Critical Reading of Poems

You can create in grand isolation. You can write in any style you wish, but if you want to get poems published these days you should read a wide range of contemporary poetry beforehand. Not just read, but inwardly digest. Try to evaluate how a poem works. This is a process from which you can learn a lot, and it may influence the way you write too. When either reading or listening to a poem being read out, you can apply a process of evaluation.

I’ve already covered some of the reasons you may be reading poems: for pleasure or inspiration, as part of a workshop session, to give feedback on single poems in magazines, for a review of a collection or even if you have been asked to judge a competition.

Once you get past the first read-through and its initial impact, evaluation is best done as a systematic process. This is part of what literary criticism is about, although only a small part. The purpose of this evaluation process could be either to:

  • interpret the work – determine what it’s effect on you is.
  • establish how successful for you the poet has been at rendering their message.

You may need to read and re-read the poem several times in the light of the following criteria. These are some aspects you can evaluate:

Content

  • How is the theme developed?
  • How does it make you feel? What is the atmosphere and setting?
  • What is it about? Does the theme of poem fit into a category: love, loss, nature, political, allegorical, ekphrastic (influenced by a work of art)?
  • What are they trying to say, is there a conflict or a problem, is it resolved? It is possible that you cannot surmise the author’s intention.
  • What is the point of view? What is the role of any “I”, is it either the author or an omniscient viewpoint or a character from history or another trade? Second or third person views?
  • What is the tense? What is the physical layout of the words? Is it a shape poem where the layout on the page reflects the subject?
  • How well does the title work in relation to the content?
  • What works well and what less so? Are there any outstanding phrases or words?
  • Where does them poem fit in wider moral or ethical context? Does it strike a universal chord?

Syntax

  • How has the poet used the counterpoint of lines and sentences?
  • Use of punctuation or not? Half-meanings?

Metre

  • Has the poet used free rhythms or formal rhythms: e.g. Iambic / Anapestic /Dactylic etc.?
  • Have they used long lines? What is their mix of enjambment or end-stopping?

Trope

  • Is there use of allegory?
  • Metaphors?
  • Similes?

Stanzas and rhyme

  • Form, e.g., free, haiku, sonnet or sestina?
  • Use of stanza breaks?
  • Inner rhyme or end rhyme, chain rhyme or pararhyme?

Diction

  • Vernacular or high register, use of dialect?
  • Word choice / diction, kenning.

When you have finished your critical reading, you may have occasion to give feedback to the poet and how you do this is something I will treat in a future blog.

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