Posts Tagged ‘Poetry Criticism’

“Night Fire Road”….and a note on Poetry Criticism.

December 5, 2013
"Night Fire Road", janekohut-bartels, watercolor, 2010

“Night Fire Road”, janekohut-bartels, watercolor, 2010



Recently I have been asked by a small literary group to do a ongoing piece on Poetry Criticism. (Not by dversepoets, just for clarity here.)  It is something that strikes fear in most writers/poets.  As I struggle to get my head around this issue, I look at my own work over the past seven years and try to see either a common thread, or theme.  Except in some groupings, there isn’t any.  This makes it a bit harder, but then again, I am only reading seven years of work.  I’m in for the long haul.

The dissection and  learning of a poem is only helped by an anthropological approach to the poet. We generally write from our experience, except in cases where we don’t.  I think of Robert Frost: there is no doubt that his farming, his New England living, his constant working with the earth (and poultry, stones, which are plentiful in New England fields…) lay the basis for his decades of poems.  One reviewer said that he “learned more about farming from his poems, and farming life, than anything else about poetry”.  Perhaps that is even more interesting.   But the point of poetry criticism is growth.  And people are put off, fearful of the word ‘criticism’.  There is a  very stupid (to me) position in poetry circles that poetry can’t be criticized. That it is so subjective that a reader can’t and shouldn’t criticize.  This position lends to much crap written in the name of poetry. We all have read some. …and most likely, written it, too.  Poetry is held by the same ‘laws’ that any literature is.   In fact, though, because of certain pecadillos of poetry, it gets a pass on some things….lol. 

I am looking for a ‘voice’ in what I am reading….I will look for that particular voice in the poets that I will be reviewing.  I think it is possible very early on to develop that, though I have been told by one oppressive writer that it isn’t. But he was NOT a poet.  Perhaps poetry, since it should and must be read aloud, a reader should feel the words and sounds in the throat.  After all, it’s a vocal command, and to me….poetry is music…is just singing.

Lady Nyo





Sharp right into mystery

Down black macadam churning

Guts and fear

Pot-holed surface falling

Either side into waterlogged ditches,

Hurtling towards a tunnel

Of dark, smothering trees

Deep in the mountain.


This is Night Fire Road

Spiraling down and up

Like the dark flames of its name.


Tires dumped in the tar of night

Maybe a car or two

Stolen, torched,

Liquor bottles christening the

Games of drunken fools.


Maybe it was meant

To be named for foxfire—

Bioluminescence come down from

The borders of Heaven

A gleaming fool’s gold

Only appearing at night

To tease greed and imagination.


Or perhaps it was named

For the illicit meetings

Of furtive lovers

Who shun daylight

And go inflame passion on

Night Fire Road.



 Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2013

“The Thaw” and a few words on poetry criticism….

March 13, 2013



Spring comes drumming through
Breaking loose ice in the creek–
Destroying a beaver dam.

And with the unexpected noise-
The un-damming of my heart
A softening of my bones
A juiciness of loins
A waving of budding branches
In a new born wind-
Encircling like tender arms
A phantom will o’ wisp lover.

Spring comes drumming through,
Cracking open where winter nailed me shut.

This is a short, simple poem, but it packs punch. At least to some readers. Recently I submitted it to a small poetry group for some crits. Only one person suggested anything: it was, in my opinion, a thorough gutting of this poem. Sometimes it’s necessary to gut a poem like a fish, but you have to be careful who is asked, and also be aware of what happens to the poem when you embrace changes.

Obviously it changes, but sometimes it also disappears completely. The intent and power can be gutted along with some lines.  Be very careful of this.

The most important part of a poem is its power: do the words express what you want exactly? Or do they ramble around the page.

I am fortunate that I have a core group of writers and poets. I have known them between 3-10 years. All of them are powerful writers. They have the ability to go straight to the intent, the strengths and weaknesses of a poem. This is invaluable to any writer. Over the course of years, they have also helped me establish my own ‘vision’ on my poems, and to peel the onion of stinky verse. These three people are the ones who have helped establish my own poetical voice. But it takes work. I don’t come back to them with endless revisions of perhaps a few words. That is what this small group of poets did, and it really is pointless.  I work at it until I have something new to submit for any consideration.  Unfortunately, I find a lot of poetry groups, the smaller ones, who just want someone else to write their poems for them.  They have no conviction in their own work, hence this behavior.  They want validation without the hard work.

In dissecting this poem, I realized that I was going for a sense of motion: beyond meter, rhythm, etc. It was a visual expansion and contraction of words…

Active, powerful words: drumming, breaking, destroying, unexpected noise (obviously a loud one…) and then the soft words: un-damming, juiciness, waving, tender, will o’ wisp, etc. If this isn’t seen by readers, then they aren’t really reading the poem. This juxtaposition of opposites carries this very simple poem.

So. We have to evaluate the crits we seek with the crits we get. Do they clarify the poem, or do they do something else? And every word must be part of the package of the poem. It must ‘fit’ the statement, push it along, pull it together. The power of a poem is not just in the theme, it’s in the construction. And what words you pick better fulfill the intention.

I am glad I have this core group of Bill, Nick and CS. Without them, poetry can be a stroll through a minefield.  And….there are some horrid ‘poets’ out there who don’t work at it at all.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2014

Book Review: “Can’t Sleep: poems, 1987-2007”, by Steve N. Isaak

May 17, 2010

It’s not easy to crit poetry.  Especially when it is the work of a friend.

In reading Steve Isaak’s new first book, my immediate thought was:  “You’ve waited 20 years before publishing this?  And Why?”

Twenty years in the wait, but I have to say  this is the best book of poetry I have read in years.

Many of us are uncomfortable in critting poetry: as we read, we try to ‘fit in’ the poet’s world.  We try to understand the rhythm and bones of their particular poetic expression, but realize poetry is such a subjective issue, we wonder if we can really understand the pulse coursing through a collection of poems.

I hold poetry has the power to make those links, to make that resonance in readers and to expand universes, to enlarge our own lives through the  shaped worlds of another poet.

Steve Isaak has written a book of poetry that has this particular power, that has so much going for it, it’s almost impossible to put down.  The richness of the imagery is cinematic, but loses nothing to emotional depth.  Steve’s power of observation and construction  in these poems is masterful.  They sing of a profound and original intelligence, and are not  easy or a casual read at all.  He takes a known poetic language and stands it on it’s head.  These poems….all 94 of them!!, demand attention, concentration, an openness to this particular ride and they create an introspection as an afterburn.

Steve twists the English language into something that carries his message well.  Most poets do this to some extent, bending words, meanings, fending to the left and going right, etc., but Steve does it and never loses our interest or us, maybe befuddling but enriching this particular stew poem he is stirring.

This is 20 years of work, and I would have liked to see some dates on the poems, just out of curiosity.  But that is just me. It’s not necessary, and there is such a compilation of  sentiments, memories, events ….he’s made poetry, and strong poetry out of very personal incidents but they transcend the particularly personal-of -Steve…and have a universality about them.  This, in my estimation…is that all-important resonance that so much poetry lacks.  I can’t say I understand all of these references, but that doesn’t matter.  There are so many poems to satisfy at a very deep level that it’s quite a cornucopia of delights.

Steve writes dimensionally. That’s the only way I can describe his poetry.  I kept thinking of 3-dim. something.  There’s the surface, what the words are saying…there’s the emotional middle, where Steve writes from the gut and isn’t ashamed to declaim it….and then that third level where the poem reveals itself, launches off, is given shape and form in our own understanding.  That resonance thing, again.  This is that Aha! moment where we recognize that web of connectivity between creations, between efforts.

Every poet has their favorite form of poetry.  Steve has 4 cinquains, 2 haikus, and 1 tanka and 2 haibun.  The rest are freeverse….85 by my count.  His two haiku are  exquisite.


Seasons no matter:

water links different stones,

placid, accepting.

And this:

October rain

Autumn drops tremble

leaves but don’t fall –us, wet or

not, balanced, held.

There are so many poems in this book that rise to a haunting level, one can feel quite overwhelmed in reading. “ Charnel”, a freeverse, made me wince.  It’s rock-bed reality that comes at you like a nightmare.  At least I hope it’s a nightmare.

I admit I have to go back to this book to reread it.  It is like falling down a rabbit hole:  There are so many layers to these poems, and so many poems, that this becomes a committed exercise.  But it’s so worth it.  The mosaic of these poems is complete and satisfying but they don’t come easy.

Buy this book and settle in for at least a weekend of reading.  Steve has written 94 poems, some of great, luminous beauty.  This book is a startling and exhilarating example of what poetry can be.  You might be lost in one or two of them….but that’s because you blinked.

Can’t Sleep: poems, 1987-2007, Steve N. Isaak, published by—2007/6470659

Jane Kohut-Bartels

How to proceed on Poetry Criticism.

June 14, 2009

I am struggling with the form of how to address the comments and the crits that are coming in right now on the different poems.  At times I will post the comments on the blog face and also in the comments section.  This will be a random decision on my part because I am trying to see how this works best.

Everyone who has been invited to post on the Poetry Workshop theme agrees that poetry criticism is necessary, and also a learned ability. None of us (except probably Dr. Singh) have the answers, but we are all united in the belief that “writing means rewriting” and that poetry criticism is a tool to improve and ‘grow’ our work.  And in part ‘growing’ our work means clarifying and developing our poems as a means of communication.

Those of us here have different approaches to our poetry.  This is right and good.  Most of us here are writing Lyric Poetry, and this is a very developed and common form used in Western poetry.  We want to develop and explore the best means for doing so and creating better connection through our poems.

All that is to say that we know poetry should be introspective, contemplative and hard work.  It isn’t  just tossing off conversations with ourselves, but serious attempts to make our words resonate in the thoughts, experiences and hearts of others.

We are united in discerning those things that will improve our chosen form of communication, be it lyric poetry or other forms like tanka, choka, cinquain, or any other form.

Right now I have received (and have myself) a lot of poetry to post.  I want everyone who has contributed to receive a fair amount of attention, and therefore, I will parse out the submissions so there isn’t so many at one time. That way perhaps those reading can think deeply about the offerings, and we can give them the attention they deserve.

I encourage everyone posting to take at least one poem of another and attempt a crit.  Again, we learn together, and it IS possible to learn how to do this.  Any suggestions or ideas, no matter how cracked, are appreciated and of course are welcomed  by me.

Thanks, everyone, for a great first week and all the enthusiasm for the fine poetry submitted.

Lady Nyo

From Kathleen Troutman, one of our Poetry Group

June 11, 2009

Katie Troutman is a dear friend and very fine writer….Her poetry is something sublime to me. I am so happy that she offers up her verse for the reading and comments of people reading this blog.

Katie, these are, at first glance (and I am sure the next and the next glances) lovely.

Any poetry crits anyone ??

Lady Nyo


I am in love with this idea of poetry and sharing! I will post some of mine now-and hope the crits will help me make them more refined.


She brushes her hair
catches it in a shiny clasp
smiles toward the mirror

secure in its curl and shine
she ignores her body
draped in shapeless clothes

We can’t see inside her,
Will never know the stories
of her beautiful youth.

This woman, alone,
lives in silent memories
of eternal adoration


I watch her face
as she tries to form words
soft jaw trembling
over once familiar motions

When I concentrate
her former self surfaces
through sagging skin
subtle straightening of shoulders

There are suddenly
faint sparks in her eyes
her hands lift gracefully
as she reaches towards me

How much longer? She whispers
I hold her hand, shake my head
I don’t know if she’s asking
about dinner
or death


The dusty books are stacked
holding up the corner
of an end table

wire hangers crowd the bar
in the closet
others thrown carelessly on the floor

threadbare carpet
meets worn linoleum
where the living room
moves into the kitchen
Brown lumps on the counter could be washcloths

dull silver filigree
edges the bathroom mirror
In it, I search for some sign
some reason
that will bring you back
but there is no color
or sound
or welcome back
in anything
you left behind


There is no flight
that takes you farther
than your own mind

there is no place
more lonely
than your own heart

%d bloggers like this: