Guidelines for Critiquing Poetry

by Nina Romano

Giving feedback on poetry is different than stories, but many of the same rules apply, especially with regards to narrative poems. Of course, you still want your feedback to be useful and honest as with any work you put your comments on and attach your name to. With reference to the poetry genre, there are many differences between a prose piece and a poetic one. You’ll need to take the following points below into consideration, because reading a poem, even a prose poem, is still a very concise and compressed form, even more so than the short story. Therefore, other deliberations and reflections come into play.

Poetry hits you viscerally, instinctively, emotionally upon first reading. You know whether you love it, hate it, like it, are moved by it in any way, care about the subject, the texture, its nuances. You know immediately whether or not you think the poem is finished, or close to it, or could be worked on to improve it. You know if it’s written by a professional or someone studying the art.

At first go-around with a reading, you begin to think, how would I write this poem, if it were mine?  Are there too many superfluous words?  Words that are vacuous or have little meaning add nothing to the lyricism of the work. Language is of utmost importance in poetry. The selected words can be simple but fitting, or the language can be heightened. Foreign words can be used, but the meanings of these words must be implied and understood, or directly translated, which loses some of the potential force for including these words.

You formulate ideas concerning it before you even get to read the last line, word, and end period. Perhaps you haven’t even begun to consider its form, style, length, breath and stops as you read it. Are the line breaks ending on strong words or weak ones? Are there concrete images or does the poet talk about love and life and soul in abstract images which tend to say nothing as in zero ! Nada! Does the poem contain strong verbs, the use of metaphor, simile, or studied language. If you’re a poet, maybe you’ve already begun to devise a schematic in your brain of what this poem is and what it’s trying to accomplish.

Whew! That was a mouthful, but that’s how you begin to formulate guidelines for critique. For example, when I first read Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” I thought I’d pass out from the sheer force and beauty, simplicity and honesty of the last four lines, which are:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
        Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
           with your one wild and precious life?

The first time I read those lines, I didn’t go back and read the entire poem, I repeated these same last four lines out loud, slowly and with author intention. These words might not have an effect on you in the same way—but I just read them again, and quite honestly I had chills, the hair on my arms actually stood up to salute! What introspection. What a beautiful life study is rendered with so few words and only three rhetorical questions. And that last one especially shouts: REFLECT ON THIS!

Another strong example is C. K. Williams’ poem, “From My Window.” Each and every time I read it, I find something new to admire about it.  Can beginners write like these two incredible poets?  Of course not. But beginning and even seasoned poets in graduate school can READ these poets’ collections and learn from them.

What I’m intimating here is this: you come to the work with eyes that read it, ears that listen to the words as the mouth sings them. So speak the poem out loud. Each person brings different gifts to poetry and can offer the work only what we have garnered through the reading of poetry, listening to poetry—the study of poetry.  Every one of us offers ourselves in whole or in part, in bits or in pieces to the feast of poetry.

There are similar critiquing elements taken from fiction that apply and should be considered especially in narrative poems. Who is the speaker of the poem? (Main character or persona) Are there other persons mentioned in the poem? (Characters) Setting—where does it take place?  Who is involved with doing what? What is the problem, tension, risk if there is any?  How is it resolved?

We read then, each poem in a different way. After I read through a poem once silently, and twice out loud, I begin to have a good sense of the poem and what the poet is trying to convey. At the end, does the poem surprise me? Is there a feeling of AHA! Or just ho-hum?  Does it leave me wanting to read of this poet?

I look for all the above aforementioned features and more. Is the poem written in stanzas, does it rhyme or have slant rhyme, is it a form poem, such as a villanelle, or a sonnet? Is it written in free verse? If it’s in free verse, is there enough white space to catch my breath yet allow for continuance? You must identify form in order to speak about the piece intelligently. If you don’t know, or recognize what kind of poem it is—you go to a book and find out.

Longman’s Dictionary of Poetic Terms is excellent, my go-to book for twenty-five years plus. It is still available on www.amazon.com as a used text staring at $4.48 here: https://amzn.to/2Qp0hN0  The price of a NEW one is over $100! Besides this one, which is my favorite and most complete, there are many other reference books like this in the reference section of libraries and bookstores. Buy one. It’s a great investment and will stand you in good stead for all types of writing.

However, if you consider none of this, the most important elements regarding poems are to ask yourself a series of questions. Does this poem ring true in my head and heart and effect me in my gut?  Is there universality to it?  Do I want to share this poem? Do I want to help the poet make this a better, more polished and finished piece?  If the answers are yes, then you study the work and ask yourself how to help the poet improve this particular poem without wounding him/her? Remember, poets are sensitive souls.

Here are some quick but useful parameters to use when one is critiquing poetry.

  • Find the energy or heart of the poem—this can be a metaphor, an intriguing turn of phrase, or the title.
  • Ask if this metaphor has been expanded upon, or if the title developed.
  • Check to see that there are no mixed metaphors, or too many metaphors or similes that cause a jumble and confusion and make the poem seem chaotic.
  • Are there repetitious words?
  • Is alliteration used well?
  • Are there unnecessary words?
  • Does the poet use enjambment? Does it work?
  • Does the poem paint a visual image for the reader?
  • Does the poem leave the reader with a sense of fulfillment?
  • Does each word, phrase, sentence, stanza have meaning?
  • Does the reader come to an understanding that the poet was trying to relate?

Author’s bio:

Nina Romano earned a B. S. from Ithaca College, an M.A. from Adelphi University, a B. A. in English, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She lived in Rome, Italy, for twenty years where many of her poems and stories are set. Romano has taught English and Literature as an adjunct professor at St. Thomas University, and has interned for poets Marie Howe, Denise Duhamel, and C. K. Williams at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

Romano has facilitated poetry and creative writing workshops at the Ft. Lauderdale Main Library, the Sanibel Island Writers Conference, Bridle Path Press Baltimore, Lopez Island Library, Florida Gulf Coast University, Rosemary Beach Writers Conference, the Outreach Program of Palm Beach Poetry Festival, and Summit County Library.

Her short fiction, memoir, and poetry appear in numerous literary journals and magazines. Romano has presented several times at the Miami Book Fair International with her fiction and also with her poetry collections which include: Cooking Lessons from Rock Press, submitted for a Pulitzer Prize, Coffeehouse Meditations from Kitsune Books, She Wouldn’t Sing at My Wedding from Bridle Path Press, Faraway Confections, from Aldrich Press, and Westward: Guided by Starfalls and Moonbows from Red Dashboard, LLC. She has also had two poetry chapbooks published: Prayer in a Summer of Grace and Time’s Mirrored Illusion, both from Flutter Press, and a short story collection, The Other Side of the Gates, from Bridle Path Press.

She has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Poetry. She has co-authored Writing in a Changing World.

Romano has published the Wayfarer Trilogy with Turner Publishing. All three of the historical novels of the series were finalists in book contest awards, and Book 1, The Secret Language of Women, set in China, won the Independent Publisher 2016 IPPY Gold Medal. The other two novels are Lemon Blossoms, set in Sicily, and In America, set in New York.

Two short stories: “A Risky Christmas Affair” and “Dreaming of a Christmas Kiss,” have recently been released as E-books, and the latter, along with two Christmas poems, has been included in a Christmas anthology, Annie Acorn’s Christmas Treasury 2018.

Her latest novel, The Girl Who Loved Cayo Bradley, a Western Historical Romance, was released in 2019.

 Romano’s website is: www.ninaromano.com where she hosts guest bloggers.

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