of the entire poem:

I like writing about where I am,
where I happen to be sitting,
the scene outside the window-
a pink tree in bloom,
a neighbor walking his small, nervous dog.
And if I am drinking
a cup of tea at the time
or a small glass of whiskey,
I will find a line to put it on.

--Billy Collins

The first five lines of the above stanza are complete syntactical units. This is emphasized by the punctuation at the end of each of those lines. You pause at the end of each of those lines. The first line that requires that you continue reading nonstop into the following line is this one: "And if I am drinking/" And what does this line bring to mind? Alcohol, right? So the reader is thinking, even if only briefly, of alcohol, but because there is no pause at the end of the line he is carried quickly to the next line where he is promptly set straight. The meaning of that single linecchanges when it is taken in context with the line following it. Intentional? You bet. But there's more to it than just that. The next line, "a cup of tea at the time/", despite not having any punctuation, does have a natural pause at its end, which causes the reader to linger slightly before moving on to the next line where he is turned back around and reintroduced to his original impression of alcohol. Billy Collins is a pretty clever fellow, eh? Anyway, see how breaking the line where he did added an extra layer of meaning, and even tension, to the stanza? And there's more, of course. But it's 2:15 AM and I've got to cook a turkey in a few hours.

Mike Billard

On Imagination

I think that to provide all of these details assumes a lack of imagination in the reader. As I read this, it needs no boost for me to put myself there. The there I am in, may not be the same 'there' as Frank's, but it is powerful nonetheless

Really? Exactly what "there" are you in? Is it warm? Is it cold? Foggy? Windy? Can you smell the stagnant water and the rotting fish from this particular there? Are there other people milling about or trying to overhear your conversation? Is it sandy or rocky? Or are you on the boardwalk? How does the sea rage in your version of there? By slamming into rocks and hurling giant spumes of mist and spray skyward? Or in a constant thunderous roar as it rolls up on the beach?

The "imagination" argument is a silly one. Poems are like light beams - the more diffuse they are, the less powerful they are. And readers like you ooh and ahh just because you can see any light at all. And then you tell other readers to use their "imagination" to fill in the lack of intensity. Sorry, that's the poet's job. I've heard the words "raging sea" easily ten thousand times in poems before. It conjures nothing - not because I have no imagination, but because it is a dead image. It's the poet's job to make the image of the sea relevant to the poem by find a useful way of describing it. And the night and place references are worse yet. He says "on a night like tonight", which implies that *this* particular type of night is important to the events. But because he doesn't tell the reader anything about the type of night it is, whatever importance it holds is lost. If it's all on the reader's shoulders why doesn't the poet simply say: One night down by the ocean we broke up and I went home and laid in my bed. Now *that* has got to be even more powerful because it gives your imagination so much more room to operate. Feel it, Darlene, feel it! Come on, Darlene, fill in those details! Are you done? Damn fine poem, wasn't it? You felt it, didn't you?

On Posting URLs Only

There's a kind of unwritten rule around here about this kind of thing. Many people here know lots about poetry. They are generous enough to share that wealth of knowledge, although not always politely.

You want to call attention to your work, which is fair since that's what most of us are here for.

Here's an almost foolproof technique:
  • Read the FAQ
  • Lurk for about a week.
  • Find a poem you like and then post a comment on it.
  • Post one of your poems.
  • Make sure that your URL is always in your signature.
  • Stick around long enough and people will naturally *want* to visit your site.
The flip side of this is this group functions like a community. The focus of this community, is largely poetry but also the community itself. It's a bit of an annoyance to people who post and respond to poems to be expected to go elsewhere, read a poem there and then, what? Return to aapc and offer comments here?

That's a lot of work, especially when you depend on the goodwill of your reviewers. Make it easy for us--post your stuff here.

Chris Keelan

Three Rules

  1. All poems are rhythmic constructions
  2. Nothing in a poem is accidental
  3. The poet knows what he's doing and why he's doing it
Mike Billard

Abstractions, Grammar, Punctuation, Cliche etc.

It's not a steadfast rule that one must write poetry in complete sentences, or even fully developed thoughts, but it is usually advisable for the neophyte writer to do so.

Punctuation can be your friend as well. Judgemental emotional words such as *anger*, *sadness*, and *guilt* are good words to avoid, as they are such vague abstractions that they mean almost nothing. Try focusing on the physical world and learning how to describe what you experience using all the literary devices at your disposal.

the pain she carried with her
this is a cliche.

like a chip on her shoulder
This is a cliche, learn to identify them, then learn to avoid them.

black and red
blue and green
the colors of fury in her
brought to life i cold paint
but on fire with her passion

Writing about writing is also a bad idea until you learn how to write, and then it is still a bad idea unless you write well enough to get away with it.

Read some poetry



throw everything away

I'm still throwing everything away, but I like to think I've got to be a half-way decent reader


On Bad Starts and Recoveries

There are several newcomers to this group who seem to have taken it upon themselves to defend the bad, inane, and mediocre writings of many against what they see as the depredations of the 'cabal' of established posters. In the interest of sanity and some sensibility, which of course will go completely unheeded, I want to say a few things about my experience with this group.

I have come to love aapc. I have come to respect greatly many of the regulars here. I am convinced that my writing has improved immeasurably since I started posting it here, and reading the work of others and critiquing it.

By no means did I waltz into this group with graciousness and class and become immediately invited to join the cabal. Rather the opposite, actually: when I first posted to this group I was arrogant, pompous, and very defensive. I almost immediately instigated a minor flame-skirmish by insulting anyone who did not post something complementary about the rather inane and horrid poem that was my freshman effort here. In short, I made an absolute ass of myself. You can read it all on deja.

I say this with no small sense of shame for my early behavior in here. I acted like a spoiled child. I acted like an ass. In short, I acted like many who come in here on a regular basis.

The difference, and this is crucial, is: I came in with an attitude. I took the time to stop and think, and I stayed to learn. I believe I have become not only a better poet, but a better person for it.

I have friends in this group, who started out detesting me because of my detestable behavior. This is an important point as well, since anyone can come in and make an ass of themselves. They can also come back from it. There is much of value in the collected experience here on aapc. To throw it all away because you've been offended at some very blunt comments is pathetically sad. And all too common.

So, to all of you who lash back in hilarious fury at negative and occasionally very pointed statements, and to those who defend you, please stick around, put down your anger, grow up a bit, and enjoy. You might be surprised at how much better your writing gets.

You of course, are free to disregard this utterly.

But I am not obligated to show you any mercy, either.

Ted D.

Suggestions for Improving Technique

Now, about the posting--this is a tough one for me. I refuse to show anything that I've written in the last two years or so, to anyone. It's a self-imposed moratorium that will end when I feel that I've re-learned enough of the basics to avoid making a fool out of myself. This comes out of my own pig-headed and strongly-biased notions about the necessity for me to apprentice myself to the craft of poetry.

I would hate, however, for you to take my words as discouragement. I'd feel terrible if you felt compelled to stop writing altogether just because of some advice I gave you, here on aapc. You are going to have to become your own best guide. Learn now to rely on your own judgement and use the feedback from others only as a tool to help you calibrate your own inner sense of direction. Study poetry. Start with the resources on the aapc site. Don't worry, once your feet are on the path, you'll find yourself guided, as it were, by invisible hands. Never stop reading poetry--all the books in the world will not replace the wealth of instruction that comes from the close study of a poem which grabs you.

I don't want to send you away empty-handed, so I'll suggest four possible courses for you:
  1. Get a book that is mostly exercises, for example: _The Art and Craft of Poetry_ by Michael Bugeja, or _The Practice of Poetry_, edited by Robin Behn & Chase Twichell. Do the exercises and, if any of them result in poems, post them here for critique.
  2. or
  3. Give yourself a three-month breather by picking up _Sound and Sense_ by Perrine and Arp or _A Poet's Guide to Poetry_ by Mary Kinzie. Work through either book and then begin writing and posting again, from this new seat of awareness.
  4. or
  5. Vow to analyze a quota of poems before the first draft and each revision. For example, "I'm going to read five poems before writing one about the love I feel for my cat. I'll read each several times and try to identify *what* makes each poem a success or *why* the poem failed, IMO". Write the poem about your cat. Set it aside and grab those five poems, or five new ones and (re-)read them to see if you can learn anything new. Revise accordingly.
  6. or
  7. None of the above. Remember, you're in charge. You can pick and choose, disregard anything you disagree with or tell everyone to screw off and re-invent the wheel, if you're so inclined.
My last bit of advice (God I'm full of it, aren't I): treat everything you write for, say the next twenty years, as provisionally- complete. Some poems you'll scrap immediately, some you'll work at and then discard, some you'll tweak for years and some you'll frame and hang on your wall. Unfortunately it may be weeks, months or years before you know which poem is which.

Before posting to aapc, scan the last week or so of critiques. Did someone get roasted for using a cliche? Did someone else mangle metre or rape rhyme (I can't believe I just typed that)? When you see someone else's mistake get pointed out, look over your own work carefully and revise if necessary. This is not only a courtesy to those who critique here, it's also excellent self-discipline--remember, you're trying to become your own best pair of eyes.
Chris Keelan

On Rhyming Couplets

The term for the form of the poem you posted is "rhymed couplets" -- pairs of lines that rhyme with each other in the pattern aabbccdd (etc.). This is a tough form to write in nowadays: though it was much more prevalent in the past, now it's usually used for either humorous or epigrammatic purposes, and hardly ever for narrative or lyric poems.

One contemporary poet who's managed to write successfully in couplets is Fred Chappell. From past centuries, try Alexander Pope for epigrammatic couplets, and Robert Browning for narratives in couplet form (e.g. "My Last Duchess").

Couplets tend to become compact and self-contained; that's probably fine if you're writing epigrams, but if you're trying to do something more narrative, you may want to use some other devices that break up the solid, hermetically-sealed little package of the couplet. Browning used a lot of enjambment -- i.e., making sentences and phrases run over the line boundaries, instead of making the end of a line coincide with the end of a sentence. Mary Kinzie, in "A Poet's Guide to Poetry", suggests that you try to rhyme different parts of speech -- nouns with verbs, verbs with adjectives, etc. -- as a defense against monotony. She says that this tends to force the sentences into a variety of syntactic patterns, breaking them out of the straightforward subject-verb-object mold.

Kinzie says a lot more about couplets in her book, which I recommend.

Bruce Tindall