You’re holding in your hand someone’s poem. What can you offer to the poet to help the poem be as alive as possible on its own terms?
(note: numbers are for reference only ~ there is no importance implied by the order of these considerations.)
Considerations for Response
- What is it? A good place to start is simply to describe what’s there.
- What is the situation of the poem?
- What kind of language is being used? (i.e. colloquial, medical, institutional, formal, etc.)
- What are the qualities of the lineation? (short, long, varied, etc.)
- Do line breaks coincide with syntactic units? Do they play with interruption, enjambment?
- What is the relationship of the title to what follows it?
- What risks does the poem take?
- What is its pacing?
- Where is the poem’s tension?
- What does it promise?
- Where does it turn?
- What systems are at work in the poem? (i.e. patterns of rhyme, meter, conceptual frameworks)
- What is your response? Keep your comments as grounded as possible in what is actually on the page. Rather than saying, “it flows,” identify a pattern that is moving you through the poem, i.e. a repetition of sounds, a systematic relationship of images.
- What parts are working well for you?
- Where do you get confused?
- Where is the “heat” of the poem most intense?
- What images engage you most fully?
- Does the poem bring to mind the work of another poet you can recommend to the writer?
- Do you have enough information to understand what is going on in the poem?
- Do you have more information than you need?
- What is the tone of the poem? (i.e. elegiac, ecstatic, subdued, formal, cool, etc.)
- Are there words or phrases that feel out of place in the ecology of the poem?
- What can you tell the poet about your experience of reading the poem?
- Is there any cliché language?
- What language is particularly fresh or surprising?
- Is the poem credible?
- Does the voice in the poem do anything that undermines your trust?
- Ask each other about something that is confusing to you in the poem, “Does anyone understand who the ‘you’ is in the second stanza?”
- Try to maintain an awareness of your own footing in discussion. Sometimes discussion can start stacking uniformly in one direction. Do you have something to offer that presents another view.
- Avoid judgment calls, either about the poem itself, or about the content, i.e. “This is a perfect poem” or “Nebraska is a boring setting for a poem,” “I can’t bear to read another poem about someone’s mother.”
Considerations for Revision
Person: What happens if the perspective is shifted? For example, if it’s in 1st person, for example, how does it change the experience of the reader if it is written in 3rd person?
Voice: What happens if a subject in the poem becomes the speaker in the poem? Or if the poem is about a subject, what happens if it becomes an address to that subject?
Tense: What happens, for example, if the poem shifts from past tense to present tense?
Stanza-making: Do the stanzas serve the poem as well as they might? For example, if the poem is in quatrains, does it move more easily in tercets? Or is the potential balance of the quatrain just right?
Are there images that could be sharpened?Do you sense other poems within the one under discussion?
Does its form support your sense of the poem’s natural momentum?
Does the poem begin where it begins? Do you sense an alternate beginning somewhere else in the poem? Similarly, does it end where it ends?