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Critiquing poetry

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Fri Jul 18, 2008 2:24 am
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Cade says...

While many of the same methods used to critique prose also apply to poetry, there are some things you ought to know about reviewing verse!

1) "More what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules."
Remember that in poetry, there are fewer rules. While it is still advisable to follow most of the conventions of prose, some poets choose not to. If you're critiquing a poem that has broken away from said conventions, DO question this decision! Sometimes poets break the rules for a good reason; sometimes they don't. A common example is choosing not to capitalize anything, or leaving out punctuation. Or fragments. Like this.
There are also common misconceptions about what rules actually are in poetry. One I see from time-to-time is that the first word of each line must be capitalized, or, conversely, that one should not capitalize the first word of each line unless it's the beginning of a sentence. Wrong! Poet's choice. You can advise him either way on this choice, but do not demand that it simply must be one way or another.

2) The poet and the speaker are not the same person.
Let's get clear on a few definitions here. The poet is the actual person who wrote the poem. The speaker, if there is one, is the narrator of the poem. One thing to keep in mind here is that they are not inherently the same.
Since most poetry is inspired by life, it is probable that the speaker is very much the poet coming through, but you as a reviewer are here to critique the poem, not to take it as a story of the poet's life! Too often I see reviewers talk about the speaker of the poem as 'you', as though they are speaking to the writer himself. Occasionally you will also see people offering advice on the issues presented in the poem rather than critiquing the poem itself...this happens particularly with poems about unrequited love, for obvious reasons.
So just keep in mind that the two are different; when referring to the 'narrator' or 'main character' of the poem, use the term 'speaker'.

3) A line break does not denote a pause.
It's sad that I see this all the time from both poets and reviewers! When poetry is read aloud (or in one's head), the reader does not pause at a line break. While line breaks may be used to add visual emphasis, do not assume that you should pause whenever the poet decided to hit the return key.
So if you read something like this...
Joey went to the store and he
bought milk wouldn't read "Joey went to the store and he...bought milk." That would sound ridiculous. You'd just say, "Joey went to the store and he bought milk," plain and simple.

4) Be nit-picky.
This should go without saying for ANY critique, poetry or prose, but I find it especially important in poetry to get down to the very last apostrophe, because poetry has so much to say in so little space. Ask yourself what you can suggest to help the poet juice that thing for all it's worth. Sometimes this means going over individual tiny words, more than you would in prose.

5) Think of things specific to poetry that you can critique.
Don't just stick to general stuff like diction and grammar. Do the general stuff and the poetry stuff! Meter. Line breaks. Stanza breaks (enjambment). What it looks like visually, actually laid out on the page. Rhyme. Perhaps the poem is in a particular form, i.e. villanelle or sonnet. Pay special attention to sound and rhythm:

6) Not just for old-timey rhyme-y poems.
That's right, rhyme (and other sound devices) and rhythm aren't restricted to strictly structured verse. Some people assume that a free-verse poem doesn't need any sound devices or rhythm...but everything really ought to sound good in poetry! The most basic part of poetry is its sound. That's why music is such a universal pleasure, and why you can enjoy the sound of a poem even if it's in a language you don't understand.
No, a free verse poem needn't have a particular number of syllables in a line or anything like that, but it ought to sound nice. Feel free to critique that; if part of it simply doesn't 'sound right', that is a legitimate complaint. Suggest to the poet a way to improve the rhythm or sound of his poem.
"My pet, I've been to the devil, and he's a very dull fellow. I won't go there again, even for you..."

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Thu Mar 17, 2011 11:55 am
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Lumi says...

Jeez, this post is so pretty. I can't believe it hasn't been touched since 2008, but it's full of useful information.
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Fri Mar 18, 2011 1:20 am
Razcoon says...

*touches post* Shiney...
Ideas don't stay in heads very long because they don't like solitary confinement.

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Fri Mar 18, 2011 12:50 pm
Merryday says...

Great job!!! :)

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Sat Mar 19, 2011 12:54 am
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Aet Lindling says...

This is an excellent post, it was destined to be a sticky but inexplicably just dropped from sight. How did you find it, Lumi?
dun worry
it's all gun be k

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Sat Mar 19, 2011 1:01 am
Rosendorn says...

Aet Lindling wrote:This is an excellent post, it was destined to be a sticky but inexplicably just dropped from sight. How did you find it, Lumi?

The KB has a strict no-Sticky policy, primarily because it'd be unfair to all the other articles. You're expected to dig. ;) (Which often reveals far more than you could have guessed on the topic)
A writer is a world trapped in a person— Victor Hugo

Ink is blood. Paper is bandages. The wounded press books to their heart to know they're not alone.

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Sat Nov 26, 2011 7:25 pm
nyiiri says...

I second Lumi. This article is very useful. Thanks so much.
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