When you are in a dedicated poetry writing group, critiquing well is not such an issue because usually most members know the basics. However, in a mixed group of writers where maybe only two or three write poetry, it can be a challenge for the fiction and nonfiction writers to feel like they can say anything useful.
The key to a good poem is that every word should count, from start to finish. I also think a poem should have some kind of progression happening, a sense of movement forward for the reader rather than just a lump of words standing in one place.
The following tips and suggestions might be useful. These are ones I’ve used as the basis of workshopping in my classes for years, with some added extras.
- Is it a good title? Does it add something more to the poem? Be wary of titles that are just labels (e.g. Sky or Daffodils) if there is the potential for something stronger. Using Poem or Sonnet etc as your title is a wasted opportunity.
- Does the first line work? Does it pull the reader into the poem, make the poem inviting or engaging right from the start? Or is it a bit weak or explanatory?
- Does the poem use strong language and imagery? Does it use strong, specific nouns and verbs, or does it over-rely on adjectives and adverbs? Does it create word pictures or ideas as you read it?
- Do you feel fully engaged throughout the poem, or are there places where your attention drops? Are there wordy or slow parts that could be tightened?
- Does the poet use metaphors and similes in original ways? Are they fitting to the poem’s subject or are they too ‘odd’? (i.e. the poet has tried too hard)
- Do the line breaks work? Has the poet broken lines effectively for rhythm, sound and meaning? Often line breaks can work like punctuation – is that happening effectively? If there are lines carried over (enjambed) does this work?
- Has the poet used stanza breaks? Do they work? Would the poem benefit from more or less stanza breaks?
- Has the poet used white space effectively? Do you feel there is room for you as the reader to enter the poem?
- Does the poem end strongly? What is the last line doing? Does it introduce something odd or irrelevant at the end? Does it leave you with something to think about?
- Do you understand (more or less) what the poet is trying to tell you? Or is the poem too obscure or impenetrable? Does the poem excite or at least satisfy you?
Often I hear writers say it doesn’t matter to them if people don’t understand their poems. But if you want readers (and presenting your poems to a critique group implies you do) then you need to communicate to them effectively. If most of the people in the group can’t understand what you are on about, maybe you need to rethink what your poems are doing, and why.
If you have any more tips for critiquing poems, please do share!
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