Workshopping: Poetry

Third in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines and the second about short fiction.  The fourth will focus on scripts and the fifth on workshopping and editing long fiction.

This week, we’ll talk about workshopping poetry, including how you should format your poems, what specifically to have, and how to go about critiquing it.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

When you decide to bring poetry into your workshop, you may want to make sure you do a few things before actually having it critiqued.

Firstly, go over the poem and make sure all of the words are spelled correctly – specifically, that they are spelled correctly according to how you want them spelled.  Because poetry is so flexible in its use of language, spelling things correctly or incorrectly actually can have a real impact on the way it is interpreted.

Your poem should also be in the format you want it to be in.  Poetry, unlike prose, can be formatted in any way you like, because sometimes it is the actual physical position of the lines that contains meaning.  If that fourth line in the seventh stanza needs to be tabbed over two inches, feel free to do so – it could have a strong impact on your reader.

Once you’ve tackled those two things, you can start in on the actual content.  Poetry differs from prose in that imagery is the most important thing.  Make sure your images are well-crafted and memorable – while it’s never helpful to use cliches in writing, using cliches in poetry is a horrendous beginner’s mistake because unique ways of seeing, hearing, or experiencing something is the point of reading a poem.

These basic rules apply to all types of poetry, from lengthy dramatic monologues down to 17-syllable haiku.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

There are very particular things you should look for when critiquing poetry in a workshop because poetry has particular needs associated with it.  Unlike short fiction or scripts, poetry doesn’t necessarily need a plot – just a theme.

With that in mind, consider the following when you read and critique poems.

Take special heed of what precisely the author is trying to do in regards to spelling and format.  As I mentioned above, spelling and format are both pretty important to style and tone, which are vital in poetry.  If something is spelled incorrectly and shouldn’t, that needs to come up in the discussion.  If something is spelled correctly and shouldn’t, that also needs to come up in discussion.

It’s also important to look at what the author is trying to say and whether or not it’s working.  In one poetry class, a student brought in a poem titled “Human Pet” – but the subject of the “pet-like” treatment wasn’t being treated like a pet but rather like an object instead.  While that may seem like a small nuance, those small nuances of language are important for the poem to work the way it should and to actually be effective.

As mentioned above, a poem don’t really need a plot because its beauty often lies in the images and texture of the language.  Identify and examine each image in the poem and see how it works.  Is it unique?  Does it make you think about the topic of the poem – or at least the item it is describing – in a new or different way?  For example, does that description of a teenage girl’s bangs help you understand why her teacher is in love with her?  Does the line about flying crows help you see the underlying beauty in life on a farm?

While all three of these basic poetry-critiquing rules are important, it is the third rule which is most important, because the imagery of a poem can make or break it.  Always take a good look at the images as well as how they tie together; if you can help a writer in your workshop manage this well, it will greatly benefit him or her as a writer.

Conclusion

Workshopping poetry is much, much different from workshopping prose!  If one member of your group regularly brings in poetry, you should probably get yourself familiar with the genre.  Ask him or her what poets his or her work is drawn from and take some time to check a book out of the library.

If you’re interested in poetry yourself after reading this article, I highly recommend you start reading poetry!  If you’re inclined towards prose, start out with the poet Ai, who writes in dramatic monologue style.  I recommend her collection called Dread – it’s the first collection of hers I have read and it is absolutely fantastic, if a bit dark.

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