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Old 03-12-2010, 02:38 PM View Post #1 (Link) How To Critique Poetry
Raconteur (Offline)
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Please click here to see Isis' post for an updated guide to critiquing poetry. The old guide can still be accessed below.

How To Critique Poetry

I've noticed that a lot of the poetry critiques lately have been bare, and a bit confused. That's fine, because it probably boils down to the fact some who critique poetry just don't know what to look for. Here is a checklist of sorts. If you're confused about a certain point, feel free to post questions here, or PM/VM me. I'm no expert, but I'll try and clarify.

Make sure you've studied the craft you're critiquing
If you're a prose writer, you know that if someone critiques a grammar mistake, or a spelling error, or places a semicolon or a dash somewhere, but does it incorrectly, it shows that they don't truly know the rules themselves. In fact, it's especially dissatisfying if it's the only type of mistake they're correcting. This is the same with poetry. If you don't know about enjambment, and metaphor, and simile, but you correct these things in a poem, it shows that you don't know the craft of poetry.

Before you critique poetry--before you write poetry, in fact--you should read it. You're here to improve, the whole site is structured around the concept of improving, and this is an incredible way to do that. Stephen King, in On writing says himself, "you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."

It's an important step of the process. So if you want to critique, or write well, read poetry. Not only what your teacher assigns you and not the poems posted here for critique--go out and explore the huge world of poetry: the different structures, the different topics, modern/traditional and contemporary writers ... all of it.

It might help to look at this thread, if you have no clue of what type of poem appeals to your taste.

Don't focus your critique on punctuation/grammar
While surely helpful, this is tricky. You should read a poem a number of times aloud before you add commas anywhere. Syntax + punctuation and so on are often manipulated as a device in poetry. The only time you should correct these types of mistakes is if something reads (aloud, preferably) very awkwardly--point it out if it stands out, but not just because they're "rules" you know.

Speaking of rules, it is not a rule to capitalize every line in a poem. This is a traditional/classic way of writing poetry, and has dwindled down to a personal choice. Remember: punctuation/capitalisation can be a tool in poetry that directs your audience on how to read it. Capitalising every line can hinder this tool that would otherwise enhance your poem.

Look for comparisons: METAPHOR
A lot of poems will have connections. Sometimes, the entire poem may be a metaphor for something else. Be an active reader and look for connections. Sometimes you may encounter similes which will make them easy for you to spot, but other times they're hidden. I've found that for poems focused on nature, you can find metaphors in personification. Often, the sun-rays might be golden hair, lonely clouds a lonely person, and so on. As you read poetry, and look for these connections and metaphors, you will probably find general commonalities.

On the other hand, poets want to be original and have their readers see something in a new way. Sometimes you'll see something compared to something else, and both are totally different--in fact, it's a connection you may never have made on your own. Don't put question marks beside it, the -huh- face, or anything else: think on it. Don't quickly write that it doesn't make sense or that it's not possible until you've looked at it as a metaphor.

If it still confuses you, then feel free to comment that you don't get it. But be specific. Don't write it off as something that's incoherent and doesn't make sense, but tell the author why not, or which words really throw you off.

Look for rhythm
This is something that most poetry critiques do, so it's not as big of an issue. Pick out lines that really disjoint the fluidity of the poem, or words that sound convoluted.

Focus on rhyme, if there is any. How does the rhyme enhance the poem? How doesn't it enhance the poem? A good way to use rhyme is to make connections to the words. While some use it as merely a sound effect, or for typical beauty, other poets will use rhyme to draw attention to specific words.

If a rhyme sounds out of place, or if it looks like it's compromising the message of the poem, comment on that. If it's a poem about depression, and sorrow, but the rhymes sound like a children's limerick, comment on that--rhyme should make the poem more thoughtful, not less. It's a technique, not a standard format.

What do you picture? IMAGERY
Isis explains imagery so well here: here! I don't think many of the budding poets here have read this, and I really think it's such a good idea to.

Knowing how to use imagery will correlate very well on how to critique it.

Did the poem engage you?
This seems obvious, but lately I've been seeing a lot of critiques that say "this was a good poem" or "wow, this was great" or "good poem, could be better"

Why? Those comments should be private messaged, but a critique should be specific. Why was it good? Why did it stand out? Which lines were really striking; which weren't? What did the poem make you think of, why did it make you think these things?

Was it good because it was captivating? Did it relate to you, and did you find yourself reading it over and over, or having to sit back and linger on a comparison, or an image for a while? Or was it good merely because you can't think of anything to critique? It's always nice to know that your work was appreciated, but it's best to know why, and how much.

I hope this helps, and I'll add more to this as time goes on. I might PM you the link if I see a critique that can be improved, but not to be offensive, just informative.

And remember: READ poetry before you expect to drastically improve at it.
						Last edited by Raconteur; 02-25-2014 at 08:07 PM.
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Old 03-13-2010, 04:04 PM View Post #2 (Link)
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Woot-ness! Thanks for this awesome guide. Very helpful, maybe more people will begin to critique poetry now.
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Old 03-13-2010, 04:39 PM View Post #3 (Link)
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Old 04-10-2010, 01:14 PM View Post #4 (Link)
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Omg!!! That was the best guide on critiquing poetry ever.
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Old 09-02-2010, 12:48 AM View Post #5 (Link)
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I read it through a few times first. Then I look to see if it needs to be a poem. A lot of poems should actually be short stories or flash. Then I see if the content and form fit. This is more a feeling than a measurable thing. Then I go through and see if the rhymes consistent, see if every word needs to be there, etc.
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Old 09-02-2010, 04:35 AM View Post #6 (Link)
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Lulz needs to be a poem. Content doesn't define poetry, its an art-form that manifests in most major artistic movements throughout history. I fail to see a situation in which a poem shouldn't be a poem. There are times when a writer shouldn't be a poet, perhaps, but poetry can handle any subject.
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Old 09-02-2010, 02:19 PM View Post #7 (Link)
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It was quite helpful since I don't know a poem when it's upside down
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Old 01-26-2013, 03:51 AM View Post #8 (Link) Updated guide
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This poetry critiquing guide is going to break down the process of critiquing poetry, both as a helpful reminder for experienced members and as a tutorial for those who are new to the art of helping other people with their work. This isn’t the one and only way to critique poetry, and I know those who approach it differently and critique well, but this works for me.

The best way to improve your critiques is the same as the best way to improve your poems: read a lot, and critique a lot. The more poetry you experience and the more you practice, the better you’ll get at helping other writers. If you're just starting to read poetry, here's a good place to find poems.

I. The goal of critiquing poetry

Critiquing poetry is one way to improve your own craft, make writing friends, give back when you’ve gotten, and participate in a literary community. We pride ourselves on critiquing here, and if you go out into the real world of writing at all – or even take a workshop at the local college or writer’s center – your critiquing skills will be appreciated. When you’re in the midst of a critique, it’s important to not forget that the immediate goal is to help another writer improve their work.

A good critique lets the poet now how well (and what their poem communicates to a reader. It can help the poet improve the poem in question and make it communicate more strongly or clearly. Some good critiques help the poet learn about poetry in general. A good critique is also supportive and respectful without being nice, and is critical without being mean or vindictive. A good critique is honest.

One thing to keep in mind when critiquing most poetry on this forum is that we’re commenting on quality, and not on viability. Quality is the mechanics of a poem: does it get its intention across with grace, style, wit, beauty? Does it make sense and convey some idea or emotion to the reader? A writer working on quality is working on manipulating the effects poetry can have. Viability is the poem's appropriateness for a certain audience or era. Is it a great poem? Does it address the issues of our day? Is it something that the writer "should" write about? This is a pretty important distinction. Other writers have argued that critiquing viability is not useful while the writer is still working on quality. If you want to read more about quality vs. viability go here. This means that we should try to focus on improvement rather than evaluation. It is always worth saying if you liked or didn’t like something, but the most important part is to say why, and to try to work with the poet towards improvement and development. If you want to read more about this philosophy of critiquing, go here. It’s not helpful to merely tell the writer that their work is good or bad.

More specifically, there are a few things that should happen during a poetry critique. Aim to:
- Tell the writer what you got out of the poem – what you thought happened, what you felt
- Consider how well parts of the poem or devices used (imagery, metaphor, sound, structure, etc) contributed towards that overall impression of the poem
- Consider the clarity and cohesiveness of the poem
- Make suggestions that would help the piece convey its main idea better
- If appropriate, make suggestions that would help the writer improve their poetry as a whole or push their work further (based on the comments you made about the poem at hand)

II. Things to do in a critique

1. Think about what the poem is saying and tell the writer what you got out of the poem.

The first step in critiquing a poem is taking the whole thing in, thinking about it, and figuring out what it is trying to do. Only then can you help the poem do that thing better. This is the broadest level at which the poem is working. Taking a minute to think through the poem helps you find places where things work or don’t work, as well as places where the poem is confusing, ambiguous or scattered. Think of it this way: there’s no point in methodically correcting all the grammar mistakes in a poem or picking apart individual images if nothing makes sense. The writer is going to need to make some big changes if they want to revise.

Here are steps and questions to get you started:
- Read the poem a few times and just experience; don’t jump in with comments yet.
- Make a few notes on what you get out of the poem; actually write them down. You don’t need to approach this like school, where you have to state the “point” of the poem in a sentence. Ramble if you have to. What do you feel? What do you see? Does the poem remind you of anything?
- The kinds of comments you might make at this stage could depend on the poem. If the poem is surreal, impressionistic, or “difficult”, consider describing what you think is literally happening, what the poem is saying, or what you see while you read. If the poem seems really straightforward, perhaps instead focus on your emotional response to the poem.
- Is the poem clear? Where you confused at any point? If so, where, and what’s your best guess at what’s going on there? If you’re not sure, this is a great place to start asking questions about the poem. In fact, questions might be your best friends when critiquing. They can help a poet think through an issue or just get them to see another side of their poem. Good teachers often ask lots of questions.

2. Consider how well devices used in the poem contribute to your overall impression, then if any of these devices could be developed or improved.

Knowing what things to look for and what questions to ask about particular devices can be helpful. Try to think about how well these devices fit into the poem as a whole as well as how individual instances are lines work.
a. Imagery. Are the images precise? Do they address the senses, and which ones? Can you actually see or feel or taste something along with the images? Do they employ too many adjectives? Does one lead into another logically, are they disjointed, what is their relationship? Do the images evoke an emotion? Are there ideas in the poem, such as abstract concepts or named emotions, that might be better conveyed through imagery?

P.S. You can learn a lot more about imagery and how to use it here.

b. Metaphor (and other uses of figurative language). Does the poem employ metaphor, and are those metaphors fresh? Are there any clichés that could/should be recast, like “my love is a red rose”? Are the metaphors self contained, or are they extended through multiple ideas in the poem? How do the metaphors work with images? Do the metaphors communicate some point or idea?

c. Voice. Who is speaking? What is the speaker of the poem like? How does their personality come through in the poem in order to create something moving and alive? If the speaker is human, is this person realistic and relatable? How does their specific diction and word choice contribute towards or interact with the imagery and metaphors?

d. Sound. Sound includes devices like rhyme, half-rhyme, assonance, consonance, and plays on words; basically, sound is any word choice made not just for meaning but how it would hit your ear when spoken. Overall, what is the “music” of the poem: is it smooth, harsh, rasping, jubilant? If rhyme is used, does this scheme serve to create surprise and cohesion, or does it feel forced? If the rhymes feel forced, too simple, or somehow contradictory to the overall drive of the poem how could they be improved, or what other form might be more appropriate? What ideas do the uses of sound highlight? Does the sound mirror the meaning or does it flip it the bird?

e. Structure. Structure includes things like line breaks, stanza breaks, sentence structure, line length, punctuation, and form. What is the pace of the poem? Do the line and stanza breaks create logical divisions, suspense, surprise, word play? Are any breaks seemingly senseless and what might you do to improve them? Are there any structural choices that jolted you out of the poem? What effect does punctuation have on pace, voice, and the linebreaks? Are there any errors? If the poem follows a set form like a haiku, sonnet, or ghazal, does it adhere to the guidelines of that form? If not, does it bend the form in a convincing or an interesting way? If the poem is playing with and breaking a set form, what effect does that have on the overall idea conveyed by the poem?

f. Cohesion. Does the poem function as a unit? Does it get a across a series of emotions, a story, an image? Are there any jumps in the poem that don’t “feel right” or that leave you lost? How do the images lead into each other, the sound tie disparate images together? Do all the pieces come together?
You might not address all of these devices in one critique, and you definitely won’t answer all those questions in one critique. That was just to get you thinking. But you should aim to look at two or three of those (at least) in a critique. This is the place to get specific, and quote specific stanzas or get in there with red text and comment line by line.

3. Where appropriate, offer overall suggestions and comments.

Not everyone will have general comments or want to give them. Nor will they be right for every critique. However, sometimes I see an issue that’s present throughout a poem. It’s worth talking about it in general at the end rather than going through the poem and correcting or picking at every instance. For example, if the poem is riddled with proofreading errors, it’s often best to mention them at the end. If the writer could use some advice about one of those devices discussed above, like imagery or structure, then the end of the critique is a good place to summarize that advice.

Once you get to know the poet whose poem you’re critiquing, it can also be helpful to offer general comments that will push them further. Asking questions is a great way to push a poet further. You could ask where they want to go with their work if you think it will be helpful for future critiques. You could ask what they like to read. You could ask what they intended when writing the poem. You can also suggest stuff to read. I often critique a poem and in the middle am reminded of some other poem or writer. Sometimes I use poems I love as a way to illustrate a general point about imagery, or cohesion, or sound. You can do the same. Make sure to stay focused on the poem in question when you give general advice, suggestions, or further reading. Focus on things that will help the poet improve this poem or the ones they’re likely to write next.

III. Poetry critique template and questions.

Need a quick template to refer to while critiquing? Look no further. Use this if you’re new, rusty, or stuck:
1. Think about first impressions. Think about what the poem says, what it means. Are there meanings you're getting that seem out of place? What words and phrases strike you? What is the literal situation of the poem? What actually appears to be going on?

2. The above established, what is the subtext of the poem? What is going on beneath the words?

3. Who is speaking?

4. Does the poet use figurative language or language that addresses the senses (imagery and metaphor)? Are these images and metaphors original? How do they work together? Are they vague or precise? Are there ways you could make the images and metaphors more clear, precise, relevant?

5. Does the poem have any specific form (meter, rhyme, regular line or stanza breaks)? Are the form and meaning tied together or seemingly unrelated? Did the form help create the overall impressions you formed at the beginning or did it get in the way of meaning? Are there any ways you can see to improve things like rhyme, meter, linebreaks, or stanza breaks?

6. Examine the syntax of the poem. Are there problematic sentences or lines? Is there anything you stumbled over while reading? Does the punctuation make sense? Is there punctuation?

7. Any recommendations for the next draft?

8. Any recommendations for future poems?

I hope that you find this guide helpful! If you have questions, additions, or disputes, please let me know - I'm always around to talk poetry and critiques.
						Last edited by Isis; 01-26-2013 at 03:22 PM.
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Old 01-27-2013, 07:50 AM View Post #9 (Link)
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This is for Isis.
Man, lovely guide. This is everything a beginner needs, or an experienced person needs, or everyone needs.

One thing I feel is, shouldn't it be a bit open-ended? You've sort of 'told' everyone what to do in a critique, rather than tell them to think about what they should do. A bit of lee-way wouldn't really hurt.
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Old 01-27-2013, 02:11 PM View Post #10 (Link)
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I agree that we learn best when we teach ourselves (or teach other people), and that someone having to think hard about having to critique a poem is going to sink in more than going through a list. How and where would you make this guide more open ended? Like ... what would you have liked to figure out for yourself? And what approach would you find helpful for pushing your critiquing?
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