poetry criticism

27 posts

Leaping Poetry, or When Poems Make Like Frogs


The sedentary reader is often moved by his discoveries. Recently I learned about a style of writing Robert Bly referred to as “leaping poetry.” In 1975, he defined it as “a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

This sounds a lot like Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who went there and back again, but Bly took his inspiration from the works of such French poets as Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Spanish poets Juan Ramón Jiménez, Rafael Alberti, and Antonio Machado. Bly also cited ancient Chinese poets who spoke of “riding on dragons,” a term defining moments of “inspiration,” of leaps between planes of thought.

If you read Bly poems that demonstrate “leaping poetry” nowadays, you might not even notice the leaping. Our modern sense of metaphoric leaps seems to fill the bill quite nicely, thank you, but here’s an example anyway. Can you guess which stanza makes like Mark Twain’s Calaveras County frog and leaps?


Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River by Robert Bly

I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

The small world of the car
Plunges through the deep fields of the night,
On the road from Willmar to Milan.
This solitude covered with iron
Moves through the fields of night
Penetrated by the noise of crickets.

Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,
And water kneeling in the moonlight.
In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours on the grass.
When I reach the river, the full moon covers it.
A few people are talking, low, in a boat.


If you chose stanza #3, you are correct. The turn comes with the word “suddenly,” and although some imagery anticipates it in the first two stanzas, in stanza #3 Bly leaps to a more emotional, subjective lens to describe sights seen on this drive.

As I said, leaping is less exercise than you thought, so you need not worry about training so much as freeing your mind to the possibilities.

Here is another Bly poem that leaps. Like the last line of haiku, a leaping poem might first focus on a concrete image (in this case, some lovely description of a humble mushroom) and then finish on an imaginative metaphor, such as the trip our migratory souls prepare for near the end of life. By the end of the poem, you might wonder what “A” has to do with “B” but, skillfully done, leaping poetry makes the transition not only reasonable but seemingly obvious.

Leap well done, in other words!


The Mushroom by Robert Bly

This white mushroom comes up through the duffy
lith on a granite cliff, in a crack that ice has widened.
The most delicate light tan, it has the texture of a rubber
ball left in the sun too long. To the fingers it feels a
little like the tough heel of a foot.

One split has gone deep into it, dividing it into two
half-spheres, and through the cut one can peek inside,
where the flesh is white and gently naive.

The mushroom has a traveller’s face. We know there
are men and women in Old People’s Homes whose souls
prepare now for a trip, which will also be a marriage.
There must be travellers all around us supporting us whom
we do not recognize. This granite cliff also travels. Do we
know more about our wife’s journey or our dearest friends’
than the journey of this rock? Can we be sure which
traveller will arrive first, or when the wedding will be?
Everything is passing away except the day of this wedding.

Is Poetry Dead or Just Playing Possum?

Ask any librarian or bookstore owner. The aisle (or Dewey Decimal number) less traveled by is poetry.

Why is that? You would think that readers would love to read all types of books alike — fiction, essays, history, drama, memoir, and poetry.

That’s how it starts, anyway. After all, little kids love poetry. They’re nurtured on Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, children’s song lyrics, Dr. Seuss’s word play. But by the time they reach middle school, the love is all but gone. What happens? 

There’s no lack of theories. Some lay the blame at English teachers’ feet. As Billy Collins once wrote in “Introduction to Poetry”:

…all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

By this theory’s logic, teachers “ruin” poems, either by selecting inscrutable works or by making it work instead of fun to read. Thus we have teachers as keepers of the keys to meanings, while kids are left to play a dreary guessing game.

“Why don’t poets just say what they mean?” victims of this game might say. “Why aren’t kids intrigued by a poem’s unique slant on old truths?” an admirer of poetry might respond.

Matt Zapruder, poet and professor, has an idea. He thinks readers — including young people — need only one tool to fully understand poetry: a dictionary. Yes, online is fine. And no, not just to look up words they don’t know. Words they know, too. Especially common words with multiple meanings because, in poetry, words work in mysterious — dare I say “often very cool” — ways. Sometimes definition #8 works better than definition #1.

When a reader of poetry is intrigued like a detective who wants to solve a mystery or advocate for a particular meaning, it’s a new ball game. Poetry isn’t being “done to them.” They are “doing poetry.” The whole scenario is flipped. Both control and motivation is given to the reader.

Couple this with the appropriate selection of poems for each age group, and the situation shifts. Ditto adults. Every topic is fair game in poetry these days, and there’s a voice that will resonate with readers of every taste — if given the chance, of course. If readers who “left” poetry are willing to jump back in. And if they’re willing to mix it up and appreciate that reading poetry offers rewards both similar to and different from prose.

Next newsletter: How reading poetry is different from reading prose, and how it benefits the brain the way aerobic and anaerobic activities complement each other in exercising the body.



The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is that rare book that handles both plot and characterization well. Diving into the publishing world, it tells the story of a writer/teacher who takes a student writer’s idea and runs with it. When it becomes a bestseller, he starts to get mysterious messages accusing him of plagiarism. It’s a quiet psychological thriller that Stephen King or Alfred Hitchcock would fancy. Book lovers will, too.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

Green, the heralded YA author of such books as Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, takes a different turn with these mini-essays based on a podcast he does with brother Henry. Fans of trivia — and, let’s be honest, knowledge — will savor his quick forays into such disparate and odd topics as Halley’s Comet, Lascaux Cave Paintings, Piggly Wiggly stores, The Yips,” “Auld Lang Syne,” etc.) or, because of his expository efforts, became somewhat the QWERTY Keyboard, and the film Penguins of Madagascar. Like those rare teachers we remember best from school — both fun and entertaining — the book satisfies in 3-5 page morsels. Tasty!

Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo

Fans of narrative poetry that not only embraces the present moment but the history of Black experience in America will appreciate Murillo’s conversational free verse that recounts various episodes from his life and others in his circle of friends and family. The highlight of the book is a strong set of sonnets (Petrarch and Shakespeare need not apply) in the center of the book, each 14-liner going to the heart of America’s social woes from different angles. Thought-provoking stuff!


“Live the Questions Now!”


More quotes — some hers, some others’ — noted in Mary Ruefle’s book Madness, Rack, and Honey:

  • “Robert Frost never wrote a nature poem. He said that. Meaning: there’s more to me than trees and birds. Meaning: there’s more to trees and birds and I know that, so that means there’s more to me, too.”

Comment: Clever, but Robert Frost wrote lots and lots of nature poems, and he can add all the linguistic frosting he wants (pass the ice cream).

  • From Thomas Tranströmer’s long poem “Baltics”:

Sometimes you wake up at night
and quickly throw some words down
on the nearest paper, on the margin of a newspaper
(the words glowing with meaning!)
but in the morning: the same words don’t say anything
anymore, scrawls misspeaking.

Comment: This is true in more places than the Baltics!

  • “I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness surrounding the possibility that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility.”

Comment: Ruefle goes on to elaborate, but I like the thought much better before any explanation is provided. Let the reader take it and run!

  • Nietzsche: “The degree of fearfulness is the measure of intelligence.”

Comment: Apparently Nietzsche hadn’t heard of FDR, who said, “The only intelligence we have to fear is intelligence itself!” Or something like that. Still, if you subscribe to the notion that fear requires imagination, then I’ll buy some stock.

  • “Shakespeare’s reputation as a god is enhanced tenfold by the mysterious circumstances of his being. As is always the case, the unknown raises the stakes and the stature and the flag of the formidable before which we bow and do worship in unaccountable dread.”

Comment: I’ll agree heartily to this — the unknown enhances everyone and everything. Growing up there was many a girl I fell in love with from afar based on looks alone. The personality and circumstances of her life I made up. If I was unlucky enough to get to know her, the allure disappeared and, with it, the attraction. Notable, then, was the role of silence and mystery, both mine to fill. The minute many of these girls talked especially, everything went poof. It was a no-go. In fairness, it was likely the same for any girls who saw ME from afar and built a suitable mate.

  • Rilke advises we “live the questions now.”

Comment: What the hell does this mean? That’s the question I’m living now.

  • “The wasting of time is the most personal, most private, most intimate form of conversation with oneself.”

Comment: Ruefle has much to praise when it comes to “wasting time.” After all, it’s essential to writing poetry. But you knew that.

  • The great sculptor Giacometti: “I do not know whether I work in order to make something or in order to know why I cannot make what I would like to make.”

Comment: More often, the latter.

  • Sung master Qingdeng, by way of the Vietnamese monk Thich That Hanh: “Before I began to practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. After I began to practice, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. Now, I have practiced for some time, and mountains are again mountains and rivers are again rivers.”

Comment: This is what’s know in the business as a koan. You don’t know. You know. You learn you don’t know. It just takes you 20 years to admit as much.

  • “Stanley Kunitz has said it gets harder and harder to write, not easier, because your standards and expectations — the limits of your endurance — become higher.”

Comment: If you are your own worst critic, getting better will only make you more critical still, a good problem to have.

  • Pascal: “Runaway thought, I wanted to write it; instead, I write that it has run away.”

Comment: This reminds me of the free-writing advice I used to give to my students: If you can’t think of something to write, write about your inability to think about something to write!

  • Kafka: “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Comment: I don’t know if he meant the books he wrote himself or the books he read. In either case, incredible pressure on the author! I just like the metaphor of a frozen sea within me. It explains the cold look I give my wife whenever she says, “Let’s watch Sanditon together, shall we?”

  • “A poem is a finished work of the mind, it is not the work of a finished mind.”

Comment: This is one of those aphorisms that, when first read, appears deep. On second reading it appears obvious, for but for the grave, when is a mind finished?

Next time we meet, the final installment of annotated text from this thoroughly engaging book. You know how Holden Caulfield wanted to call authors up after he enjoyed their book? I suffer that same affliction. Ms. Ruefle can thank God for unlisted numbers (though I would more likely text or email, and I may be using the “unknown, Shakespearean” aspects of her to make her more compelling than she is.

Dear Student, What If You Were the Teacher?


Dear Student. What if you were the teacher? What if you had to conduct a lesson on this or that challenging poem?

That’s the best advice I can give to students who make the mistake of Googling “[poetry title] analysis” the minute they are assigned a paper. They may as well be typing “[poetry title] think for me because I don’t believe in myself” into the search  bar.

What do you love best, student? Sports? Dance? Karate? Music? Gaming? And how would you go about teaching the basics to someone who was clueless about this pastime you love?

True, you would use your experience, but you would probably want to brush up on things you still DON’T know or certainly could IMPROVE UPON to do it right and to separate yourself from lazier teachers.

News Flash: People who teach for a living are first and foremost students themselves. To teach well, they must first learn all they can (and the well is bottomless, so on and on it goes) about their subject matter. The knowledge they gain makes them sharper, more interesting, and more impassioned about their subject matter.

So, dear student, take a page out of their books. Read that poem over and over. Put it to song if you must. Make sure you know every definition of any word you don’t know, then choose the best fit so there’s complete clarity, at least on the surface level.

Remember, as teacher, you have to know what many others don’t bother to know.

Think this is no fun? Then stop playing victim and handing the remote control to your life into other people’s hands.

Put some intrigue into it! Play detective (or cast yourself in any police drama slash mystery program you love from TV). Come up with solutions and interpretations that satisfy ALL of the evidence in the poem, not just some of it.

Solving something challenging is way more satisfying then figuring out a nursery rhyme, so why surrender at the get-go (a.k.a. “Google”) when you can make this fun?

And then there is pride. Anyone getting up before the class to teach (even if that’s not the case with every poem you read for class) would want to look competent, no? For the same reason you shower, dress properly, brush your teeth and comb your hair before going out in public, yes?

The bottom line is this: Analyzing poetry or any literature takes time. There are no shortcuts. You don’t do free throws in basketball at team practices only. If you want to be good at crunch time—team down by one with two seconds on the clock and the gym filled with screaming fans— you put in time at home.

Believe in yourself, student. Because any teacher worth his or her salt believes in you, too. Just as in every good teacher there is a perpetual student, in every good student there is a perpetual teacher (someone who keeps repeating to self, “What if I were the teacher?”).

That’s the secret to success, and though it may be a reach, it is within—and not beyond—every good student’s reach. Yep. That’s you. Get used to it. Then take some pride in it.


Top 10 Reviewed Poetry Books of 2019 Announced (And Other Tidbits)

top 10

  • Lit Hub surveyed the best reviewed books of 2019 in the poetry world (east of Eden, as they say), coming up with ten books all poetry fans should have read by now.

Me? I’m batting .200 on this list—enough to earn me a ride on the bench if this were baseball.

Still, there’s always time to work on my fielding and get reading. Two weeks and two days remain to the year, after all, and who says the best poetry of 2019 has to be read in 2019, anyway? The year 2020 makes for a terrific back-up plan.

Want to check your reading against the list? For each book, a tally of rave reviews, positive reviews, mixed reviews, and pans are provided. Of course, in this case, pans are few and far between. They’re all in my kitchen cabinets, in fact.

Curious? You can visit Lit Hub’s list here.

  • “There are presently no open calls for submissions.” I often see this the first week of the month. Which month, you ask? Why, the one following the “Free Open Reading Period,” of course!
  • Do we really want 2020 to arrive? Judging by the political ads we’re already enduring on TV, no.
  • Boycotts. Nothing is more effective, but you need critical mass. Take Facebook (please!). Founder Mark Zuckerberg is wrapping himself up in freedom of speech by deciding politicians (and politicians only) are allowed to lie, lie, lie all they want on Facebook. The real reason is not freedom of speech, of course. It’s dollars. Controversy, outrage, and hate all generate traffic, and that’s the bottom line as far as Zuckerberg is concerned. It’s all about himself and his wallet, the country be damned (and, by God, it is).
  • I thought Americans would drop out of Facebook by the millions after Zuckerberg’s stunt, but I underestimated one very big thing. Addiction. It’s easy to take a bye on your principles when you’re addicted to something.
  • Did you click the link above? If not, know that the most positively reviewed poetry book of the year was Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic.
  • #2 is Jericho Brown’s The Tradition.
  • And #3 is Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus. There. You just cheated. Have you read the top three?
  • Not on the list: National Book Award Winner in Poetry, Arthur Sze’s Sight Lines.
  • People are getting busy. The last 10 days before 25 December are crazy. Used to be you could just follow stars with your camel, putting up at an oasis night to night. Simplicity like that is history, sadly.
  • After seven months, I just contacted a poetry market that promised a 3-month turnaround on submissions. At least the editor was kind enough to respond personally. He said they were caught up with poetry contest submissions and had let the general submissions slide.
  • New cash cow for poetry periodical survival: CONTESTS! (Can you say “ka-ching.”?)
  • New poverty driver for poets: CONTESTS! (Can you say “declined”?)
  • Somebody today: “Happy Ides of December.” Me today: “No, Ides only happen in March, May, July, and October.” Somebody today: “Happy 15th of December.” Me today: “And to you as well!”
  • I haven’t watched a Christmas movie on TV yet. Someone told me I was a Scrooge for this simple reason. But…but…Christmas spirit is not wrapped up in a movie, is it? And who gets to define whom as “Scrooge”? I thought that right was reserved for Charles Dickens!
  • Speaking of Christmas movies, my wife, a fan of the Hallmark Channel (God save us, everyone!), has seen 1,429 Christmas movies so far this year.
  • Or thereabouts.

The Poet as “Perpetual Amateur”


In his book Real Sofistikashun, Tony Hoagland ends a chapter about Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Louise Glück (the “Three Tenors,” as he dubs them) with these words about poetry as a “profession”:

“‘Profession’ has always seemed like a misleading, even laughable word for poetry—not just because it suggests that the economy has a Poetry Sector, but also because it suggests that poetry is masterable, that poetry itself is stable, that some persons possess poetry, and that others don’t. Though a skilled craftsperson can create a facsimile of a real poem, a skilled reader can spot the counterfeit in a minute, and the word that reader might use to describe the counterfeit might be ‘professional.’ The making of poems is so mysteriously tied up with not-knowing that in some sense the poet is a perpetual amateur, a stranger to the art, subject to ineptitude, failure, falsity, mediocrity, and repetitiveness. Even to remember what a poem IS seems impossible for a poet—one suspects that professors, or professionals, rarely have that problem.

“Nonetheless, some poets, like those discussed here, make you want to use the word professional because their careers are testaments to their stamina of craft and spirit. Having found an initial place for themselves to stand and a way to speak, they have lost and found it again and again: they have reconceived themselves, gone past their old answers into the new questions. This combination of restlessness and intensity seems fundamental to the path of poetry. And because they have impressed us many times in the past, we follow along, knowing that on a given occasion in the future, unpredictably, they will knock the hats off our heads all over again—as if to remind us what we are in the presence of.”


Speaking of professionals, today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday. In honor of the occasion, here is an Emily poem, one to mull over as you watch the sun rise and the sun set. Yes, there are some stop-you-in-your-tracks lines here!

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose…
Emily Dickinson

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —




Don’t look now, but there are only 10 more school writing days until the Christmas-New Year’s break. Looking for holiday-themed writing prompts? We shared some quirky ones (half seriously) that you can revisit or visit for the first time.

Celebrating something other than Christmas? Add to the prompt list! It’s more fun for students to come up with questions and prompts than come up with poems alone, after all. Make them the teachers and put their expertise to work!

How To Critique a Poem


Critiquing a poem isn’t rocket science. For starters, don’t use clichés, like “rocket science,” but know what a cliché is, because spotting them will come in handy.

Before we get started on how to critique a poem, though, let’s start with how NOT to critique one. This assumes, of course, that the poet (or fellow student) is offering up a first draft and genuinely seeks ways to improve it.

First, the “Not-ty” List:

  • Do not read the poem and respond with generalizations, positive or negative. Avoid, “Boy, does this need work,” or the equally unhelpful “I love this. Great job!” Negative generalizations without reasons or suggestions are worthless. Complete affirmation of early drafts is equally bad. Serious poets who market work may well wonder, after collecting multiple hosannas from critical readers, why dozens upon dozens of poetry editors reject their work during the submission process. Similarly, student poets may wonder why, if all her readers loved it, the poem turned in received less than an “A” from the instructor (setting aside, for now, the advisability of grading poems in the first place). Wonder no more!
  • Do not confuse revision critiques with editing critiques. Revision deals with diction, semantics, ideas, techniques, word choice. Editing digs into the nitty-gritty of spelling, grammar, and mechanics. Sure, these are important, but they have a place and that place comes after revision. That said, it is OK to mention quickly if editing problems lead to confusion issues (which ties into content). From there, move onto the marketplace of ideas for revision.
  • Do not be lazy. Give others’ work the same amount of attention and effort you’d like to see extended to yours. Annotate. Look up words. Jot down ideas. (See list below.)
  • Do not subscribe to the “all interpretations are equal” theory. They aren’t. Ideas are arguments that need backing with textual evidence. Therefore, if you want to push an interpretation you’re seeing, be sure it fits the whole poem, from title to final line. Going off on tangents or seeing symbolism in every word is not only unhelpful, it’s insensitive and, in some cases, just silly (only no one’s laughing).
  • Don’t rewrite the poem for the writer. There’s a fine line between suggestion and hijacking. Your criticisms should be tools to work with, not a project taken over and finished by a contractor.
  • Don’t feel insulted if the writer chooses not to act on your ideas. Often some of your ideas will be used, but seldom will they all be adopted. And if none are and you did your job, know that you have provided what was asked of you. Ultimate agency lies with the writer. That is as it should be.


Now, the “Do It Right” List:

  • Have a pencil and dictionary (or dictionary site) on hand.
  • Have a quiet atmosphere. Just as mushrooms prefer a dark, moist area, so do poems prefer a setting where everyone can focus and give their undivided. If there is a talking phase for feedback and the room is divided in groups, speak under your breath such that nearby groups would have to work hard to make out what you’re saying.
  • Be honest but empathetic. They make a great pair. It might help to remember that writers, no matter how thick their skin, are vulnerable in unique ways. A person wrote this piece and is taking down the walls in sharing it, so be kind (it will feel good, trust me).
  • If you can, ask the poet what type of advice she is looking for. Everything? Mostly the opening or closing? Word choice? Some poets will tell you it’s about what they want already. They simply want “fine tuning” tips. Others will say, in so many words, “Help!” Any advice welcome. There’s a difference! If you offer wholesale changes advice to a poet who needs only fine-tuning, you’ll be wasting a lot of time (and, perhaps, insulting the writer). On the other hand, if you offer a few tidbits to someone who needs big-time help, they’ll feel shortchanged. Welcome to the world of critiquing!
  • Ready to go? Read the poem a few times. Place a check mark near any words, lines, or stanzas you might want to comment on.
  • Look up words you don’t know. This is basic respect. It will also inform your response, especially if no definitions of the word seem to match up with the poet’s intent. Either say so or ask a question for clarification. (Depending on agreed upon ground rules, this could be in the form of writing or speaking or, as I like it, first writing in silence and then, once everyone has written something, speaking in turn.)
  • Start with what you like. Maybe you don’t like anything, but something in this poem has possibility. It is not a violation of your oath of honesty to show the writer where the greatest possibilities exist.
  • Be specific. This cannot be stressed enough. Direct the writer’s (and other critiquers’, if this is a group setting) attention to specific stanzas, lines, and words. You can annotate this with “S” for stanza and “L” for line. Thus, you might write, “In S2, L5, I like how you used the word…,” etc., which, in speaking terms, would be, “In Stanza two, Line five, I like how….”
  • Pretend the writer is a little kid who will always asks why after you speak. That is, anticipate this by offering your reasons. Every constructive criticism, positive or negative, is rooted in reason. To not explain yours is to leave a job half done. It’s sloppy.
  • Speak in the language of poetry. Embed your critique in terms new to you or well-known to you, e.g. “In S3, L1, I really like the metaphor (read it) because (explain why).” If this is a classroom, all the repetition of terms will be like dropping Spanish language learners into Madrid for a month. Immersion works!
  • Offer ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. That said, you should always ask the writer up front (or agree before beginning as a group) how she wants them. Some poets love specific ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. Others find such specificity invasive. They prefer that you just point out strengths and weaknesses without sharp examples of possible changes. They don’t want to be influenced by them, in other words. Others like the specific ideas because it leads them to their own specific ones, similar to but different from the reader’s.
  • Know that all critiques are food for thought. Writers may later sample them by returning to the written annotations, then either moving on the ideas or choosing not to. Again, agency remains with the writer. She owns the poem. That cannot be stressed enough.
  • It is OK to say what the poem means to you as a reader. This meaning may surprise the writer. It may also illuminate flaws to the writer, who will realize that her lack of clarity has lead readers astray. Alternately, as is only appropriate in the reader-writer agreement, alternate readings may delight the writer, who actually can learn something about herself and her writing from such responses. Remember, though, that all interpretations must be rooted in evidence from the complete poem. Without that, it is nothing but a chasing after the wind (Biblical for “a worthless enterprise”).
  • Compliment the writer for taking risks, even if it doesn’t quite work yet. Explain why and how the risk might work with changes or a different direction. Some writers, especially in school settings, play it overly safe and follow the example of professionals or exemplar texts too closely. Such vanilla mimicry does not invoke the Muse, it invokes the grade. Writing poems with a good grade in mind through safety and mimicry is an assault on everyone’s sensibilities. If you see it as a reader, offer ideas on how the writer can free herself, have fun, be creative, take risks!
  • That said, if the poet writer is genuinely trying ideas seen in professional writers’ works (or studied in class) but making it walk to the beat of her own drummer, encourage that and explain why it is working or why it is not quite there yet. This might be one of those poetry terms everyone is immersing in or it might be as simple as unusual word pairings that have been noted in other poems.
  • Remember to gently warn writers off the habit of unintentional plagiarism. This happens when students accidentally insert a key word or word, idea or ideas, seen in an exemplar. One way to say this is, “Although this allusion to Eden is cool, it’s too similar to what Frost did in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay.’ See if you can write about lost innocence in a different way, one you think no one has thought of before. What does it look like to you, lost innocence? Using your own experience might be a starting point for revision.”
  • Share what’s important to you and should be to the writer. The title. The “turning point,” if it exists (or if it should exist). The all-important ending. The consistency and effectiveness of the poem’s theme throughout. What you care about is infectious. It will help the writer to care about it, too.
  • Use the language of ethos. Be understanding, helpful, respectful. “I see what you’re trying to do here and it could lead to good things. For me, however, it’s not working yet because ______________. I think it might work if you use more ___________ or try to _____________.  To think of ways to do this, you might ask yourself ____________.”
  • Words and terms that should be heard early and often: specific nouns, active verbs, imagery, the five senses, unusual word pairings, alliteration, similes/metaphors, sound devices (specify), rhetorical devices (specify), unity, theme, importance, allusions, clarify, elaborate, economy of words, clichés (as in “toxic effects of”), assonance, consonance, mixed metaphors, anaphora, etc. These words / terms will be the same in most settings, but in a classroom setting may be unique to the instructor / mentor and her points of emphasis.
  • Explain why any language specific to the writer must also be universal to readers. The balance is important, so point out where that balance is working and where it isn’t (adding reasons).
  • End with on a positive note. Then, always extend an invitation to the writer. “Do you have any questions for me (us)? Is there anything I (we) said that you don’t fully understand?
  • Know that poetry criticism as a reader will, in the long run, improve your poetry as a writer. Done correctly, the marketplace of ideas fills everyone’s shopping bags equally.
  • Thorough and effective critiques are inspiring. When writers see that their works have been afforded the time and effort necessary to good criticism, they will respond in kind, roll up their sleeves, and really get to work on Draft #2. It’s the fact that there are readers out there, people who care, that makes a difference. What, after all, is a poem without a reader? A tree falling in a forest with no humans to hear it! Audience is essential, and writers should always have it in mind as they write.

Clive James’ Recommended Poems


Last week we lost Clive James, writer and critic from Australia, which naturally led to sales of his books that will do him no good. I picked up his Poetry Notebook and, in the early pages, came across a blog-friendly list. You know blogs and lists. A marriage made in Purgatory.

Still, James was of the opinion that good poetry is best put to memory. Some educational methods never go out of style — or shouldn’t.

Here’s a Clive James Starter List for Memorization of Very, Very Good Poetry:

  • Sonnet 129 (Shakespeare)
  • “The Definition of Love” (Marvell)
  • “Ode on Melancholy” (Keats)
  • Vitae Summa Brevis” (Dowson)
  • “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” (Yeats)
  • “you should above all things be glad and young” (Cummings)
  • “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (Stevens)
  • “The Sunlight on the Garden” (MacNeice)
  • “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” (Auden)


Granted, old school. And very DWM (Dead + White + Male). His list called Five Favourite (sic) Poetry Books has the same slant:

  • The Tower (W. B. Yeats)
  • Collected Poems (Robert Frost)
  • Look, Stranger! (W. H. Auden)
  • Poems 1943-1956 (Richard Wilbur)
  • The Whitsun Weddings (Philip Larkin)


Not exactly a wild and crazy list, right? In his defense, James quotes Wilbur who, in his critical book on poetry, Responses, says there might be an occasional revolution in poetry, but it will always be a palace revolution. (Oh those poets and their ivory towers. They love to circle the ivory wagons and get all insular and interbred, don’t they?)

Writes James: “The mission of the poet is to enrich literary history, not to change it. When the academic study of a poet begins to concentrate on his supposedly game-changing impact on the history of literature, it’s time to watch out. All too often it will be a case of the publicity outstripping the event.”

There you have it, poets. Leave revolutions to the firebrands. Make like Rockefeller and enrich!

“Boredom and Disruption Are Healthy…”


Why do so many avid readers not read poetry? Why is there such resistance to its inherent challenges? Rattle editor Tim Green, in his interview with the poet Kwame Dawes, opines that people who don’t ordinarily read poetry are put off by its difficulty. In a lengthy response, some of which I’ll quote here, Dawes takes a different trajectory on the question of difficulty:

“I disagree with that vehemently, I think. I’ll tell you why. I think there are reasons why people may resist poetry, and it has less to do with it being transformative and has to do with practical things like language. Things that we think are okay—for instance the simile. The simile is a contract. It’s the similitudes. So when we think of a book like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, those are similitudes: ‘This is like that. Those are like that.’ The safe and normal functioning of similitudes requires a contract between speaker and hearer; it’s a way to say the thing that cannot be said of itself using the knowledge that we have of the world.

“So if I come and I say, ‘What is this?’ [holds up hat] ‘What color is this? Describe this.’ What do you do? So if somebody can’t see it, then you say, ‘Black.’ That means we’ve coded into our culture a relationship between something that looks like this and the word ‘black.’ But if you say you can’t use the world ‘black,’  inevitably the only way you can get there is through the simile, and beyond that the concretizing of the simile becomes the metaphor. But the point I’m making is that it is part of language, and language is about finding the words within our pool of understanding to help articulate the thing that seems difficult to articulate. This is the deal. It is a contract, or what we often call a convention.

“The poet masters that capacity over time, but there’s a logic to it. What has happened often in periods of poetic change and innovation is boredom with the order, and therefore an effort to unsettle things even more, by creating things that, frankly, don’t make sense. I don’t call that heightened poetry, I just call that a time when people are bored and they do this kind of thing. Boredom and disruption are healthy, but not necessarily holy or brilliant. They are healthy because they disrupt the cliché, which amounts to a certain kind of presumption of meaning around what can be closed societies, closed cliques, closed sites of resistance, can lead to fresher engagements with the world and can force us to see our biases and our prejudices. This is not comfortable. But these disruptions, I must add, are best when they are predicated on some kind of principle. At least that is what they are for me. But too often in poetry, these disruptions quickly become closed systems that can be as oppressive and as lazy at the thing they claim to be disrupting. Because here’s the thing—you’re disrupting an existing line. You’re not making up anything; you’re just disrupting it by throwing it into relief. And this is great, and exciting, but you’re not that smart. I can make a poem crazy, because, if I’m walking along here, I can just choose not to walk along here. If I say, ‘This is like a crow [raising the black baseball cap]. It’s the color of a crow,’ we say, ‘Okay, a crow is black, and this is black.’ If I say, ‘This [raising the black baseball cap again] is the color of a seagull,’ you go, ‘Oh, that’s weird,’ but that’s not profound. I’m fascinated by disrupting the mystique that we create around making those choices, because I think they are technical choices.

“I think most people are moved by a fresh way of seeing something, and it does disrupt things. I think Pope is onto something when he says poetry is ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ I think that appeals to everybody. That sounds very conservative, but show me otherwise. Bring all your weird stuff and I’ll talk you through it to show you that we’re all still doing the same thing. I don’t know why we think we’re making up new stuff. This poetry thing goes back so far. I think it’s a youthful enthusiasm to think otherwise, but all is vanity and a chasing after the wind. We’re going to be dust again, and if we are lucky, for a period, a memory, and that is it.  Perhaps chasing reminds us that we are alive. I suppose that might be part of it. We’re just adding to what has existed before—this is the best we can hope for, and as it happens, it’s a lot. So there is a sense that part of what keeps us going is the idea that we’re retaining our unique DNA, but there is very little new under the sun. So I find a great satisfaction in seeing myself as part of a long tradition and practicing that tradition until I feel I have a mastery of that tradition. And if, in all of this, something new, something that marks me as meaningful, is there, then good. But in the meantime, I’m not inventing anything new in poetry, except in that grand and necessary belief that we are each uniquely formed. Holding onto this faith—even for those who claim faithfulness—may very well be the grand poem that staves off despair. There is a fine line between accepting that we are mere specks in a consuming and overwhelming universe, and our capacity to hold to a sense of our intrinsic value.

“I like to think that poetry rests at that fissure between those two existential extremes. So what Emily Dickinson said, I don’t think she’s saying there’s dissonance…”

Nota Bene: These last words reference Green’s earlier remark: “…poets are drawn toward cognitive dissonance. What poetry does that ‘takes the top of your head off,’ like Dickinson said, is that it reconstructs your worldview in a way that’s really shifting. And I feel like there’s some percentage of the population who loves that feeling, and others who hate it.”

The complete interview can be found in the Fall 2019 issue of Rattle.

How Teachers Can Make Challenging Poems Fun


For reasons that border on unreasonable, elementary-aged students love poetry (usually rhyming) and middle- and high school-aged students detest it (especially when they are tested on it).

Perhaps this is because of stodgy assigned works from textbooks and/or old warhorses that continually get trotted out as assigned readings. Perhaps it is because students are often forced to scan and interpret a poem before they are allowed to (radical thought) enjoy it.

Matthew Zapruder is on record for saying that students only need one tool to understand poetry: a dictionary. I wrote an entry on his theory, but I’ll take it one step further. Students need an open mind beside that dictionary, too. What, after all, is the success rate of a psychologist who has a patient unwilling to cooperate, or of a coach with an athlete unwilling to buy in?

Choice is nice, sure, but the trouble with bringing a class of students to the library (or of carting up Dewey’s entire Decimal of poetry books to your room) and saying, “Browse, children, and pick something you like!” is they become overwhelmed, then bored, by choice. Talking to each other makes for better poetry, as you’ll quickly discover.

No, it’s better for a savvy teacher to pre-select poems tailored to the interests of her students. Poems about teenagers, social concerns of teenagers, sports teenagers love to play. Lyrics from songs and musicals. Verse about (wait for it) school-related issues. They’re out there. In spades.

And just as students listen to songs over and over again until they’ve memorized the lyrics (first the refrain, of course), so they need to hear poems again and again. No teacher should ever be shy about reading a poem three or four times before anyone even rolls up a sleeve to dive in.

If anyone complains, just ask what happens when they first hear a new song they like. Do they wait a month before listening again? Then another month before hearing it a third time? OK, then. On the other hand, has anyone ever listened to a song over and over again, head bobbing and volume cranking, until they own it? Thank you.

Teachers need to practice reading poems, too, as if the poet herself were in the audience. The demanding poet, I mean. This is her baby you’re reading, after all. Read it right! Read it con brio, which is Latin for “with emotion” or some such.

From there, let students do the instructing for you. Put them in groups and restrict their time. Two minutes to come up with the coolest words, line, or lines and why. Assure them the why does not have to be a “poetry reason.” It can be a student’s reason. What does it remind them of or bring to mind?

They’ll do this, of course, by choosing the sharpest images and sensory details (imagery!), the neatest comparisons (similes, metaphors!), and the most ear-pleasing rhetorical devices (say, anaphora for one… only say it three times!).

Voilà! Isn’t it nice when students open a door and walk through it of their own volition? By God, these “cool” lines they choose almost always have a poetry-related name. And, getting inside the head of the poet, there’s probably a darn good reason she chose them, too.

Are there any detectives in the room?

Yes, the detective metaphor is a good one. Forget the student label. Let’s be poetic detectives. And, now that the cool stuff is out of the way, let’s take a little more time to look up words we don’t know (enter the Zapruder dictum). Every definition of the word, not just the first.

If this sounds like familiar slogging reached at last, deploy the group’s creativity. For each word they don’t know, tell the group to split up duties and write a short riff of music using the word in all of its multiple ways (or in its one unique way just learned).

Have them use online dictionaries, if they prefer. Then they can first explore and second set their ditties to a familiar tune or make a rap of it, bold-printing, underling, or italicizing the word as it shows its multiple shades.

Once they’ve shared in front of the class or just by shyly standing near their group (safety blanket method), they’re ready to don their fedoras and return to detective mode for the original poem. Which meaning fits this poem’s line? How does it help unlock meaning for what at first was a head scratcher? Now at least some reasonable theories can be floated, even if we are now on Day 2 of the activity (the singing or sharing of written songs being a good dividing point).

Speaking of, the time has come for making a statement about the poem! I always had groups co-create a thesis statement, saying what poetic tools the author used to reveal a certain truth about life (theme). Before they did so, I let them know that we would be putting each thesis before an opposing counsel and jury (classmates), one if by whiteboard and two if by projector.

The job of the opposing counsels was to poke holes in the theory. I told them the first weakness to look for in any theory was this: either that it did not apply to the poem at all (except in the overly-rich imagination of the readers) OR, more likely, that it only applied to parts of the poem (not good enough, friends).

“Any ideas about meaning have to stand up to every line in the entire poem,” I cautioned. “So be on the look-out for words and lines that bring the theories you’ll see into question. As to those of you co-creating a thesis statement for the court, you can save yourselves some embarrassment by rereading the poem before it goes before its peers, testing each line to your thesis yourselves. Anticipate opposing arguments, in other words.”

Early in the year, I engaged in this ritual umpteen times before ever assigning students the task of a full-blown literary analysis. The discussions and debates unfolding in class as “prosecutors,” “defendants,” and, ultimately, “juries” were like warm-ups. Sprints. Push-ups.

They got kids ready — truly ready — for poetry. And kids had fun doing it, too. Reading and understanding poetry, I mean. Even difficult poems. But always poems that had meaning for them.

The rest of these difficult skills will come, eventually, like a Field of Dreams no English teacher ever believed in. But first, you need a foundation. A foundation student-detectives have plenty of practice building themselves.