Always begin a critique session by having the poet read the poem aloud.
Mind your P’s & Q’s: Praise, then Question. Praise what’s strong about the poem. Ask questions about the following:
• Vision of the poem: Ask about the source of the poem, its impulse or vision. Has the poem captured the poet’s vision? Do you as the reader get what the poet is trying to convey?
• Language: Look at the words chosen by the poet. Do the words communicate the author’s message? Does the poet use strong, surprising, original language? Do you hear music in the chosen words? alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc.?
• Imagery/Figurative Language: Does the poet use images or similes and/or metaphors in an effective way? Does the poet show rather than tell?
• Voice: the narrative point of view or speaker of the poem. Strong poems have an unmistakable voice. Does the point of view remain consistent? Keep a close eye on complexly structured, long poems. It is easy for the poet to unintentionally change point of view, i.e. shifting from “I”, first person, to “you,” second person.
Meter and Rhyme – Is the verse written in a specific metered and/or rhyming poetic form? blank verse? haiku? sonnet? tanka? etc. Have a vigilant ear and eye for formal structure. Is the structure masterfully maintained or does the poet falter here and there? Within a free verse poem, listen for slant and internal rhymes. Musical language defines a well crafted poem.
Stanzas – Does the stanza order make sense to you and most effectively convey the poem’s power? Would it make the poem stronger to change the order?
Lines – Would the poem be stronger if the lines were rearranged?
Line breaks – As you look at the poem on the page and hear it read aloud, do the line breaks seem natural or make the poem confusing?
Last but not least–
–Always ask questions about anything you find confusing. All well-written literature, including poetry, should be lucid to the reader.
–Ask the poet to expand on anything about which you want to know more.
–Ask whether everything in the poem is necessary. In poetry more than any other genre, less is more. Taking out superfluous and repetitious words or lines can grant the poem momentum, power.
–Does the poem leave you shocked, surprised, elated or reaching for a tissue? If so, chances are, you are reading a gem!: The best poetry touches and surprises the reader.
Written by Diana Engel
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Further reading and inspiration:
Robert Frost. The Figure a Poem Makes. New York: Henry Holt
and Company, 1939.
Robert Pinsky. The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.