Critique Corner Finale: Our Best Advice for Poets
The authors of Critique Corner collaborated to bring the series to an end with a special gift: a list of do's and don'ts to help your poem get into the winner's circle.
Each month for the past ten years, Critique Corner has demonstrated revision principles to a wide array of poets based upon poems selected from your contributions. This month, we conclude our series. We hope you have enjoyed these monthly essays, learned something, and felt inspired to take a fresh look at your own poems.
Each of the reviewers at Critique Corner has been in the position of selecting poetry for publication and/or judging contests. Not surprisingly, most editors and judges will describe the same selection method, at least initially: make two piles, one for “pass” and one for “read again”.
So, as our final send-off, we have prepared two short lists that you can keep and review. The first list is what to avoid if you want to get into that “read again” pile. The second, shorter, list are the signs that we are looking at a winner.
Topping all three of our “avoid” lists:
- Spelling Mistakes
It's like showing up to a job interview with your shirt unbuttoned. We all have spell checkers these days. Use them!
- Fancy Formatting
Most gimmicks—colored fonts, huge fonts, flashing pictures—tire the eyes of any reader sorting through lots of poems. They often get garbled in transmission, and they complicate printing and online publication.
Our chief general recommendations:
- Read contemporary poetry
Just as much as you can cram into your schedule, and let its innovations filter into your work. You'll find lots of great examples here.
- Engage the senses
When you actively evoke sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures, the reader is more likely to share the experience with you. Always favor the tangible over the abstract.
And now, our lists:
Jendi Reiter is the author of the poetry collections A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003), Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009), and Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). Awards include a 2010 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists' Grant for Poetry, the 2012 Betsy Colquitt Award for Poetry from Descant magazine, and the 2010 Anderbo Poetry Prize. She is the final judge of the Sports Fiction & Essay Contest and the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest, both sponsored by Winning Writers.
- Merely descriptive poems
Show me why I should care about the thing described. For instance, a nature scene, by itself, is not a satisfying poem for me. Something emotionally involving has to happen, to demonstrate why this scene is worthy of my attention. This can take place in a number of ways: a character in the poem having a meaningful interaction with nature (e.g. James Wright, “A Blessing”); a character's internal reflections inspired by his or her surroundings (e.g. Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”; Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”); or the nature scene as metaphor or allegory for the author's philosophical point (e.g. Robert Frost, “Design”).
- Poems that are really prose with line breaks
Poetry should not be a throwaway format for prose passages that are too insubstantial to comprise a full-length story or essay, such as straightforward narratives or expositions of views. Use poetic devices such as metaphors, unexpected juxtapositions of ideas, and formal patterns of sound and rhythm. (See our August 2010 Critique Corner for a discussion of the “poetic turn” that structurally distinguishes it from prose.)
- Poems that list your emotions by name
Find images and anecdotes that will produce those emotions in the reader. For instance, if you're writing a love poem, don't tell me that your beloved is kind; show the reader something kind that she does, and make it as unique as possible.
- Ungrammatical omission of articles (“a” and “the”)
Some recommend this as a way to “tighten” a poem, but to me it sounds like an awkward computer-generated English translation.
- Monotone stylistic choices
Capitalization and punctuation add texture to a poem. Like rests in music, or shadows and light in a painting, they tell us where to linger, making room for important moments to sink in. One can use them effectively in nonstandard ways, as Emily Dickinson demonstrated. However, think carefully before omitting them altogether. If you take away the visual variety and rhythmic cues that capitalization and punctuation provide, you'll have to heighten the poem's appeal to the other senses, with stronger sound patterns and more intense meaning. Otherwise, the colloquial immediacy of the first few lines may shade into drabness as the poem goes on and on with no tonal changes.
- Poems that display pleasure in the richness and variety of the English language
Think sonority. A poem should be delicious to speak. Some examples from past critiques include Karen Winterburn, Akpoteheri Godfrey Amromare, Judy Juanita, Laura Van Prooyen, and Laurie J. Ward.
- Poems that teach the reader something new
As a contest judge, I love when I come across entries that draw me into another world, whether it's a historical period, an exotic place, or a look behind the scenes at a particular type of job or pastime. Well-chosen details make me feel that I've experienced someone else's life, first-hand. Examples from our critiques include Isa “Kitty” Mady, Ken Martin, Babs Halton, Martin Steele, and Heather McGehee.
Tracy Koretsky is the author of three novels: Ropeless (Present Tense Press, 2005), a 15-time award-winning novel that challenges cultural perceptions of disability; The Body Of Helen, inspired by modern dancer Martha Graham; and The Novel Of The Century, a romantic comedy about the importance of love, books, and choosing both. She offers her memoir in poems, Even Before My Own Name (Raggedbottom, 2009), at www.TracyKoretsky.com as a free download. Also on the website: recent work, audio poems, interviews and reviews.
- Saying it all
Like a case in a museum over-filled with small objects, a poem with too large a scope can be impossible to appreciate. Rather than offer a full family history or list all the conflicts in the world under a title such as “Give Us Peace”, choose the most meaningful images and memorable lines and expand upon them. Got more to say? Write more poems! Some poems that fill their containers admirably and leave the reader wanting more are “No Salvage” by Barb McMakin and “Quilts” by Thelma T. Reyna.
- Following the rules
Contemporary form poetry demonstrates a knowledge of the form but delights the reader in its digressions from it. Writing form is not about proving that you can count meter and select rhyme, it's about understanding the expressive possibilities of the particular form and exploiting them. Formal constraints give one something to work against, helping to tease out words and ideas that one might not otherwise arrive at; they are the framework, not the finished piece. For the reader, though, forms can fatigue if they fail to evolve in meaning, simply re-stating the same idea with different words. Try inventing a nonce form like Rich Hoeckh's “Sea Constellations of the Northern Sky Offer No Consolation”. For demonstrations of how to revise formal poems, have a look at this essay on sestinas, this one on sonnets, and this one on ballads.
- Repeating the repetition
The single most noticeable poetic device is repetition. Used well, it can offer musical structure or emphatic urgency. But because it is instantly and powerfully perceived, it can quickly overpower meaning. Rather than repeating a phrase in exactly the same way without nuance or change, strive for subtlety and variation. “Praise Poem” by Stephen Derwent Partington is a fine example. For a full discussion of what works and what doesn't, see our discussion of poems by Changming Yuan.
- Centering your poem
Did I say repetition is the most noticeable poetic device? Well, I apologize. Nothing is more noticeable in a poem than centered text. In my own defense, however, I will add that centering is not a poetic device. Rather it is just an option made easily available by our word processors. Not only does it make one's poem more difficult to read and work with, it demonstrates a lack of awareness of good contemporary poetry. Nothing makes me personally reject a poem faster than centering. For a fuller justification (pun intended) of this prejudice, see our critique of “Growing Up Once More” by Gargi Saha.
- Not going anywhere
A poem that makes the same point over and over, or for that matter, even twice, is a poem in need of revision. (The good news is, the draft has given you more than enough material to select from.) The essay is the best form for a linear argument. Poems, by contrast, take readers on journeys, leaving them off someplace other than where they began.
Be generous with your poetry; make it a gift to readers. Poetry is form of communication, not a puzzle to solve, so seek metaphors and images that are fresh but easy to relate to. Try writing about something other than yourself, or take a poem about yourself and revise it so that it becomes about all of us. For an example of how to do that, see “Garden” by Kelechi Aguocha.
- Titles that contribute
A good title can convey tone or efficiently provide context, but the best titles can add a whole layer of meaning. One example is “Michiko Dead” by Jack Gilbert, published in 1994 by The Virginia Review.
Laura Cherry is the author of the poetry collection Haunts (Cooper Dillon Press, 2010). Her chapbook, What We Planted, won the Philbrick Poetry Prize. She co-edited the anthology Poem, Revised (Marion Street Press, 2008) with Robert Hartwell Fiske. Her work has appeared in various journals, including LA Review, Newport Review, Tuesday: An Art Project, Printers' Devil Review, and H_NGM_N.
- Using the most obvious ending
If your ending seems too facile, cut it off and see what that does to the poem. Here are some past critique poems with strong endings that shed new light on what preceded them: Joem D. Phillips, L. Kerr, Hank Rodgers, Walter Bargen, and Lisa Suhair Majaj.
- Using the first word/idea/rhyme that occurs to you
Push yourself to find an unexpected, surprising, challenging alternative. Try rewriting your poem from memory to see if you can get to some fresher images and phrases. For an example of striking images and details, see “Gotham City” by Charles Kasler. For some ideas on how to reclaim memories in poems, see “On Battery Hill” by Niki Nymark.
- Writing as if you hail from the nineteenth century
Beware rhyming ballads, capitalization of first letters in a line, and archaic language. If you always write rhyming poetry, go on a no-rhyme diet. Rhyme is very difficult to pull off convincingly, especially for a beginning poet. A rhymed poem will almost automatically be taken less seriously than an unrhymed one. For a discussion of contemporary rhyming methods, see “Coal Country” by Christina Lovin.
- Making shapes with your poem: concrete poetry
This is difficult to do in a way that will be given serious consideration by a reader or judge.
- Weak line breaks
Always breaking after the same phrase, or after a period or other unit of grammar, is predictable. Breaking after prepositions, dribbling off, or random-seeming breaks just look sloppy. Unexpected line breaks, such as in the middle of a phrase, so as to change the meaning of the phrase, are welcome.
- Demonstrate precise, even obsessive attention
Write in unsparing detail about something you know a great deal about or have researched thoroughly or observed closely. Choose a topic with a specialized vocabulary that will sound lively and engaging to the reader. For such a specialized lexicon, see Allen Gray's “Tar Sticks to Everything”.
- Take risks, particularly emotional ones
Yes, this is hard to do, especially in the face of all these caveats. But the poems that readers will remember are the ones that have a powerful emotional center. Avoiding emotion altogether creates safe but bloodless poems.
Our observations are guidelines, not iron-hard rules. Kyle McDonald submitted a masterful old-fashioned poem to our 2007 War Poetry Contest. L.N. Allen's concrete poem, “The Matrushka Maker”, matches its subject perfectly. If you want to break a rule, do it consciously, and for a good reason.
A special thank you to our contributors. It is not easy to have your work critiqued publicly. We all learned from the privilege of being able to consider your work.
Keep writing and consulting the Critique Corner archives. You will find the full series here.
This essay appeared in the December 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).