I was recently in a conversation with someone who wanted to learn how to critique poetry, and I figured, what the heck, I’ll just go over what I know. On YWS, I’ve been reviewing poetry since 2013, and I’m a poetry moderator, so I probably know quite a bit. Plus, I love helping people. This wasn’t going to be anything too difficult, right?
Well, it turned out to be a bit of a challenge to get started because poetry has so many aspects to it which are reviewable. There’s tone, structure, clarity, uniqueness, entertainment value, and even the story like plot, setting, characters, theme, and point of view. I decided to narrow it down to just those things which would be easiest to manage, and I’d like to share some of the more complicated things I discovered when posed this request with you.
Structure vs Tone
The structure of a poem, things like the punctuation, capitalization, spacing, line breaks, and so forth affects the tone of the piece. This was a new concept for my fellow reviewer, so maybe it is to you too. First thing first, the tone of a poem is the way the words sound with their meaning such as an angry tone, harsh, light, etc and it’s often made up of the connotation, denotation, stress, and meter.
The structure can affect the tone because it relates different words together that usually would not be highlighted in a poem. For instance, if a poet capitalizes certain nouns or verbs, they might create a different stress or meter than if they leave it for a talking voice to read.
Some of the ways a critiquer might determine if the structure is hurting the poem or not is by changing the poem. Take it out of the structure and try to fiddle with it to find if there’s something that works better. Do the capitals get in the way? Does adding capitals help? Usually this is advice I give poets rather than critiquers, but it can help both determine which the problem child is if one of these two is faulty.
Clarity vs Creativity
There are usually two camps in any debate, for and against. That’s the case in poetry too when it comes to the debate about whether clarity of message, or creativity of word choice and sound should reign supreme. There are some poems written just to sound good, and others which are written to give a message.
Ideally, like with any good debate, there’s compromise for a final answer. In this case, there is compromise with allowing for a poem which has a meaning, but is creatively delivered or a poem with sounds creative while delivering a message. The difference? If a poet is doing the first, they focus on a message, such as racism, war, famine, love, peace, those big ticket items, while they use poetic devices to deliver that message. A poem on racism being from the perspective of an albino zebra, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, there is also the option that a poem is just about the sounds, but they snuck in a message as well. It might be something that is still a big ticket item, or it might just be a life lesson they’ve learned.
The point is that in a critique, it is the reviewer’s job to determine if either the creativity or the message are lost to the other. Did they sacrifice their message too much and lose it entirely? Is there no point to read the poem? Or is the poem too explanation oriented and there’s no challenge to reading it? Is it a boring thing to read? These questions all help a poet determine which way they need to sway their balance because it really is a balancing act.
How To Analyze a Poem
While we were working, I discovered that they didn’t feel comfortable analyzing poetry. To me, this is something I can do, but I do less than I want to. In the end, I explained it like this.
There are a few ways to do it, but basically it boils down to asking questions about the poem to discover new understandings. Mostly, focus on what the poet’s intentions were. Ask yourself why they might do something versus something else, look for figurative language, punctuation marks in weird spots, capitalization in weird spots, and basically, be curious!
To get them started, I set out some basic questions.
- What is the poem about?
- How do you know what the poem is about?
- What is your paraphrase of the poem?
- Does anything sound odd? If so, what sounds odd and what do you expect?
Sometimes these questions can be pretty complex, so let’s break it down just a little bit. It’s okay to take them in any order. There’s no reason to jump right into ‘what’s it mean’ when we can paraphrase it to get that meaning. For now, let’s look at ways to break down the questions and make them manageable.
What is the poem about?
This question is here for two reasons, a broad sweeping statement of theme, and any personal observations afterwards. Really, I answer this question twice, once when I begin to write a review, and the next time when I finish writing a review.
If someone is completely stuck with analyzing what a poem is about just in general, I suggest looking for key words, jumping down to the paraphrase, finding figurative language (metaphor, simile, allusion, alliteration, idiom, etc.), or looking at the tone to figure out if the language is negative, positive, or something else. The more someone works with a poem, the more they’ll understand it’s complexities.
How do you know what the poem is about?
This is a probing question to get the analysis done. What makes me as a reviewer think that this is the message of the poet? This can help because if I already have a sweeping message written down, I can clarify it and make sure it’s right.
If someone doesn’t know how they know, I suggest they do all the things from looking at what the poem is about. Paraphrase. Underline figurative language. Analyze tone. Reread it. Underline key words. If none of that works, ask “Where does it say anything about [meaning of the poem]?” If that’s too broad, look for the specific parts. Use quotes. Whenever using a quote, make sure there is a paraphrase of the quote attached to it so that someone coming by afterwards can read the paraphrase and see what the reviewer sees.
What is your paraphrase of the poem?
This is a call to action, not a question. Basically, I write a paraphrase of the poem somewhere so that I have it on hand if I need to use it to interpret any of the lines or see where my interpretation falls short.
Does anything sound odd? If so, what sounds odd and what do you expect?
This final question leads back to the question about what is the poem about because if I find something that sounds odd, I know that I need to potentially rethink my meaning. Usually if I find something odd, it’s because I haven’t read something close enough.
Oftentimes when paraphrasing, something won’t quite stick. Something feels like the message is lost or that there is a dead line [a line with no meaning]. Sometimes this is because of poor poetry writing [I work with emerging poets], but sometimes it is because I didn’t spend enough time with a poem. This tells me if that’s the case and it has saved my criticism from many an angry retort.
Poetry is interconnected so what affects one thing will change how another feels. Play around with the poems you want to edit or review until you find what you want. If you are reviewing or analyzing a poem, try to discover the mindset of the writer to determine why they might have done things a certain way.
Ask yourself questions about the poem to help you analyze the meaning and why they used certain phrases, structures, or sounds.