How to Critique Poetry?

This is how to critique poetry.

In 5 steps, you learn how to critique a poem.

So if you want to know how to properly critique poetry, this article is for you.

Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

Critique Poetry the Right Way

Firstly, what is critiquing?

It’s not as simple as picking out parts of a piece that you do and don’t like, though that is certainly part of it. 

A critique is not just feedback. 

Knowing that a friend or family member does or doesn’t like your poem doesn’t actually help the writer to improve the poem. (Though they certainly may enjoy the praise.)

The first thing you need to know if you want to be taken seriously as a critic is that your critiques are meant to be tools for the writers you criticize. 

It’s important to ask yourself before even beginning:

  • Do I know enough about poetic techniques to comment properly on them?
  • Am I familiar with this poem’s form (free verse, sonnet, villanelle, etc.)?
  • Am I well-acquainted with the topic?
  • Would I consider myself well-read within this genre of poetry?
  • Do I have any biases that I need to consider first?

Knowing the target audience is also extremely important when offering criticism. 

Suppose the target audience is college-aged women, and you’re a man in your forties. In that case, you are, by default, at a significant disadvantage. 

You have to try to think in terms of what the target audience would like, rather than what you would personally like. Useful criticism absolutely requires some degree of detachment.

With that out of the way, there are several considerations you can make when trying to come up with helpful, constructive criticism for a budding poet. 

Today, we’ll go over a quick five-step process that will take you through your first few critiques.

#1 Read the Poem Silently and Quickly First

A relaxed woman reading a book quietly at a library.

The first time you read the poem, try reading it quietly, as you would on a crowded bus or in the library. 

Make it a point to mark or circle any lines that give you trouble, but don’t look for the solutions yet. Just get a feel for the flow of the poem. 

Are you constantly having to pause and reread lines to understand poor syntax? 

Are the spelling errors distracting?

The main reason to read it quietly and quickly is to let yourself act like a completely ordinary reader. 

Don’t try to read it slowly out loud to yourself at first. If the poem needs to be read like a puzzle, then it probably has some major issues that need to be addressed.

#2 Next, Read It Out Loud

A young man with an animated facial expression reading a book aloud.

Now that you’ve got a feel for how difficult the poem is in a typical situation try reading it aloud. 

Make sure you’re listening for rhymes and rhythms that you didn’t notice the first time. 

If the poem seems to be attempting some sort of rhythm, does it succeed? 

Is it pleasing to the ear?

Even if it isn’t clearly looking for a rhythm, perhaps that could be an issue in and of itself. 

Would the poem be more interesting if it had some sort of beat to it? Or are the words powerful enough to stand alone?

#3 Go Back to the Problem Areas

A man sitting at the desk reading some text intently while taking notes.

Try to figure out exactly why the lines that bothered you are problematic but don’t just leave it at, “I don’t like this line.” Explain alternative solutions. 

Try to figure out why the writer did what they did and how that went wrong. 

Maybe the rhymes feel forced and unnatural, if there are any. 

Perhaps the writer tried too hard to sound poetic and made a line super confusing when a more obvious way to word the line was right in front of them.

Clarity is extremely important in ALL writing, so make sure you comment on any areas where you didn’t understand what was going on or had to pause multiple times. 

If there was a point in the poem that you wanted to stop reading, maybe because of an offensive word choice or frustrating cliche, then make sure to mention that in your critique.

#4 Focus on the Imagery

A man reading a book with graphic images of his imaginations floating in the background.

What images stood out to you in the poem? 

What is the picture that the writer is trying to paint, and does it succeed as an image or scene? 

Imagery is one of the most basic fundamentals of the craft, if not the foundation of the entire art form. 

Suppose you’re not able to draw out any details about the speaker, setting, or some sort of tight metaphorical image. In that case, that may be an issue.

Even if there is an image, is it an emotionally charged image or not? “Babbling brook” may conjure an image of water, but it’s not an especially strong image. 

Perhaps a line about how a wet chill strokes the underfoot of the speaker’s foot as they slip on the wet mud would be more powerful. 

Challenge the writer to be specific, focused, and calculated in their choices.

#5 Give Both Positive and Negative Feedback

Sad and happy smileys on top of a man's palm.

Humans have an intense tendency to center around simplistic, one-sided opinions. Don’t allow yourself to do so. 

If you hate the poem, purposely look for things the writer did well: Areas that show promise and moments in the poem that stood out to you. 

If you love the poem, scrutinize it twice as strong. What lines made you love the poem, and how could they have been better supported?

Remember that both sides of the argument will contribute to a more developed and significant argument for the edits you suggest. 

Every piece of positive feedback will reinforce the writer’s good habits, making them lean more into those habits in the future. 

If given sincerity and compassion, negative feedback will help them catch onto their bad habits and change them.

Whether the critique will be given in a private email, a blog article, or an open discussion by the writer’s desk. Ensure that every word you say considers where the writer is now and how they can do better tomorrow.