Commenting on Poetry

There are some scary moments when it comes to tutoring, like fearing that your comments were not helpful, or being interpreted as too harsh or judgmental in your interactions with a writer. Those are valid fears, certainly, but what about the fear of receiving a paper or piece that you know very little about how to critique? Maybe it’s a type of piece completely outside of your field or a genre that you aren’t used to seeing at The Writing Center.

Similar to the short story, poetry also seems to be one of those rare, once-in-a-blue-moon genres that tutors receive and may not be entirely confident in how to approach. I know I, for one, had absolutely no idea how to go about offering suggestions for revision for the author to consider.

While there are certainly aspects of our training that have prepared us for commenting on Poetry, there are a few topics that are helpful to consider more closely. Poetry requires a much closer reading than many other pieces. Because of its metaphorical and often flowery language, it can be a little hard to provide feedback for the author to develop or revise their piece accordingly, especially if the writer is not present to communicate their goals and intentions to you.

Here are three, general categories that I’ve found helpful:

I. Metaphors

Vincent B. composed an informative blog post on Analyzing Poetry for First Timers. Some of the tips he discusses in terms of understanding poetry will be helpful to the process crafting your feedback. For instance, focusing on the metaphors and symbolic images within a writer’s poem is a good place to start. Do the metaphors make sense? Are there, perhaps, contradicting metaphors, or separate metaphors that work together well, within the piece that you could point out to the writer? Maybe something isn’t connecting in terms of comparisons, or maybe one comparison would sound more effective if it was worded a different way. These are just a couple of ways to identify patterns in writers’ poetry!

II. The “Center of the Poem”

Understanding the theme of the poem is just as crucial to effectively focus your feedback. Joe Bunting writes in his article on critiquing friends’ poetry that poetry readers should look out for “the center of the poem.” Those handy-dandy metaphors pointed out above will help you work this out. While, yes, poetry can often be interpreted in multiple ways, there is often a central, prevailing theme or idea in a poem. The word “center” indicates that this theme functions as the umbrella of the poem. It’s held up by different readings as the umbrella’s spokes. If you see some things connecting, chances are it may help that writer think about how they want their audiences to think about their piece.

III. Descriptive Language and Imagery

Aside from that, what other kinds of things might there be to focus on after identifying and commenting on metaphors and the poem’s center? Well, if you’ve ever taken a creative writing course, you may be familiar with the age-old saying of “show don’t tell.” This saying can also be applied to poetry. Considering poetry is often marked by its flowery language and striking imagery, focusing feedback on passages of description can be helpful. Poetry should be able to evoke an image through its use of words. While much can be ambiguous and ends up being left to interpretation, the language should read descriptive enough to provide various meanings to the overall content of the piece.

 

Suggestions and your own interpretations of the provided poem are vital in helping the writer revise. Positive feedback is, of course, as much appreciated as the constructive criticism is! Hopefully, those of us who, like myself, might normally cower at the task of critiquing poetry can find solace in the strategies outlined here.