Poetry, because of it’s abstract and subjective nature, is often seen as difficult to critique. I belong to a writer’s group to which I bring my poetry sometimes. When I do, I sometimes hear things like, “It’s good!” or “I like it!” or “Poetry is so subjective, it’s difficult for me to really critique your poem.” Things which, to be perfectly honest, are rather frustrating as a poet who is trying to get, well, better at his craft. How can I do that when no one wants to touch my poetry with a ten foot pole when it comes to helpful critiques?
(Note, since reading a shortened version of this article they’ve gotten way better and their critiques are now much more helpful. Don’t mistake me, they’re really an awesome writers’ group!)
Maybe your experience is the same. Maybe you’re the poet who can’t get anyone to say anything bad about your work. Or maybe you’re the writer friend that has heard the poem and is now at a loss for words. Either way, I want to assure you: there are very tangible things to look for and to critique that will always make a poem better. And here are just a few for you to consider, for your own sake or for the sake of your aspiring poet friends.
Are the poem and images clear and effective in their purpose? Clarity is how clear a poem and its images make the experience to the reader. How well does the image or poem clarify what the poet is trying to express. Do not confuse an abstract image with an unclear image. Sometimes an image can be abstract but can be very clear in its abstraction. The question is how well does the image/poem clarify what the poet is trying to express/evoke to or in the reader? You can critique this aspect by saying things like, “This image is unclear to me,” or “this stanza doesn’t really clarify any image or emotion to me that wasn’t there before.”
Does the poem have a strong, consistent voice? The voice of the poem is the same as a voice in a prose piece: the narrative feeling of the narrator telling the piece of writing. In a poem it’s important for to have a clear and consistent voice unless a change in voice is made for purposeful effect. You can critique this by saying things like “The voice changes suddenly in this stanza and for no apparent reason,” or “You lose the power of the voice in this section of the poem.”
Poems often incorporate tangible, real imagery balanced with abstractions and thoughts. A poem which gives precedence to either of these sides too much risks becoming lost in images or lost in abstractions. You can critique this balance by saying things like “I think you rely too heavily on abstractions in this poem, and I’m not grounded in reality at all.” Or you could, on the flip side, say “This poem has lots of imagery, but I’m not really sure what any of it means. Could you interpret these images a little bit for me?”
Brevity is the soul of wit. Saying too much about a subject sometimes detracts from its effect. That being said, you don’t want to be too brief and not say enough! You can critique this by saying things like “I don’t think you need this line to get your point across,” or “I think that this word is unnecessary,” or “this section is unclear (going back to clarity) and so maybe you should clarify a little bit with more language.”
A poem’s primary purpose is to move the reader. Either emotionally, intellectually, or even practically. The poem’s power is its ability to push the reader into that movement. You can critique this in a poem by saying things like “This poem doesn’t really make me feel anything,” or “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be feeling in this section of the poem,” or “this idea isn’t really clear with the way you’ve written it.
A poem’s language should be specific yet understandable by it’s audience. A poem should never talk over (or under!) the people who it is written for. That being said, you can critique this facet by saying things like “I think this word is too complicated for this poem. Could you find a simpler word?” or “You’re talking down to me here. You don’t need to dumb it down this much, and there’s a better word you could use in lieu what you have.”
A poem’s language should flow. It shouldn’t be difficult to follow or jarring unless that jarringness otherwise adds to the power of the poem. You could critique this in a poem by saying things like “I think these two lines don’t flow well together” or “what if you cut this line here instead of here? That would improve the flow of the stanza.”
Poetry is not some magical form of writing which cannot be touched with basic methods of critique. It’s not esoteric. It’s not some “faith” quality of which has no grounding in the tangible ability of the actual words. A poem is a piece of writing, period. It functions in many of the same ways a novel, an article, a scholarly paper, or any other piece of writing would with many of the same ends and means. Also, poetry is not just a subjective experience. At best it’s a subjective experience that transcends subjectivity and connects with others. If it doesn’t do that, what good is it to anyone?
No, every poet wants their poetry to move beyond themselves. And for that they need your help. They need you to critique their poetry. They need you to tell them what works and what doesn’t. They need you to tell them what it does well and what it could do better. That way, maybe their poetry could actually serve as more than just an expression of their own feelings. It could touch the heart of someone else.
About The Contributor
My name is William Bowman. I’m a fifteen-year video production expert with a degree in film production and five years of agency video production experience. I’m also the founder and owner of We Heart Create. Some examples of my video and photography can be found on the WHC Studios website:
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