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Notes toward Criteria for Evaluating Poems.

These notes are not meant to be prescriptive — each HUMAN BEING should make his/her own additions to and/or subtractions from this list, but the important point is: there are objective criteria that we may use when evaluating poetry.

A.  Diction (precise word choice): "lightning", not lightning bugs; almost doesn't count — no "well, you understand what I mean" — no clichés, no "inner springs" (private meanings to words), no coded discourse without the key provided.

B.  Vivid imagery:  good poems let their pictures do the talking — trust the images — don't explain them.

C. Specific, concrete detail:  importance of senses, of particular details. (As Blake said over two hundred years ago, “The road to the universal goes through the particular.”) Avoid unsupported abstractions and woolgathering philosophic generalizations ("nesses are messes").

D.  Sound: importance of ear:  sound should contribute to the total effect of the poem. BUT technical devices (alliteration, rhyme, assonance, etc.) are tools — means to an end, not the end itself. A good poem doesn't let alliteration, rhyme, etc. control the meaning — forcing the poem to say something the poet doesn't want to say.

E.  Organization/control: in a good poem, everything is interrelated, connected: sound and content, imagery and ideas, thought and feeling.  Each line, each word in each line should contribute to the main point of the poem — think of artist as lion tamer making words jump through hoops.

F.  Depth:  poems should have something unique, important, and significant to say — readers should feel that the author has paid some dues, thought about life (the unexamined life is not worth writing about). (AE once said "the only thing that matters is out of how deep a life a person writes." But we say, not "the only thing" that matters; depth is necessary, but not alone sufficient.)

G. "Style":  each poem needs a sense of individuality; a good poet develops a "style" that is fitted to his/her unique stanza in the great poem of the world (i.e., each poet should let his/her distinct, quirky human personality shine through). (See e. e. cummings, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, et al.)         

H. Imagination (last, but not least):  importance of surprise and originality, of seeing old things in new ways, of invoking a sense of awe and wonder (where did that language come from?) — good poems should lift us right out of our chairs.

Note: difficulties in evaluation may arise when a given poem exhibits one or two of the criteria and is lacking in others — i.e., it might have imagination and style, but be lacking in control and precise word choice — or vice-versa.  Each evaluator must decide for him/herself how to weight the above criteria.

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