How to comment on/critique a poem
We’ve had a rash of people lately who say that they believe they haven’t the knowledge or experience to offer a true critique. Today’s tip addresses that idea and explains how to do a critique in terms that even the newest of writers can follow. Remember that the process of doing a critique is as helpful and educating to the person giving it as it is to the receiver, because a thoughtful critique requires you to take a poem apart, examine its parts and pieces and see why they do, or don’t, fit together in a successful way.
Start on a positive note
Whenever replying to a poem, especially if you’re doing an in depth critique, find 1 or 2 redeeming qualities, something(s) the writer did right. Discuss them, explain why they worked for you in the context of the poem. This helps soften the blow of hearing the negatives you’re about to point out.
Bring to the writer's attention any imagery, lines or passages you don’t understand. This is the time to discuss standard spelling, punctuation and grammar; they are vital to the clarity of the poem.
Locate the subject
Figure out what the poem is about. If the subject matter is unclear, tell them so. If you find a poem that you find you can’t decipher the subject, any further commentary would probably be of no help to the writer.
Interpret the writer’s motivation/inspiration
This is a separate issue from subject. As a writer, one has to be able to convey why they wrote this poem at this time. Many poems can be written about war for example. While one author may write it to praise the soldiers, another may write to speak against war in general, and yet another may write to memorialize one soldier in particular. This motivation must be made clear in a successful poem, or the writer has not treated the subject effectively.
Offer suggestions for revision
Be specific, the more specific you are the more helpful it will be to the writer. Are there lines that could be cut without damaging the integrity of the poem? Word choices that could be better, more descriptive? Are the images clear, Are the metaphors pure? Are there clichés that need to be weeded out or reworded?
Refrain from commenting on the poet vs. the poem, and be careful of your tone. Remember that you’re critiquing a piece of writing, not the person who wrote it. Don’t make personal commentary on their beliefs or opinions. This is considered a personal attack, and is rarely allowed on poetry forums. Also keep in mind that in this electronic medium, there are no physical cues such as facial expressions, voice intonations or body language to help interpret your tone, so carefully choose your words so as not to offend the writer.
If you offend them, they go on the defensive, and stop hearing what you’re saying, which means you’ve wasted the time it took you to do this thoughtful critique.
Now go forth and crit!