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A Level-Headed Means to Evaluate Poetry
by Ursula T. Gibson
From April 1997 until October 2006, I was fortunate to be the Poetry Editor for the Internet poetry journal, Poetic Voices, edited and managed by Gracie Travis Murphee, a well-known journalist. She found me in a poetry chatroom that permitted commentary and liked my approach to making suggestions for improvement of poems that were submitted for commentary, and invited me to be her Poetry Editor. That poetry journal has been discontinued and its archives have been deleted from the Internet, because the editor is in Honduras on a life mission. There is no time to assemble, edit, and post the on-line journal any longer — a loss to the poetic world.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do as Poetry Editor, except attain the goal of publishing 15 to 20 poems every month. All poems were submitted by e-mail, with the poetry written in the body of the message, no attachments permitted. I anticipated receiving, perhaps, twenty or maybe thirty submissions from which to select the five to ten poems we would put into the pages. The actuality was more like 150 to 300 poems every month! It quickly became obvious that I could not spend the time to read and reread the submissions to figure out which would fit well into the on-line journal — I had to devise some concrete means of “judging” a poem at first or second reading to give me a “bank” of possible poems sorted out from the mass of submissions.
I was afraid that I would impose my ideas of what made a poem “good,” based on my own reading preferences and experiences. My reading background was sufficient, and my exposure to American literature, thanks to my college professors, had been expanded to appreciate the current “scene” of writing. I was opinionated and thought I knew what made good writing. It was obvious that, in judging and selecting other people’s work, I had to enlarge my opinions and become more objective in selecting the poems we were to publish. Getting my opinionated self as much out of the way as possible required some system of objectivity.
Eventually, I invented a scoring system which I applied to every poem I read, using ten categories, some of which were objective and some of which were subjective in application. I wanted some objectivity, so I assigned sequential numbers to the authors and numbers of the poems received from them. If an author submitted three poems, each poem could be identified by its author and poem numbers without revealing to me who the author was. I created a form of fifteen columns and as many rows down the page as the page would bear. The fifteen columns were named:
No. — the number of the poem I was critiquing
Author No. — to conceal the identity of the writer to avoid recognition of a friend
Title — the title of the poem
Then followed ten columns regarding the characteristics of each poem, with each column worth a maximum of 10 points, and scoring up or down in my opinion:
Form/Style — the character of the poem, like Rhymed and Metered (RM) or Free Verse (FV). Each poem was looked at for what it was and not compared to others.
Rhyme/Rhythm — whether rhyme and/or rhythm were a characteristic of the poem, and if so, whether the rhymes were natural and sensible or artificial and forced, and whether the rhythm (which also applies to free verse) was consistent with the character of the poem.
Poetic Devices — the number and effectiveness of those poetic elements that raise poetry beyond prose — there are at least 15 of them, including rhyme, alliteration, personification, and so on. Without their use, the writing becomes prose.
Comprehension/Coherence — do the ideas presented hang together to create a whole? Is there “meaning” to the writing, and is that meaning realized?
Mood/Imagery — does the poem illustrate its message — can I feel the feelings and/or visualize the images presented? How significant are those images to the purpose of the poem?
Word Selection — has the writer chosen the words of the poem to enable the poem to reach its intent? Are there clichés or overused imagery (we know the sky is blue) to weaken the conveyance of meaning?
Scope/Significance — does the poem deal with the human experience, and if so, to what extent is the poem successful in adding to our understanding?
Line Endings/Line Breaks — are these visual aids used successfully to create emphasis and to carry the reader to the main significance of the writing? In free verse, are the line endings used to create emphasis, and are the line breaks used to create a longer pause that is significant?
Punctuation/Spelling/Grammar — does the poet respect our language conventions and provide punctuation to aid the reader in understanding of the poem? Do spelling errors interrupt the flow of the poem’s language? Are there distortions of word order that seem artificial and obscure meaning?
Content Realized — the poem had a purpose when it started out — did the poem realize its intentions? Does it lead naturally to its conclusion?
Universality — is the subject matter of the poem meaningful only to the poet, or does it apply to the human condition? If it were translated into another language — German, French, Spanish, Italian, Afrikaans, etc. — would it still be meaningful to a reader in that language?
Total: the accumulation of points in the ten categories. A poem earning 85 points or greater went into a pile for secondary consideration. Poems earning less than 85 points in this accumulative system were dismissed from further consideration.
I read every winning poem at least three times. In my first reading, I aimed to understand the poem — where it started and where it ended. In my second reading, I scored the poem on my Evaluation Sheet, analyzing the elements involved as fairly as possible. When all scoring of any month’s submissions had been completed, I re-read the poems selected for further consideration and selected those that “moved” me emotionally or intellectually in appreciation of the message.
This technique of evaluating poetry served me well during the years I acted as Poetry Editor. Now I am frequently asked to judge poetry contests, and I use this system of evaluation to enable me to do more than merely react to words.
And in my own writing, I find this system of evaluation helpful to see whether I have captured the poesy needed to convey the feelings I’m concerned with — does what I have written really capture what I was aiming for? If my score in any column is low, I know I have to improve that element in the poem. The ruthless objectivity that the form provides helps to focus the revision process on what needs to be done. That minimizes what we often encounter as dissatisfaction with our work, without knowing why we are not satisfied.
If our aim in poetry is to condense emotion to its essence and capture the human condition in legible form, anything that helps us to do that well is a useful tool. I hope my experience and use of this evaluation system will benefit others in judging their own work and finding what needs improvement or revision, without the agony of having strangers rip into the work or ignoring its purpose.