WEbook Guide to Feedback, Part 2.5: How to Read and Write Poetry04:08
If you read and write poetry, I have a treat
for you. After I wrote the second
installment of WEbook’s 3-part blog series covering the ins and outs of giving and
receiving feedback on WEbook, I realized
that I had lots of good advice for how to give great feedback to non-fiction
and fiction writers – but when it came to poetry, I was a bit in the dark. I tried to remember what I’d learned in my
freshman literary analysis class years and years ago, but all I came up with
was something about scansion. So I called in an expert.
William Roetzheim is the founder
of Level 4 Press, and the project leader
and editor of five WEbook poetry anthologies. (Read about how to publish poetry in one of
the anthologies here.) He graciously agreed to write a WEbooker’s guide
to critiquing poetry, drawn from his many years of experience as a poetry
entry in the WEbook feedback series dealt with the golden rule of feedback:
Give, and you shall receive. The second
post taught you how to give great
feedback. Today’s post is designed to
supplement Part 2, with advice on reading and critiquing poetry. Part 3 will tackle the tricky business of how
to respond to the feedback you get.
How to Read and Write Poetry
by William Roetzheim
are several types of poetry, each with a different purpose and a different
intended audience. If the purpose and audience of a poem are not matched,
the resulting conflict is detrimental to the poet. It is the
responsibility of the poet to be clearly aware of the type of poem he or she
writes, and to match that poem to the appropriate audience. Let's look at
some types of poetry, and the intended audience for each.
Journal Entry. The purpose is
to record thoughts, emotions, and events – either because it is beneficial to
vent them (writing poems can be wonderful therapy), or as a diary that the poet
might want to refer back to later in life. The intended audience is the
Letter. The purpose is to
communicate with a single recipient. The communication desired might be
to express feelings, to influence this person in some way, to thank a person,
to make the recipient feel a certain way, or to entertain the recipient.
The intended audience is the recipient.
Song. The purpose is to enhance
music and to communicate a simple message over the background communication of
the music itself (which often requires extensive repetition). The
intended audience is someone who is listening to the music at the same time.
Performance. Conceptually, this is
very similar to a song. The purpose is to provide a script that will
enhance the vocal performance and to communicate relatively simple messages
over the background of the vocal performance itself. The intended
audience is someone who is listening to the performance.
Note that song and performance poetry will be somewhat effective even if they’re
delivered in a language you don't understand, or in an acoustic environment
where you only understand some of the words.
Literature. The purpose of these
poems is the same as a very short story. The poem must offer the reader
something in exchange for his or her time. This is the bargain between the reader and the author. It might
entertain, inform, or even persuade. In many cases, it will do more than
one of these. The intended audience is the world, and these poems might
be found in books or on the sides of buses.
You critique should
vary based on the purpose of the poetry. For the first two types of poetry (journal entries and letters), the
only valid critique is encouragement. You might kindly point out minor improvements that may be easily
made. For the second two types of poetry
(songs and performances), it’s difficult for even the best of them to work well
on the page, so you can only really critique them if you hear them in context –
either sung or performed.
The last category
(literature) is the only one where detailed analysis of the poem is warranted. For poems written as literature, it’s helpful
to know something about the craft of writing poetry. There are far too many aspects of poetry
craft to cover in this short write-up, but let me go over a few of the most
1) Make it new. Good literary poetry tells the reader something significant that they
didn’t already know, or tells them something that they did know, but in a
unique and interesting manner. Everyone knows
that spring is great, love is wonderful, God is great, and so on. Great poetry tells the reader something
significant and new, in a unique and interesting manner.
2) Cut it down. If there are any parts of a poem that can be removed without harming the
poem – even a single word – the poem is too long.
3) Understand rhyme. If a poem is written in rhyme, the poet must thoroughly understand meter. The entire poem must be written in accordance
with the rules of meter in poetry. For
today’s poetry, rhyme must be achieved without unusual or inverted word
order. Many poets have neither the skill
nor the patience for meter, and they may find that they write more effective poetry
if they don’t try to make it rhyme.
4) Avoid abstractions. Say it, don’t show it. Avoid
preaching. Avoid clichés, including
images as clichés and concepts as clichés. Sunsets and sunrises are examples of clichés in poetry. There have been dozens of wonderful poems
written about sunrises and sunsets. Unless you find a way to do it better or different, don’t write about it. As a general rule, if someone else has
already written a famous poem about something, don’t write about the same thing
unless you can do it better or different.
5) It’s all about sound. Good poets pay attention to sonics
(the sound of their words). End rhymes
are “in your face” and must be used with caution. They seldom work anymore in serious verse,
although there are exceptions. Obvious
end rhymes (e.g., the classic moon-June syndrome) should be avoided.
6) Read, read, read. To write poetry as literature, or to critique poetry as literature, you
must also read poetry as