A few months ago, I discussed 5 Poetry Writing Tips for Children’s Authors. We talked about how to write effective poetry, and how those skills can help build our prose writing as well. But what do we do when a fellow writer asks for feedback on their poems? Even more so than novels and short stories, poems are often subjective and personal. It can be intimidating trying to critique poetry in a constructive way, giving helpful feedback without stifling the writer’s voice. Where do we even begin?
Here are 5 steps I consider when I critique poetry for my friends and fellow writers.
1. Start by looking for any patterns or structural elements the poet has used.
As you read over the work, pay attention to how the poem is structured. Are there places where the poet deviates from their rhyme scheme or syllable patterns? Do they have a sudden change in tone? If so, does that deviation take away from their meaning or does it add impact to their words? If you’re not sure, point out the shift and ask if the change was intentional.
Consider, too, the lineation. Are the lines consistently long or short? Does the length of different lines match the flow of the words or enhance the musicality of the poem?
Try to focus on the overall consistency of their style, rather than analyzing the work based on general writing rules.
2. Look at mechanical aspects from a creative standpoint.
The beauty of poetry is that the writer can play with language, stepping away from normal restrictions of word usage or grammar rules. Keep this in mind as you’re critiquing the more technical aspects. Rather than asking whether punctuation is grammatically correct, look at whether punctuation and capitalization are used consistently throughout the poem. (For example, if commas are only used in one or two random lines, the punctuation might feel out of place.)
Watch for misspellings in the work, and if you find any, pause to consider if they’re intentional. Are contractions used throughout the poem, or are phrases written out? If contractions are used, do they fit with the meter or mood of the poem?
3. Read the work aloud.
No critique or revision is complete until you’ve paused to read the words out loud. As I’ve mentioned before, reading aloud helps us notice the full sound and feel of poetry. This is just as helpful when giving feedback on a poem as when revising your own work.
4. Ask questions.
In my last blog about critiquing, I recommended posing questions as often as giving feedback in statements. Questions are even more helpful in poetry, considering the subjectivity of the genre. Don’t be afraid to explain how you responded to the work as a reader. At the same time, leave space for the poet to consider what impact they want their words to have. Which leads me to:
5. Share your genuine response to their work.
One of my good friends in college wrote poetry, and whenever he shared his work with me, he would always ask, “What do you think it means?” It was a question I hated, to be honest. I was always a little nervous answering, worried that I would be wrong in my interpretation. But eventually I came to realize that even if I didn’t understand the meaning my friend was trying to convey, giving my genuine response was still helpful.
Being honest about the emotions and messages you take away from a piece tells the poet what their audience will see. It shows them where they’ve succeeded in conveying their thoughts, and where they might need to tweak the work to get their ideas across. Honest reactions can also tease out additional connotations the poet might not have realized they were including. Fellow writers who bring their work to you want to hear your perspective, so don’t be afraid to share it.
Of course there are many other points you can consider when giving feedback. You can point out lines that stood out to you; consider the overall music and voice of the poem. You can talk about the theme of the work, or discuss how well the title introduces the words. The five steps I’ve mentioned here are merely areas I find helpful to keep in mind as I critique poetry, and I hope you’ll find them helpful, too.
What are some areas you focus on when giving writing critique?