Giving Quality Feedback on Poetry

It’s something of a badge of honour when someone asks me to read over a poem they’ve written and to provide feedback. So I was only too happy to oblige when a friend sent me a three-part piece she wasn’t sure about.

On receipt of a poem, I first of all go through a mental checklist of features I would expect to see. As I write, I realise this is the first time I’ve written down these features, so I might return to this topic and make amendments.


Punctuation

Although poetry often employs types of line breaks that don’t appear in prose, it’s a convention that sentences are still punctuated in the same way with commas, full stops and other marks.

Capitalisation

Before 1900 or so, the first letter of a new line was capitalised whether or not it was at the beginning of a new sentence. Beginning in the 20th century, however, that first letter is not usually capitalised unless it also begins a sentence.

Forced rhymes

Not all poetry rhymes, but when a rhyme is included, it’s conventional to make it sound as natural as possible. I hear too many cases where the poet has written in rhyming couplets and the order of the words in the second line of each couplet is altered to make it fit with the first.


After those three checks, I consider other aspects such as word choice, whether any clichés have been used, the rhythm of the piece, and how the structure might be amended for greater impact on the reader.

But these are only conventions and they can be broken. In the second part of her poem, my friend eschewed punctuation and capitalisation so it read like work from Allen Ginsberg or E E Cummings. If you’re planning to break poetic convention, the best way is to make it clear to the reader that you’re not following the rules.

Overall, I was pleased with the piece my friend sent, and I look forward to hearing it in its final form.

More E-Rejection™ Slips.

A couple of months ago, I discussed the content of rejection slips, or their modern electronic equivalent, which I’ve dubbed E-Rejection™ slips. In that entry, I discussed the feedback to one of my stories, The Strange Case of Mr Brown. I felt the editors had missed the point of the story by their response.

Last weekend, I received another E-Rejection™ from a local publication, and the sender told me that one of the two pieces had been discussed until a late stage in the decision making process, but both had ultimately been refused. That piece was The Strange Case of Mr Brown.

The latest slip didn’t provide any other information about either piece, but I had faith in Mr Brown. It’s written from the point of view of a lawyer in the late 1800s, so it has a certain period style that needs to be believable but understandable to a 21st century audience.

Yet there is such a fine line between self-belief and self-delusion, and not just in writing. It’s terrifically difficult to judge yourself honestly. Just look at the singers on talent shows who are so convinced they’re the next big thing while missing every note.

I’ve considered the question of how to decide whether your self-belief is justified or not. There is probably no single good way, but it’s worth examining any recurring themes in your feedback. If editors or reviewers have different negative comments to make, you probably haven’t made a complete hash of it. But if they all focus in on one or two negative aspects, then there’s a chance you need to put it more work.

One recurring theme I find is that editors like my writing style, but feel that the plot never took off. That often spurs me on to add twists that I otherwise wouldn’t have felt the need to include.

But if you have a better way of using feedback to your advantage, I’d like to hear it.