Reading and Critiques of Poetry.
Critiquing Poetry: why this is important, and how to approach it.
Critiquing is a term that comes up often in poetry groups and workshops. But what exactly is it? The word critique is French, around 1695 – 1705. It originated from the Greek word kritikḗ which means the art of criticism.
Now poetic critique, also known by terms such as literary criticism, despite the connotations of the word, is not necessarily a negative process. It is not about setting out to find fault, but actually involves skillful judgement around merit. Sound critiquing practice will also identify strengths and positive aspects of a poem, as well as discuss potential flaws or shortcomings. A critical review of a poem appraises all aspects of the poem from an unbiased viewpoint.
It is very important that poets are able to effectively critique poetry. It is not enough to write poetry; poets must be adept at identifying what makes good poems, and ways to improve poems that may fall short. The reasons why this is important are:
• Being able to critique poetry makes a poet more able to actively engage and interact in workshop and classroom environments. Many workshops and classes are based on the premise of critiquing the work of your peers and colleagues.
• Understanding why a poem works enhances your ultimate enjoyment of that poem.
• Critiquing allows you to develop an informed opinion of a poem that you can support and justify in discussion with others.
• Understanding where a poem falls short helps a poet avoid the same pitfalls in their own writing.
• Objectively critiquing is an active learning experience. It informs poets about poetic structure, language and word usage, poetic tools such as metaphor and rhyme; in fact, all manner of valuable information around crafting poetry can be gleaned from the critiquing process. It is a growth experience for all poets.
• Critiquing poems ultimately informs your own writing and assists in improving technique.
• Participating in critiquing can give you a fresh perspective on poetry – both the one you are reading and the ones you will write in the future.
• Critiquing can highlight opportunities for improvement in your own work. It can also be a means of identifying your personal strengths within poetry.
• Competency in critiquing means you will be better equipped to explain your work to others if required.
• An informed critique is valuable for those receiving it as it is a means of showing that the reader understood the poem; or highlighting the reasons they did not.
• Critique is invaluable for cross-pollination of ideas between poets.
• Learning to critique will ultimately make you a better communicator in most settings.
So how does one go about offering a credible critique of a poem? Critiques should be specific and constructive, and valuable to the recipient. They should not be simply a list of problems with the poem, or vague generalized compliments. A general guide to poetic critique is below:
1. Look at the structure of the poem on the page. A lot of information is gained from this before you even begin to read. Look at the stanzas, spacing, line length. Are the lines long, short or irregular? Line length can hint at the rhythm within the poem. A visual examination can reveal the form of the poetry – be it free verse, prose poetry, or established form such as sonnet or villanelle. Is there spacing between words in the absence of punctuation?
2. Now read the poem. This might sound obvious, but reading the poem is not as simple as glancing through it at the words. You should give it your full focus with nothing else competing for your attention. Read it first on the paper (or screen). Read it silently to yourself. And then read it aloud and listen to the sounds of the poem. Listen for rhythm and meter, rhyme and alliteration, onomatopoeia or assonance. Make a note of these and what is working, and what is not.
3. Pay attention to punctuation, or lack thereof, as you read. Punctuation tells you when to pause. is the punctuation working effectively? Does it enhance the reading impact of the poem? Or does the punctuation hamper the effectiveness of the poem?
4. Examine the title. Is there a title, or is the poem untitled? What feelings does the title invoke in you? What are your expectations of the poem based on the title, and does the poem deliver those expectations? Do you think the title is effective and appropriate? Does a lack of title affect your enjoyment of the poem?
5. Think about the ‘Five Ws’ of the poem. These will allow discovery of the subject and theme, and what message the poet is trying to communicate to the reader.
1. Who is the poem’s narrator; the poet, or another character? Are there perhaps multiple voices and characters?
2. What is the basic plot of the poem? Is there conflict? Does it get resolved? Are there transitions or turning points in the poem? Is it a logical unfolding of story?
3. When is the poem taking place? Looks at tense; is it past or present? Perhaps it has mixed tense; if so, is this on purpose or is it an error in the writing? Is the timeframe for the poem a single moment in time, or does it unfold over days or weeks, or an even longer period?
4. Where is the poem set? Is there a physical location that enhances the lyrical narrative of the poem? Is the environment internal, imaginary or metaphysical?
5. Why has the poem been written? Why has the poet chosen to speak on this subject? What has been the compelling or driving force for the poet to write this poem?
6. Consider the rhythm of the poem again each time you read it aloud. Is it a set or regulated meter? Is it unpaced? Perhaps it is a fast or slow rhythm. Does it have a discernible iambic pattern and stress to the words?
7. Re-read the poem and revisit the poetic tools that have been engaged:
1. Look at the metaphors and similes; are they fresh and original, or are they leaning towards cliché? Do these poetic devices work to maximum effect?
2. Is the imagery strong, and what does it conjure for you as reader? Is the imagery clear or obscure? Has it engaged the senses of the reader?
3. How effective is word choice and language? Has the poet used every-day language, or do you need to look up obscure words often to find their meaning?
4. Is there rhyme within the poem? If there is line-end rhyme, does this have a consistent rhyming pattern? Does the rhyme flow smoothly and feel natural, or have words been chosen for their ability to force the rhyming structure? Is there internal rhyme and how does this impact upon the poem?
5. Is the poet “showing” the reader; suggesting and guiding them, without actually telling with overt use of emotive language such as love, hate, anger?
Considering all of the above will allow you to provide a comprehensive and detailed critique on a poem. But not all critiques will need to be lengthy and involved. Some may touch on only 3 or 4 of the points above. Others may address more or fewer. How detailed a critique is will be dependent on the purpose of the critique, the setting in which it is being delivered, length and type of poem, and also the quality of the poem being critiqued.
Critique is crucial for poetic development. It should never be feared, but embraced wherever possible as a learning tool for all involved. But at all times critique should be offered with respect and in a constructive manner. Poetry critique examines the poem, it does not attack the poet.
EXAMPLE OF CRITIQUING: The following poem will be critiqued as an example:
Passing Through Vermont on Three Martinis
Jay Parini (b. 1948)
For purple miles the mountains rise
above the river. Barns
assemble in surrounding corn.
The traveler takes nothing here for granted,
tippling under ice-and-vodka skies.
He listens to the water’s racy babble
and discerns a meaning. Even
when the wind yanks back a shutter,
he perceives a sign. A farm boy
fishing in the distance moves him
more than a museum. Cowbells
tinkle in the distant calm.
He vows to quit his salaried position
one fine day, returning to this spot
to sip forever as the mountains rise.
THE CRITIQUE: David John Terelinck
Parini’s poem, Passing Through Vermont on Three Martinis, is an engaging way to look at the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side.” How often on holidays and weekend escapes do travelers wish for a life-change, but never follow through?
There is some excellent personification in the image of barns assembling in the corn. This is highly visual and one can imagine them coming together like a gathering of Amish famers. There are original metaphors as seen in ice-and-vodka skies; one can envisage the palest blue-white of the sky and the bluish refraction that can be seen through clear liquor in bottles. It is an enticing way to say pale blue without mentioning the colour.
One senses the character in this story is city-born and city-bred. Vodka is not usually a drink associated with rural Vermont. Further clues are given to the reader as the narrator reveals a simple arcadian image of a fishing boy moves him more than the museums (that we assume he is used to). A salaried position indicates a managerial position and not someone working in a laboring or farming position.
The poem makes good use of sound with cowbells tinkling, a yanked back shutter, and a fast-moving (racy) river. Appropriate line breaks move the story along at a good pace and it unfolds line by line. The poet instils dreaming room around a sense of longing, yet we are never told of any craving. We are shown this through seeing what the character sees and through skillful poetic narration. We also do not have specifics around the job, or why the character is driving through Vermont at this time. The reader is allowed to bring their own life experience and imagination to arriving at these conclusions.
The title is unusual and it is interesting as it is not a line taken from the poem, but encapsulates the understated feelings within the poem. It entices the reader to enter the poem to find out what this is about. This person longs to be there, but I really just passing through Vermont to elsewhere. The martinis again tell us something of this person’s urbanity.
The poem has a satisfying conclusion and has an elliptical allusion to it as it loops back to the title and the first half of the poem in terms of the notion of alcohol. There may also be an allusion to the fact that sufficient alcohol will change our perception and how we see the world.
Critique 2. Susannah Bailey
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference
This has long been one of my favourite poems and always sparks an emotional response in me. On the surface of it the narrator is simply describing how a decision which seems to have no clear right/wrong answer can lead a person to a different place in life. He also refers to how we might tell ourselves that we will have the chance of trying the other option, but of course we don’t because we can’t go back.
The poem is accessible on relatively few readings, and rewards multiple readings by highlighting different aspects of the decision. We aren’t told whether the outcome was good or bad and there is no overt emotion other than the ‘sigh’ in the last stanza suggesting perhaps nostalgia or even regret (perhaps relief?) it is up to the reader to respond according to his/her feelings. He stands for a long time making the decision, and in the end bases it on evening up the wear of the two paths. I always imagine it being Autumn, perhaps a birch wood because of the yellow leaves, this adds to a sense of nostalgia and closing down of future options.
The language is all simple, there are no unusual words, with the exception of ‘hence’. The structure of some lines is quite old fashioned ‘and wanted wear’, but not to the extent that it is hard to understand. The line lengths are even and the rhyme ABAAB is held throughout. The poem has a slow and contemplative feel – most of the end rhymes have long vowel sounds ‘wood’, ‘wear’, ‘sigh’ which slow down the pace and add to the gentle, nostalgic tone. The words ‘stood’ and ‘trodden’ imply that he was walking, but even without those words there is a very strong sense of a walking pace, he certainly doesn’t seem to be riding a horse or driving a car.
The poem is easily applied to many decisions – where to live, which partner to choose, which job to take – all decisions which try as we might to see beyond ‘where it bent in the undergrowth’ we can’t always predict the long term outcome and it is only in retrospect that we can see the difference the decisions make.