“Criticism, you are
a helping
bubble in the level, mark on the steel,
notable pulsation.

With a single life
I will not learn enough.”

Pablo Neruda remains one of my favourite poets. Beyond the schoolgirl days of Sylvia Plath and Shakespearian sonnets – Neruda was writing so politically, so astutely of his time and space that it’s nearly impossible to call him anything but a political writer.

His prowess is equal only to his capacity for immense failure at times – epic screeds of verse that would never make publication in today’s world, but in the reading and comparison of such, create the wonder of the times he landed his composition so eloquently right.

As a writer, criticism is often captured with red pen edits in my life. As a speaker, the crowd goes quiet. As a member of communities and a family – it comes in loud voices, arguments, discussions, silences and facial expressions that do not bear dissecting. Where do you face criticism? Your boss, your colleagues, your lover or your children?

Collaboration is Hard.
Working or living with others requires gifting yourself to the process in ways that are uncomfortable. Constructive criticism becomes a constant companion instead of a tool you might apply more sparingly. It forces us to work more openly. For me, it often makes me feel claustrophobic. I sense myself losing the definition of ‘my work’, which previously has always been so important.

This too, is a skill – learning to live with criticism as a helping hand. Learning to manage, learning to criticize well, learning to abject and object within the process. This is the art of living the life of a maker.

It’s nearly impossible to build or improve relationship or productivity without having strong enough praxis for criticism and communication.

Practical Tools.
It’s important to have a toolbox for handling and triaging criticism. It’s not something we learn at school. The power of the red pen, those bright red slashes and marks on the page are a visual burden, in the wrong moment they become an indelible stain. I recommend you triage criticism of any kind in these three steps:

  • What of this is true? Criticism that does not have a root of truth is bullying or unjust. Search out the truth. Make yourself your firmest and fairest critic. If there is truth, you can use it to empower yourself.
  • What of this is untrue or irrelevant? You should discard these things and actively do away with them. Do not dwell. Do not reason. That which is not true cannot help you in any way.
  • Apply the next step to what is true. It does not have to be a complete change, but identify what you can do to improve, respond or change thing that provoked critique. Then make a plan to take that step. Write down the step and what it will mean when you’ve achieved it. Think about the next time you can do it differently.
  • Then move on, applying what you’ve learned. No one person can entirely disrupt another with criticism. If you find yourself regularly dismantled – you should be examining that behaviour. No single criticism is a complete statement on your character or abilities. Do not let it become that way by not responding in a smart way.

Pablo turns his anxious, tenuous vulnerability into language. At first he captures his despondence in the role criticism must play. Then he befriends it, through the lens of his own rhetoric and self-assessment. His Nobel Prize is aptly deserved. This week, I took a new collection to the local coffee house and soaked in some of these words, at a time when I am trying to piece my own together..This one in particular, I imagine in response to the offense he caused someone, real or imagined… echoes in my head. Perhaps too in yours, for the truths you have and have not told.


I wrote five poems
one was green
another a round wheaten loaf,
the third was a house, abuilding,
the fourth a ring,
and the fifth was
brief as a lightning flash,
and as I wrote it,
it branded my reason.

Well, then, men
and women
came and took
my simple materials,
breeze, wind, radiance, clay, wood,
and with such ordinary things
walls, floors, and dreams.
On one line of my poetry
they hung out the wash to dry.
They ate my words
for dinner,
they kept them
by the head of their beds,
they lived with poetry,
with the light that escaped from my side.
came a mute critic,
then another babbling tongues,
and others, many others, came,
some blind, some all-seeing,
some of them as elegant
as carnations with bright red shoes,
others as severely
clothed as corpses,
some were partisans
of the king and his exalted monarchy,
others had been snared
in Marx’s brow
and were kicking their feet in his beard,
some were English,
plain and simply English,
and among them
they set out
with tooth and knife,
with dictionaries and other dark weapons,
with venerable quotes,
they set out
to take my poor poetry
from the simple folk
who loved it.
They trapped and tricked it,
they rolled it in a scroll,
they secured it with a hundred pins,
they covered it with skeleton dust,
they drowned it in ink,
they spit on it with the suave
benignity of a cat,
they used it to wrap clocks,
they protected it and condemned it,
they stored it with crude oil,
they dedicated damp treatises to it,
they boiled it with milk,
they showered it with pebbles,
and in the process erased vowels from it,
their syllables and sighs
nearly killed it,
they crumbled it and tied it up in a
little package
they scrupulously addressed
to their attics and cemetaries,
one by one, they retired,
enraged to the point of madness
because I wasn’t
popular enough for them,
or saturated with mild contempt
for my customary lack of shadows,
they left,
all of them,
and then,
once again,
men and women
came to live
with my poetry,
once again
they lighted fires,
built houses,
broke bread,
they shared the light
and in love joined
the lightning flash and the ring.
And now,
gentlemen, if you will excuse me
for interrupting this story
I’m telling,
I am leaving to live
with simple people.

-Pablo Neruda

Not too much later he returns to the theme, this time caught in the starburst of freshly printed pages. He turns the lens on himself once more.


I touched my book:
it was
like a white ship,
half open
like a new rose,
it was
to my eyes
a mill,
from each page
of my book
sprouted the flower of bread;
I was blinded by my own rays,
I was insufferably
my feet left the ground
and I was walking
on clouds,
and then,
comrade criticism,
you brought me down
to earth,
a single word
showed me suddenly
how much I had left undone,
how far I could go
with my strength and tenderness,
sail with the ship of my song.

I came back a more genuine man,
I took what I had
and all you have,
all your travels
across the earth,
everything your eyes
had seen;
all the battles
your heart had fought day after day
aligned themselves
beside me,
and as I held high the flour
of my song,
the flower of the bread smelled sweeter.

I say, thank you,
bright mover of the world,
pure science,
of speed, oil
for the eternal human wheel,
golden sword,
of the structure.
Criticism, you’re not the bearer
of the thick, foul
of envy,
the personal scythe,
or ambiguous, curled-up
in the bitter coffee bean,
nor are you part of the scheme
of the old sword swallower and his tribe,
nor the treacherous
of the feudal serpent
always twined around its exquisite branch.

Criticism, you are
a helping
bubble in the level, mark on the steel,
notable pulsation.

With a single life
I will not learn enough.

With the light of other lives,
many lives will live in my song.
– Pablo Neruda

So here, in reflection – there are not many words to write, for his speak where mine would be less than perfect.

The best of us will always learn to self-critique and to triage the criticism of others into applicable truths and that which can be discarded.