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Sticky: Critiquing guidelines & Suggestions for new poetry writers

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To save space on the front page, I've combined these two stickies.  The critiquing guidelines were put together following requests from posters who felt shy about critiquing, and wanted some sort of guidance on what sorts of things they should comment on.  The "frequent comments" sticky arose later, when I started to notice that the same comments were coming up again and again.  However, I'm putting the "suggestions for new poetry writers" first, as I thought it might be useful for those new to poetry to be aware of the common pitfalls.  If you want to skip ahead to the critiquing guidelines, scroll about halfway down the page.

1.  Frequent comments/suggestions for new poetry writers

Certain types of feedback come up again and again, so rather than keep repeating the same advice, I thought it might be useful to summarise the most common of these.  I don’t want to imply that these form any sort of rules which cannot be broken, but on the other hand, people keep telling me that this is useful stuff to know, so…  (this is an ongoing draft, so please feel free to comment and I will amend as required) :

1.  Writer- as opposed to reader- focussed writing (eg, poem as diary-entry)

Many people say that they write poetry for themselves, to express their emotions.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But once you give the poem to someone else to read (whether on an internet board or writing workshop or to a friend or family member) and ask their opinion, the implication is that there should be something in the poem to interest the reader.  So, rather than simply spilling out all your emotions on the page, you should consider, “What is there here to interest an outside reader?”  If someone is a close friend or family member, chances are that your raw emotion will be enough to hold their interest, because they know and care about you.  Those of us who don’t know you however will normally require a reason to be interested in your feelings.

That’s not to say that you can’t write an I-poem that would be of interest to others.  There are loads of them that I like.  For example, I really like Anna Who Was Mad, by Anne Sexton.  But in this case the writer interests me in the feelings of the narrator by her use of imagery and repetition.  She doesn’t just say, “I am anguished and given to disturbing and repetitive thoughts”, she re-creates the experience of craziness so I can start to feel a bit of it myself (which may or may not be a good thing, but at least it holds my interest and makes me want to read to the end).

ie interesting poems will tend to engage and involve the reader, rather than just talking at them.  Which brings us to:

2.  Overuse of abstract language

By abstraction, I mean anything that cannot be experienced directly with the senses (for example, “beauty”, “hope”, “love”, “tenderness”, “cruelty”, etc).  So much has been said about abstractions and why they are bad for poetry that rather than going into a lot of detail myself, I’ll provide some links to essays on the subject.  The short version is:  poems tend to be more effective if they recreate an experience rather than simply telling us about it.  We can only experience the world through our senses, not directly through language.  Therefore, the further your language is from describing something that the reader can see, feel, hear, taste or smell for themselves, the further you will be from re-creating that experience.  No one knows what “love” looks like, but we’ve all experienced the thud of our own heartbeat (or that of your loved one, if you hug them close), the smell of your partner’s skin, the sensation of warmth in your belly.  Describing these things will tend to involve your reader more directly than simply saying, “I love you”.

And just as for the I-poem, I don’t mean to suggest that all abstractions should be banned from poetry.  I particularly like Poetry by Marianne Moore, which is crammed with abstractions.  But she illustrates each abstraction with specific imagery which brings it more to life.  If you cut out the sensory images, you’d just have a mini-lecture, and it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

Abstractions can also take the form of clichés (see section 4 below).  For example, once you've heard the expression "fluffy as a cloud" or "rosy fingered dawn" a thousand times, you stop visualising the intended textural description, stop imagining rays of pink light breaking in shafts stretching out from the horizon, and the words become a sort of mental placeholder, a way of not having to think about the imagery (which is the opposite of what you would normally want to achieve in a poem).

I actually interpret the poem “Poetry” as a very useful comment on abstractions, but more direct essays can be found here:

Advice I Wish I'd Been Told (dreadful title, great advice)
Wiki article on clichés
Notes from Ezra Pound's "A Retrospect"

3.  Excessive generalisations

Consider that you want to write a poem about your mother, and your first line is "My mother is a wonderful woman, she loves me more than anyone".  We'll assume for the sake of argument that the poem carries on in this generic way, without providing any specific detail relating to your mother as an individual or examples of how her love was demonstrated.  For you as the writer, no more imagery is required, you already know lots and lots of specific things about your mother.  For you, the word "mother" will therefore conjure up lots of images:  her face, the way stray hairs escape from her ponytail when she's spent the day in the garden, her range of expressions, perhaps the scent of her perfume or the Gauloises she smokes, the flowered apron she wears when she's doing the washing up and her pink rubbery gloves, the way the tendons in her hands flex when she kneads dough (if she kneads dough), etc etc.  But to a reader who doesn't know her personally, "mother" is just a word, and "wonderful" a generic adjective that could apply to pretty much any mother (or at least about 80% of them, according to their children).   There's nothing particularly unique or interesting about it, nothing that creates a distinct image, unless you fill us in on a bit of the detail.  Generally speaking, if you don't provide specific images that set your mother (or your lover, or the first time you had sex, or the time you nearly died or whatever) apart from the generic concept of "mother" (or lover, sex, NDE etc), the poem will be a bit faceless and less likely to engage your reader.

4.  Clichés and lack of novelty

I’ve found the following definition of cliché:  “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, such as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.”  

So this is fairly simple:  if the intent of a poem is to engage and excite your reader, you have to ask, why would someone want to read something they’ve read a thousand times before?  Why bother to write about something if you don’t have a fresh perspective or something new to offer the reader?  

There are a few links for sites listing clichés here.  Note that it isn't just stock phrases;  themes and imagery can be clichéd as well.  So, if you're tackling one of the big themes (love, friendship, birth, death, god, loneliness, "man's inhumanity to man", etc), you need to think more carefully about how you can offer a fresh perspective, because millions of poems have been written on these topics already.

5.  Strained or nonsensical rhymes

Poems don’t have to rhyme.  Very often it’s better if they don’t.  There are lots of ways of creating music in a poem that don’t involve end rhymes.  But it’s particularly dreadful to see a poem with tortured syntax or which makes a nonsense statement simply to accommodate a rhyme.  When you first start writing, it’s probably better not to attempt rhyming – it’s quite difficult to do well, and it’s a constraint that places unnecessary limitations upon the writer.  

If you’re absolutely desperate to rhyme, you should ensure that a) it sounds natural and you haven’t had to resort to an awkward placement of words to achieve it (eg, “When in the morning I first wake, a cup of coffee I do take” would be an example of some fairly spectacularly tortured syntax) and b) you haven’t strangled the meaning just to achieve it  (eg, “You know it’s you I truly love, You are special like a dove”).  

Rhymes tend to draw attention to words, so ideally the words you draw attention to should be interesting ones that add meaning to the poem.  You may also wish to experiment with rhymes in the middle of lines rather than at the end, and other sonic devices such as assonance and consonance, which tend to be a bit more subtle than end rhymes.

6.  Use of self-consciously poetic or antiquated language

I think because many of us had mostly 17th and 18th century poetry fed to us in school (and some never read beyond this for some peculiar reason), occasionally you see people using words like "ere" or "ne'er" or "naught" or even "doth" in modern poems.  No one speaks like that these days, so if you use that sort of language in a poem, it will draw undue attention to itself.  That's fine if you want the focus of your poem to be the word "ere", but otherwise, use modern English.  The idea is to make the ideas and imagery the focus of the poem, not to jar the reader out of the experience by using unnatural language.

7.  Novelty formatting

Standard formatting for a poem is for the lines to be left-justified and for punctuation and capitalisation to follow the normal rules of English grammar.  If you deviate from this, or use weird fonts or bolding or colours, then it should be because you want to create an effect that adds to that particular poem, not just because you think it looks cool generally.  Otherwise, the effect will be to draw attention away from your poem to the format of the poem.

Final note: for anyone interested in seeking out really bad poetry, check out the following  ;D :

Worst Verse
Vogon Poetry Generator

2.  Suggestions for Critiquing

Pre-suggestions ramblings and musings

It's been noted in the past that many people do not comment on poetry, because they lack confidence in their critiquing skills or don't know where to start.  Lately, however, I've come to realise that there's another potential barrier to open critiques: many people write poetry mainly to express their emotions, and not necessarily to engage the reader.  And so potential crit-ters may think, how can I critique someone's emotions?  

Well, I tend to think that, if someone is writing just for themselves, it doesn't make a lot of sense for them to post their output for others to view...  If the writer is genuinely writing for an external audience, then they need to make the poem relevant to others, not just to themselves, and your comments can only help.  No one is obliged to agree with every bit of feedback they receive, but even the comments you don't agree with can be helpful (even if it's just because you've determined that the crit-ter likes the complete opposite of what you like, and so you'll do the opposite of whatever they say).  

The other thing I notice is a tendency for some commenters to want to "protect" other people's poems...  which seems nice, and fits in with the wonderful supportive community we have here.  But, if you're saying nice things just to be nice, it deprives the writer of a chance to improve - a lot of us on here really do want that chance, honestly.  If new posters come and see fairly poor poems getting lots of support (not sure why words on a page need support, but never mind), it perpetuates the pernicious cycle of people being afraid to express honest opinions because no one else has, and so makes it more likely that this board will become a showcase rather than a workshop.  For those of us who want to improve rather than get pats on the back, this is extremely disappointing.  By all means comment on every good thing you can find in a poem - but if you're tempted to say nice things just to be nice, ask yourself if you think this is what the poster wants, or if they might genuinely want the opportunity to write something fantastic that will have a real impact on other readers.

So, just to clarify the above points, a few pre-notes:

note 1:  Posters who don't want critique:  you should post in the Gallery rather than on this board.

note 2:  Critiquers:  Don't be afraid to express negative opinions about a poem.  Most of us will be very grateful for the opportunity to improve our work.  I can see sometimes people want to boost someone's confidence by giving praise beyond that which the work merits (I'm often guilty of this myself), but ultimately it doesn't help anyone to improve as a writer if you only say what is good and don't point out the things that need work (or perhaps should be ditched entirely).  

Some other points to keep in mind:

note 3: Poetry, as with any kind of writing, is subjective, so it is generally helpful to give a few specifics to explain why you do or don't like something.  ie, Comments such as "I like this because ...", giving examples of what you do and don't like, are helpful.  Comments such as, "This is real poetry!" or "This is rubbish, it's not poetry!" don't let the writer know what you consider the strengths and weaknesses of their poetry to be, and imply that your opinion is the definitive one (even if you're Andrew Motion, your opinion isn't going to be the last word).

note 4: A poem can be missing one of more of the features listed below and still be a "good poem";  for the criticism hungry, don't assume that something is "bad" just because, for example, it doesn't rhyme, or doesn't have a strong rhythm, or doesn't address an issue of paramount philosophical importance (as with note 3, it's fine to say that you don't like a poem because it doesn't have one or more of these features, just don't assume that the rest of the world has to share your view).

And now on to the suggestions for critiquing (if any of the terms listed in here are unfamiliar to you, do a search on Wikipedia.  There is an enormous amount of information available there):

Where to start:  Read the poem a few times first before commenting, and then read it aloud.  A good place to start is to try to identify the poem's central theme or themes - if it's not evident, you may need to ask the poet for clarification (although I find that some poets are reluctant to comment and will give some response like, "I prefer to let people draw their own conclusions".  Yeah, okay, I can go with that, and I have to admit I love a bit of mystery - but don't blame the rest of us if we draw our own conclusions and totally miss your point.  Personally I think that, if you're trying to improve your poems, it's helpful for people to know what it is you're trying to say or what reaction you're trying to elicit.  Once you've perfected it into a masterwork and don't want any more feedback, then you can tell us to work it out for ourselves  But you know, hey, each to his own.)

Anyway, at the request of the mods, I've split suggestions for critiquing into "basic" and "advanced" (apologies if this sounds like GCSE/Poetry 101 notes).

So, for those of you who are timid about critiquing other people's work, some suggestions for things you could comment on are listed below:  


1.  Does it make you want to re-read it?  I think poetry is a bit like music, the best poems are ones you want to listen to/read again and again.  If it does make you want to re-read it, why?  (and of course, if not, why not?).  If you don't know why or why not, consider the items below, they may give you some clues:

2.  Meaning/empathy/emotion:  what does the poem mean to you?  Is this significant, or trivial?  Can you empathise with it?  Does it make you feel anything at all?  (ie, even if it just brings a smile to your face because it's silly, that's a valid reaction)  

3.  Originality:  Are the choices of words fresh and innovative, or could the author improve anything?  Are the ideas, or at least the way they are presented, novel or cliche ridden?  Has the poem caused you to look at the subject in a new way?

4.  Sincerity:  Does the poem ring true?  Is it overly melodramatic for example?  Pretentious/trying too hard?  Honest?  etc

5.  Format/Grammar and spelling:  is the presentation visually appealing?  Allowing for poetic license, are there any glaring grammatical or spelling errors?

More detailed comments

6.  Density:  Are there any metaphors, similes or allusions, and if so, do you like them or are they strained? Are there layers of meaning that you particularly like?  Are the metaphors chosen clear or ambiguous?  Do you even understand what the poem is about, or should the writer provide more clues?  

6a.  Imagery:  Is there enough "showing" versus "telling"?  Are there any sensory references (ie sight, smell, taste, touch, sound), and if so, do they work or are they just confusing?

6b.  Economy of language:  Does the writer manage to convey an idea on lots of different levels through just a few words, or are they unnecessarily verbose?  Could one word or image convey a thought where ten have been used?  Similarly, are the images repetitive, or does each one add something new to the poem?

7.  Rhythm/meter:  ie, Does it sound good when you read it aloud?  Is the rhythm in keeping with the overall mood of the poem?  Does it scan well?

8.  Rhymes/consonance/assonance/alliteration/repetition, etc:  What about the sound of the words?  Are there end rhymes or internal rhymes that you like?  What about part rhymes? Consonance?  End consonance?  Assonance?  Use of repetition?  Are all these things enough?  Too much?  Is the combination of rhythm and rhyme in the poem musical, or is it more like dialogue?  Is the sense of music or dialogue appropriate to the subject matter?

As noted above, this list is not intended to be exhaustive -- feel free to add any other aspects of critique not covered above and I'll amend this as necessary.

Please note newbies you will be unable to delete or edit posts until you reach 50 posts.

Thank you Saturnine.

This is helpfull stuff.

Can we get this stickied? Even if it's just for me please, I think it's ver usefull.  ;D


--- Quote from: candy floss on February 15, 2007, 10:19:31 AM ---Can we get this stickied? Even if it's just for me please, I think it's ver usefull.  ;D

--- End quote ---

Talk about responsive - you see how fast your requests are accommodated?  ;)

Wow, was that done before I asked? Or are you mods that good?


--- Quote from: candy floss on February 15, 2007, 10:24:10 AM ---Wow, was that done before I asked? Or are you mods that good?

--- End quote ---

They really are that good, scout's honour - and you must never question the magic, it's a bit like the tooth fairy  ;)


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