How to critique a poem

It’s exam time, and you’re faced with a poem you haven’t seen before. How do you write about it?When I was studying for A-levels, a very wise man (ie, I can’t remember who it was) advised a group of us to use the acronym STRIVE as a framework. STRIVE stands for

  • Subject
  • Theme
  • Rhythm
  • Imagery
  • Versification
  • Effect

  1. Subject. It’s possible to have a poem which is just a random collection of sounds — or even a carefully constructed collection of sounds — but 99% of poetry has a subject. The subject is what the poem is about —or, at least, the starting point. Quite often the clue is in the title. John Donne’s poem The Relic is about a ‘bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ dug up when Donne’s grave is eventually broken up again. John Keats’s To Autumn is, very obviously, about Autumn. Some poems are slightly more cunning. Browning’s My Last Duchess is about a murder. Generally, though, you don’t have to look far to find the subject, and, if you are under exam conditions, you should name it, and then move on.
  2. Theme. The theme is what the poem is ‘really’ about. It’s been said that all serious poetry is about God, sex (or love) and death, and that great poetry is often about more than one of them. The subject of Blake’s Tiger Tiger is, on the surface of it, a Tiger. But when you consider it further, it becomes clear that the poet is really interested not in the Tiger, but in the ‘immortal hand or eye’ that created it—in other words, God. The Relic, mentioned above, is about the power of love. Identifying the theme requires more reflection than the subject. 
  3. Rhythm. Rhythm is one of the defining characteristics of poetry. Prose, of course, has its own rhythms, but poetry has rhythms which are much more apparent and distinctive. To appreciate a poem’s rhythm, read it silently-aloud — that is, speak it in your mind’s ear. Ask yourself, what are the distinctive rhythms of this peom. The Relic has a barking, biting rhythm to begin with, which is brought up suddenly sharp with ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’. The rhythm in a good poem directs the reader’s ear to the most important parts. The rhythms in My last Duchess are much closer to speech—and direct the ear to hear the anger and then madness in the speaker’s voice. In free verse, there is no particular poetic form, and so rhythm becomes all important, as it is the only thing that holds the poem together. The love song of J Alfred Prufrock, TS Eliot’s first great poem, is strongly rhythmic, but has no particular form — even the number of stresses or syllables in the line vary. Eliot uses rhythm to break, to challenge, to cause flow and stop. Alliteration and rhyme within the line are part of the rhythm, and should be commented on when they are important.

  • Imagery. Metaphor, simile, symbol, simple description. All poetry relies in conjuring up ideas through imagery. Literally speaking, of course, imagery would be about representing pictures in words, but in reality, it is about creating pictures or sensations in the mind which go beyond the factuality of words. In My last Duchess, the imagery is almost exclusively dramatic—Browning puts us into a fully imagined situation, but it is a situation largely without flowery language. To Autumn, on the other hand, uses ever poetic device to conjure up a completely sensual recollection of Autumn. The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock uses elaborate similie, describing the yellow fog as if it were a cat, and powerful metaphor, but its fundamental imagery is the symbol of the women talking of Michelangelo, a symbol whose meaning is hinted at but never explained in the poem. A poem which is entirely built around one image is called a ‘conceit’.
  • Versification. Does the poem have a rhyme scheme? Is it presented in stanzas on the page? Are there a particular number of stresses per line? Versification is the most mechanical thing you can write about in a poem. You should be able to name the common verse types hexameters are six stressed syllables per line, pentameters are five stresses. Iambic verse is where the stresses typically (but almost never invariably) fall as unstress-stress. Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be. That is the question” can be read as an iambic pentameter with a weak ending (ie, and extra unstressed syllable), although most readers will put the emphasis on ‘that’ rather than ‘is’. Heroic couplets are iambic pentameters which rhyme in pairs. A sonnet is a fourteen line iambic pentameter with a very particular rhyme scheme. Iambic pentameters without rhyme are known as ‘blank verse’, and are the main verse form in Shakespeare’s plays. Very few poets will stick to a rhythm or rhyme scheme slavishly. It’s also worth commenting on whether the punctuation comes at the end of the line, or the phrases run-on from line to line.
  • Effect. Finally, what is the ultimate effect of reading the poem? Is it poignant, baffling, stirring, comic, arresting? What does it do for you? What effect might it have had on the reader for whom it was written—assuming you know who that was?
  •   Once you’ve done STRIVE, you should have identified the main features of the poem. This is fine for an exam, when you’re under time pressure to critique a piece you’ve never seen before, but, ultimately, there is much more to a poem than a list of six things. The secret to poetry is reading it aloud, and reading it actively so that it sinks into you. 

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