How to review a poem
If you want to answer the question, is this poem good? You first have to ask the question, what is it? You have to measure the poem against some kind of criterion – judgement means comparing one thing to another, there has to be an “other” – perhaps not the ideal or perfect expression of that particular idea, but at least the other poems of a similar type. So, what is the type? If poems are judged by their form as well as their function, form is a good, mostly neutral, place to start. There is the animal – classify it.
What do you have to classify?
- Theme, sub-theme, subject, idea or topic
- Form and its elements – how is the poem structured
- Cohesion between theme and form
- Reader response
It supposed that is a poet is expert at form and the poem functions well and has the desired response in the reader, then it must be good. Not so.
Sometimes a poem is great in all respects, yet, the reader will not like it, nor remember it. Nor will the words get into the reader’s head and become part of his reference framework.
For me, when I see a woman in a long skirt, I think – “her feet beneath her petticoat, like little mice, stole in and out”. It’s from Ballad of a Wedding by Sir John Suckling – the rest of it is pretty awful, but the little mice will always be on my mind. Same for daffodils: never yellow, always:
“A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze”
as William Wordsworth had put it. And I’ve memorized most of the humorous rhymes by Lewis Carroll and I can reel off Jabberwocky at the drop of a hat.
To put the assessment into some kind of form, I developed a spreadsheet with drop-down menus to identify the form of the poem, and then I tried it out on the lyrics of De La Soul’s Tread Water.