The Restless Writers are a diverse bunch. Our interests range from children’s picture books and YA to memoir to spoken word. Recently, a few of our members have even ventured into poetry. And while we as a group are supportive of all our individual efforts–even if we haven’t had a lot of experience with a particular genre–we are not all confident in our ability to critique poetry.
I have a graduate degree in English literature, so you’d think I would have some skills when it comes to reading a poem and giving feedback to help the poet better express her idea. But my university years are well–well!–past, so I have been trying to find ways that I can offer feedback in a constructive way. Because with our writing group, it’s all about trying to make each other better writers.
Poetry doesn’t appeal to everyone, and you might not get or even appreciate each poem you read. But hopefully my approach to critiquing a poem will help you give positive and constructive feedback to the poet in your group.
The first thing I reflect on when I read a poem is how it makes me feel when I read it for the first time. I try not to get bogged down in the structure or form of the poem at this stage–I let the words and rhythm carry me through. Does my mind delight in the poet’s language? Does she make me think about an object, an experience, a setting in a new way? Do I smile involuntarily because of the way she described a particular moment? Can I relate to the subject? Is it uniquely personal or oddly universal? How did her poem touch me, on an emotional or intellectual level?
Dig a little deeper:
Next, I think about how the poet achieved these impacts. How did she use language and metaphor to evoke a specific mood? How did she structure the poem? Did she employ a specific form, and was she true to the spirit of that form? Was she consistent in her use of meter and rhyme? How did structure and form help to emphasize different elements of her poem? Where could she have used such devices to better effect? How did she use words and sounds to jar, to charm, to tease, or to question? The important thing at this stage is to be honest but respectful, and tread gently.
To wrap up my critique, I provide suggestions regarding word usage, punctuation, and spelling. If I found some phrases to be a little clichéd, I try to help her come up with some fresher or more surprising options. If I really liked a particular stanza or rhyme, I let her know that too. I also like to find out what she wants to do with the poem. Is it a stand-alone piece that she wants to submit to a journal? Or will it be part of a larger work or series of works? Perhaps she wants to read it at an event or gathering, or keep it all to herself. Whatever she wants to achieve, I offer to do a second reading before she considers it done.
I always bring my own emotional state and life context to each poem I read. Different poems with different subjects will have different impacts on me, depending on what is happening in my life at the time of reading. But I think that’s one of the beautiful things about poetry–it can create an intimate connection between the poet and the reader, using language as a bridge. And for the Restless Writers, poetry is just another way we get to explore the ideas, themes, and words that keep us writing.