All right, poets, it’s your turn. April was National Poetry Month, so this month instead of a slam we’re going to talk about how to read and critique all that work you generated for your #poemaday before you unleash it on an unsuspecting Internet. Or, if you’ve been reading everyone’s poetry but not feeling sure how to discuss it, it’s a great time to build some vocabulary around poetry critique!
Before we begin, one huge caveat: Poetry tends to be, even more than personal essays, the most intimate and sensitive writing. People are very, very connected to their poetry emotionally. Before you offer an in-depth critique, please make sure it’s welcome. And even then, be sensitive to the fact that you’re not just going to be talking about writing, you’re going in many cases to be talking about the validity and success of the way the poet has conveyed their feelings. That’s a touchy subject, and I’ll give you some examples later of how to do it carefully without sacrificing what you need to tell them to make the poem better.
What is a poem, anyway?
A quick search of poetry.org (we’re gonna be talking more about this site later, trust me) will yield this definition:
Poetry (ancient Greek: ποιεω (poieo) = I create) is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.
So, that’s a lot of words to say that poetry is an attempt to use words to convey meaning beyond the ordinary communication possible using “correct” grammar and sentence structure. When you read poetry, then, you’re not just looking for “what do the words in this poem mean” but “what does it mean that the poet chose to arrange the words in this particular way, and why were these words used rather than other words with similar meanings?”
Types of poetry
Because there are so many types of poetry, it can feel a little overwhelming to dive into a critique of a poem. Do you have to know all the various types of sonnet before you can read one critically? No, of course you don’t, but it can be intimidating.
Breaking poetry down into a few broad categories can help you figure out what to focus on when you’re determining if the author was successful or unsuccessful in using language to reach for deeper meaning in their work. (Caveat: “deeper meaning” can be something as simple as “how pretty that flower was in the sun today” – it doesn’t always have to be someone’s soul torn open on paper. I’m looking at you, Babygoth!Rowan.)
Instead of making a whole bunch of equal categories, I’m going to treat this categorization a little more like a decision tree. The first question you should ask yourself is: Is this poem free verse, or a type of poetry that has structured rules? In a very general sense, these are the only two types of poetry possible. Since “poetry with rules” is obviously going to have a whole lot of subcategories, let’s look at free verse first.
Free verse is just that: free. There aren’t really any rules for the way the poem should be structured, as long as it is a poem and not prose (hence, you know, free verse instead of freewrite). So if there aren’t any rules, how do you figure out if free verse is any good?
First of all, there’s nothing sadder than a perfectly good sentence or paragraph that’s been mutilated into the shape of a poem with a random but generous use of the enter key. The enter key doesn’t add meaning. Say it again:
The enter key
Ok, just kidding. Obviously, line breaks do add meaning. So that’s one thing that you should be looking for in free verse: are line breaks placed thoughtfully and with a careful eye to meaning and emphasis, or are they thrown in every time the author liked a word or ran out of room? Is the poem broken up into stanzas, and if so, do the stanzas function to add meaning and keep ideas together or separate, similar to the way paragraphs would function in a story? Really, at the end of the day what you’re asking is: do the line breaks make this poem easier to read or more difficult? If the answer is “more difficult” and you can’t spot a reason why the poem should be made difficult, that’s probably something that’s not working well for the author.
When you run across an image in a free verse poem that you find particularly compelling (or repelling or even boring) stop to think about why. What words did the author use and how do they work for or against that image? Did the author use alliteration, or internal rhyme, or words that employ particular sounds? Let’s look at the first two stanzas of Knocking or Nothing:
Look at the internal rhyme and the repeated sounds, from “or nothing, the things… ring” to “knock me.. clicking” or “clicking their charms and their chains” and so on. From the first couplet the poet sets up a clatter of words that echoes her clatter of objects, repeated sounds echoing back at the reader everywhere you look. Would “jangling their trinkets and their ropes and their teapots” have the same memorable quality?
Conversely, if imagery in free verse feels tired or you’re tempted to skim past, it’s probably because the language has slid into prose. It may also be laden with cliches like the infamous “single tear” or any number of images I can think of that are overused for sadness or heartache. That doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t describe the way the breath leaves your lungs, but it means that if you want the reader to stick with rather than skimming those lines, give some more thought to structure and word choice to add internal interest to an image the reader has probably seen used dozens of times.
Remember when I said poetry was an attempt to use language structure and word choice to add meaning? Look for that meaning. Is a rose a rose? Is metaphor used? Does the author use imagery and words effectively to do more than just make sentences (annnnnd we’re back to abuse of the enter key)? Are there places where the author has tried to convey additional meaning, and if so, is the attempt successful?
In general, every rule for critiquing free verse applies across the board, to all types of poetry. But If a poem isn’t in free verse, what is it? How do you recognize and critique a poem with structural rules?
There are so many types of poetry with rules for structure that it’s probably not even possible to list them all. Instead, I’m going to give you a few tips about recognizing the general types of structure that you should be familiar with, and how to tell if they’re working. Also I’m going to tell you my number one cheat right now: Poets are actually pretty good at knowing what they’re trying to write, and they’re also pretty good at using tags. So the first thing I do when I realize I’m looking at a poem online is go check out the tags. Once I see that “sonnet” or “villanelle” tag on the poem, I know what rules I’m supposed to be looking for.
TL;dr: to critique structured verse, use the content criticism steps for free verse, but you should also analyze how successfully the author was able to create poetry while following the rules for the form they chose.
Counting syllables isn’t the same as scansion, which we’ll get to in a minute. But there are poetry forms like the cinquain or haiku that depend on having a precise number of syllables per line. The great part is that these are the forms that are the most likely to be tagged with the name of the form so that you can go look up the rules.
What are you looking for besides “did they put the right number of syllables in the line?” Just like with free verse, the line breaks should be meaningful. Word choice should be careful and precise. If the poet just takes out a bunch of words like “and” or “the” to make the syllable count work, it’s not just lazy poetry it’s probably going to interfere with the readability of the final product. Obvious missing words aren’t a sign of success, and you should probably bring that to their attention. Nicely. Instead of saying “you’re missing a couple “the”s in the third line ‘after sun rises lighting sky'” try something like “the third line seems like it’s missing some words. I know the syllable count is tight, but ‘after sunrise, the sky brightens’ or something similar would get you there with less awkwardness.”
Scansion is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in structured verse. From blank verse to sonnets, I’ve written about how to scan a poem kind of ad nauseum here before, so I won’t spend a lot of time going back over that well-trodden ground. I will, however, direct you to this (warning! loud!) video. But for the purposes of this post, instead of “how to scan” let’s talk about analyzing how successful a poet has been in writing a poem that’s supposed to scan.
The first thing you look for, of course, is does the poem scan? One easy way to tell is to read it aloud. You shouldn’t skip, stumble, or have to go back and re-read a line to force it into the right number of syllables. Any substitutions in meter should flow smoothly with the more formally structured portions of the poem, and scansion should (unless there’s a rule for that particular form that contradicts this general rule) match from line to line or verse to verse.
For an example, I’m going to turn to Poe, because I’ve already made fun of baby goth Rowan and I owe her. (Do look at that link to see the line layout; formatting for this post seems to change every time I turn around and WordPress is “helpfully” getting rid of “extra” spaces.)
Hear the sledges with the bells–
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Read that aloud to yourself. I’ll wait. [waits. waits a little bit more. no, I meant it, read the thing. okay? good.] See how even though not every line matches every other line perfectly, you can read through with no hesitations or false starts? That’s some really successful scansion right there. Don’t worry about the rhymes yet.
When you’re analyzing scansion, look for skips and starts and stumbles, but also make sure you can tell whether the poem was supposed to scan in the first place! I’ve read so many poems where the first line starts out in a traditional meter like iambic pentameter and it turns out the author wasn’t at all trying to write a poem that scanned. In those cases, I’ve often made the suggestion to break up or rewrite the line that set the reader’s expectation, because once you expect a poem to scan the rest of the poem can end up feeling like a mistake no matter how well-written it is.
Quick reminder: if the poet has chosen a form of poetry with strict scansion rules like a sonnet or limerick, it’s not enough that the poem merely scans; it has to scan and match those rules for meter!
On the other hand, there’s this. And, look, I think it’s overall a jerk move to critique someone’s poetry who wasn’t asking for it. But the author posted this publicly in a place that invites gentle critique, so considering I’m not about to tear the poem completely apart, I’ll grit my teeth and jump in:
Misunderstood little Mophead,
They call her ‘Changing Rose’,
Her colour comes from the soil
And the acidity in which she grows.
See how it’s practically impossible to read this stanza aloud? It stutters, it stumbles, every line has a different number of syllables. Now, if you really try hard you can in fact force it to sound like it scans… but in which pattern? Does the first line read mis-UN-derstood LIT-tle mop-HEAD? or MIS-under-STOOD little MOP-head? It could go either way. If you’re asked to critique a poem like this, maybe gently point the author at some scansion resources and encourage them to see if they can find where their poem went off the rails. They’ll learn a lot, and you won’t be reduced to a weeping mess trying to think of a nice way to say “bro, none of your lines match and this is really hard to read.”
Rhyme is often easier to critique than scansion. People know how to rhyme pretty well, so in most cases you’re not going to be looking at whether the poem rhymes so much as how successful it is at rhyming within the chosen scheme while still reading smoothly.
Because structural stuff is the easiest stuff, let’s knock out rhyme schemes first. Most formal types of verse, from couplet to sonnet to lyric ballad, have a mandatory rhyme scheme. This is a great time to remember to look at the poem’s tags: is it a sonnet? Which type of sonnet? If you know it’s a Shakespearian sonnet you’re looking for that ABAB rhyme scheme; if it’s Petrarchan, look for your ABBA, and so on.
If you don’t know what type of poem the author was trying to write, go ahead and annotate the rhyme scheme on your own, looking for patterns. Use lowercase letters to signal rhymes on your first pass, then go back and capitalize anything that’s a repeated word as well as a rhyme. Write those letters down a blank page and see what patterns emerge. Does every stanza have an AbcA pattern? Or when you write the rhymes out do the stanzas look like abab cdcd efef ghgh? Heck, it could be Abcb Aded Afgf – just try to find the pattern, and look for places the writer may have inadvertently broken it.
Now that you know whether the poem rhymes smoothly and what pattern it follows, it’s time to dig a little deeper into the words. Do the rhymes flow smoothly in the poem, or is the author’s voice disrupted as they try to cram a rhyme in at the expense of sentence structure? Compare the following two stanzas:
- You trace your constellations on my back,
give me their names, as if it helps to know
where you will be, as if I can’t keep track:
You score them on my skin each time you go.
- Yet once again my hope gains strength
This gift from you must share its due
I pray to give new light true length
With blessed intent to start anew
Both of those stanzas are pretty similar in meter and rhyme scheme (iambic pentameter vs tetrameter, no big deal), right? But the first one is much more readable. Why? Because the second stanza crams idiom and sentence structure into awkward shapes, sacrificing readibility for rhyme. Other big red flags? Look for the following phrases if you want to know whether an author is probably struggling:
- …said I (or said he, she, they…)
- …with [noun] so [adjective] (with sky so blue; with tree so green; with heart so full)
- ‘neath, ‘twixt, ‘tween, o’er, or any other archaic shortening of a word in a poem otherwise in modern English (sole exception: where that shortening or diacritical mark is necessary to specify a regional pronunciation for purposes of scansion)
- “tired” rhymes like “dare/care” that you’ve seen a dozen times or more. (Yes, you can absolutely use these rhymes, just be careful that they’re meaningful in the poem and not surrounded by cliches.)
OK, I know what’s wrong with the poem. Now what?
Now you tell the author. GENTLY. You’re not some kind of monster. You know that someone put their heart into writing this poem and it probably sits in a very raw emotional place for them. All the ordinary rules for constructive criticism apply. Open with what you liked. Don’t get personal – this one is extra important in poetry, which is necessarily personal! Then move on to constructive suggestions for how to fix what’s wrong instead of just pointing out the errors.
Here are a few samples of constructive criticism I’ve given to real people, with identifying information removed, of course.
- The first two lines of your poem scan as: u/uu/u. This is a clean and easy-to-read pattern which sets the expectation for the rest of the poem. Let’s take a quick look at the poem and see how it stacks up to the first two lines. I’ll mark at the end of each line if there are too many or too few syllables.
- When you write poetry you are free to follow the rules or break them, but if you break them it is advisable to break them thoroughly and with gusto, like an e.e. cummings or a Tomas Transtromer, rather than just being almost but not quite structurally sound (which ends up looking like you don’t know how to write, rather than a deliberate structural choice on your part). If you choose to write in rhyming verse, you do need to follow the structural rules of rhyming verse.
- When you write a rhyming poem, you set certain expectations for your readers. One of those is that each line will have a predictable length and syllabic structure. Because your poem does not follow that structure, but has rhyming lines which are within five or so syllables of each other in length, it is very difficult for readers to parse. If you do intend to write a freer sort of verse, it would help to make more of your lines significantly different in length. One of the advantages of free verse is that we can avoid awkward sentence structures like “When all of it did begin” or “That whatever falls in, those vessels will catch.”
- The biggest thing I see in this poem – which is a good poem but just barely misses being the sonnet you say you intended to write – is that you have a tendency to end on an unaccented syllable and sort of try to collapse that back into the accented syllable before it. I don’t want to discourage you from doing that- it totally works, and you’ve got some great stuff going on – but the sonnet is such a rigid form that you can’t do that and end up with a sonnet. This poem would benefit from making a deliberate choice about whether you want to write a sonnet or you want to reinforce the things this poem is actually doing, which are good things but not sonnet-shaped things. Then embrace and amplify that choice when you edit.
Well… that got long. Really, I probably could have written “concrit for poetry is just like concrit for stories or essays, but you also have to discuss how well they followed the rules of the form they chose, and whether their structure and word choice add or subtract meaning.” So, um, do that. For each other (as opposed to to each other).
Poetry shouldn’t be scary to read or write. Now, receiving criticism? That’s scary.
About the author:
Rowan submitted exactly one piece of microfiction to YeahWrite before being consumed by the editorial darkside. She spent some time working hard as our Submissions Editor before becoming YeahWrite’s Managing Editor in 2016. In real life she’s been at various times an attorney, aerialist, professional knitter, artist, graphic designer (yes, they’re different things), editor, secretary, tailor, and martial artist. It bothers her vaguely that the preceding list isn’t alphabetized, but the Oxford comma makes up for it. She lives in Portlandia with a menagerie which includes at least one other human. She blogs at textwall and CrossKnit.