Concerning Craft: Why I take my poems to critique groups

Lois Marie Harrod’s Spat will be published in May 2021. Her seventeenth collection, Woman, won the 2020 Blue Lyra Prize. Nightmares of the Minor Poet appeared in June 2016 (Five Oaks); her chapbook And She Took the Heart, in January 2016; Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis and How Marlene Mae Longs for Truth (Dancing Girl Press) appeared in 2013. A Dodge poet, she is published in literary journals and online e-zines from American Poetry Review to Zone 3

Lois’s poem “Our street was down” appears in our Summer 2020 issue. Her guest post is part of our ongoing “Concerning Craft” series. You can find more of Lois’s work at her website.


It’s Tuesday, the night my local poetry group, US1 Poets Cooperative[1], critiques each other’s poems on Zoom. Twenty are present tonight, maybe 21 if the last person manages the technology, and we have divided into three chat rooms, seven poets each to spend ten minutes discussing each poem. It’s John Browning’s turn, and he reads his new poem, “Henry Cow.”

                        Henry Cow

let me sit down when the dark is done
to hear the same things over and gone
               my jawdrop-erased time goes
into sage rambles of pianos
morning mystery by early light
jackhammers buffalo wilderness
like a brick building conducting rain
 

None of us seems to be able to make sense of John’s poem. I picture a cow, Henry Cow—a bovine trans-sexual?—sitting in the pasture when “dark is done,” that must be morning, and Henry is listening to something, himself chew his cud (“to hear the same things over and gone/ my jawdrop-erased time goes into sage rambles”) in the morning mystery of early light? We are interested in John’s language, but we can’t puzzle it out. Towards the end of the ten minutes, we ask for John’s help, and he explains that Henry Cow was an experimental band in the late 1970s that he had been listening to “over and gone.”

With the dedicated attention we give to each other’s poems, we also begin to understand and care for each other.

One of us suggests titling the poem “Listening to the 70s Band, Henry Cow,” but John’s not sure if he wants to provide that info. He’d like the poem to stand on its own, but now his ten minutes are up, and he will have to figure the rest out himself. However, he has learned that a group of attentive poets and readers didn’t get Henry Cow,[2] and some editors might not get the allusion either. We move on. Wanda’s poem is next.

And that’s what I love about good critique groups, which US1 and other groups I belong to are—poetry communities give “absolute attention” to each other’s poems. How lucky we are if we find such attention anywhere. We know magazine editors face piles of poems, many which aren’t read beyond the first stanza.  Listeners at poetry readings hear a poem once; an occasional listener buys a book or asks for a copy of a poem. Beyond critique groups and creative writing classes, poets don’t find many dedicated readers, and without such dedicated readers, we never learn if we have conveyed what we intended.

There’s also an added gift: with the dedicated attention we give to each other’s poems, we also begin to understand and care for each other. We usually don’t talk about our jobs as social workers or hair-dressers or college administrators in our poetry sessions. We pay attention to what is going on in each other’s minds, and with the absolute attention we give each other’s work, there comes a kind of intimate friendship.

So when the COVID pandemic hit, several of us thought about how many US1 members were living alone and could no longer come to each other’s houses, and we then decided to try moving the group to Zoom. We were missing that “absolute attention” to our work.

And though some thought online poetry workshopping would never work and all of us missed the wine and brownies provided by the hosts at our weekly gatherings, we discovered that our Tuesday night Zoom groups worked well. As one said, “This is surprisingly intimate.” After all, as Paul Celan wrote:  “A poem as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps.”

It’s been my experience that in critique groups our poems often do wash up on heartland. And when the Zoom meeting zooms down, some of us continue on our computers and discover on YouTube that Henry Cow does indeed sound “like a brick building conducting rain.” We give the music our absolute attention.

Grab your copy of the Summer 2020 issue—in print or in digital format!


[1] Founded by Alicia Ostriker, US1 is a weekly poetry critique group that has been meeting every Tuesday night (except on holidays) in the homes of poets up and down the US1 corridor between Trenton and Brunswick since l973. “Henry Cow” is included with John Browning’s permission.

[2] Henry Cow is an English experimental rock group, founded at Cambridge University in 1968 by multi-instrumentalists Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. The name may have been a misheard allusion to the experimental American composer Henry Cowell, noted for playing the piano strings instead of the keys.  According to Hodgkinson, the name “Henry Cow” was “in the air” in 1968, and it seemed like a good name for the band.

3 thoughts on “Concerning Craft: Why I take my poems to critique groups

    1. Holly Bowers

      Hi Peter – We don’t provide critique groups through the journal, but I’m sure there are existing groups in your area! Meetup.com is a great place to search for groups, and you can also check with your library and/or local bookstores to see if they organize critique groups. Good luck!

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