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What is a Poetry Critique?
Copyright©2002 by Nathan Harms

If you're new to writing, the word "critique" might be mysterious. It's alarmingly similar to "criticism," which can be downright hostile.

There ought to be nothing mysterious or hostile about a critique. A critique is simply another person's analysis of your written material. A good critique takes note of the positive aspects of your writing and makes suggestions as to how to enhance them. A good critique points out apparent weaknesses in your poem, and makes concrete suggestions as to how to improve it.

Who Can Critique Your Poetry?

Anyone can critique your poetry, of course, but if you want to safeguard the integrity of your writing you need to be careful whose advice you follow in reworking your poetry. Here are some questions to ask yourself when evaluating a critique. What are the qualifications of this person? Does he have experience writing in my genre? If I have seen his poetry, does it have qualities I admire?

As a rule, it's more useful to get a critique from a poet whose work you appreciate. A critique from a poet you don't really care for may not help you develop your poetry in the direction you wish.

The best place to get critique is often at a local writer's group because you have some assurance that writers are sympathetic to your cause. When you are critiqued by other writers, always listen carefully to what is said. Don't be defensive about your work. You have the final word as to how your poem is written, so careful consideration of ideas from people who wish you well is in your best interest.

What About Critique Services?

Another place to get a critique is from a professional writer who charges a fee for a critique. Once again, it's vital that the person critiquing has experience in poetry. It is not a good idea to ask a journalist with no interest in poetry to critique your poem. Even if he's a very good journalist, he won't have the interest, experience or knowledge to properly analyze your work.

Before you pay a professional for a critique, ask to read some of his work. Then ask for a sample of his critique, perhaps part of a critique done for someone else. That way you can see if his critique style will be helpful to you. An academic may write a critique that is brilliant, but technically incomprehensible to you.

How Does a Critique Proceed?

For the sake of illustration, I've provided a sample poem, "Anniversary," (below), along with the critique I offered to the poet, Barbara Mitchell. Following the critique you will see the poet's final poem. You'll notice that the critique makes specific suggestions that are easy to understand. A good critique might frequently provide rewritten sections of the poem, so that you can see what the person writing the critique has in mind. Of course, a critique looks for problems with spelling, punctuation and grammar. Some persons critiquing your work may also suggest publications suitable for placement of your poem.

ANNIVERSARY

thirty years fidget in the air between us
candlelight cannot camaflauge
the vivid glare of our distance
and our words time-worn and frayed
maneuver on the nervous edge of this moment

your eyes slide into mine
and like a duty rehearsed
we mimic tradition
embrace the glassed stem
while our tongues circle impatience on the rim

our eyes search the room for a story
to embellish our own meagre union
and our faces wear the blank mask
of white linen

the hour lies deflated by silence
while our syllables
leak into empty space

Dear Poet:

Anniversary is a good poem. Your literary devices (eg. good alliteration in the second line) and word pictures are powerful. Considering that your poem is about two people who are apparently sitting, your work has an incredible feel of action. (eg. years that fidgit, words that maneuver, an hour that lies deflated, etc.) This is good writing.

I think there are some possible improvements. In the second line, you write, "vivid glare of our distance," but the feeling of this poem is one of differences, rather than distance. Also, "distance" is more vague and might leave a reader wondering, momentarily, if the people are distant from each other, or from some other thing you have not yet revealed.

At the beginning of your second stanza, "eyes slide into mine" sounds very familiar in an intimate, sexy way, rather than the way you are trying to communicate. You could try, "slide past mine," or some other variation. In your seventh line, try substituting "mime" for "mimic." The two syllables of "mimic" break the smooth reading of the line, and i think the word "mime" does a better job at communicating the silence of the two people.

The phrasing, "eyes search the room for a story," is passive, I think. Try, "we search the room for a story," as it's more active. Can you try to imagine what sort of story the eyes are searching for, or how they are searching? For instance, "our eyes search the room for a story to adopt." (I like the word, "adopt," as it hints that the couple is childless, and further adds to the feeling of isolation.)

In your final stanza your line, "the hour lies deflated by silence," is excellent, but "silence" seems abstract. Besides, you have already emphasized the silence. Perhaps you could try, "between us," instead of "by silence."

I suggest you picture an actual physical table as you rewrite this poem. Your language is colorful and concrete, but in some cases you miss an opportunity for detail. Have you thought of adding table settings to the poem? Try to work with the silver, the linen, the stemware, and use descriptions of these items that also apply to people. You've already used "frayed" (as in linen), but how about some tarnished silver? Does the deflated hour look like an crumpled napkin? I bet it does.

Don't forget to use your spell checker. Camaflauge is the wrong spelling.

This is a solid piece of writing. Do not abandon it.

Nathan

Here is the final version:

ANNIVERSARY

thirty years fidget in the air between us

candlelight cannot camouflage
the vivid glare of our differences
and our words
time-worn
and frayed
maneuver on the nervous edge of this moment

your eyes shift to mine
like a duty rehearsed
then slide away
hands embrace the glassed stem
and we mime tradition
while our tongues circle tedium
on the rim of crystal

you and I are the blank stare of old linen
a setting tarnished and dull
our eyes search the room for a story we can adopt
to embellish our own meagre union

thirty years
and the hour lies deflated between us
while all our syllables
leak into empty space

Copyright © 1998 by Barbara Mitchell

Am I Available to Critique Your Poetry?

I am always interested in reading the work of other poets, but I am not generally available to critique poetry due to the time required.

If you would like a professional, in-depth critique of your poem, I suggest you contact Utmost member, Violet Nesdoly, our 2006–2007 International Christian Poet Laureate. Violet is the person I turn to when I need my own poetry critiqued.