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Critiquing Imagery, Literary Devices, and Syntax

(from my old critique series, updated to reflect my improved understanding of grammar and its long and complicated history)
 
Critiquing Imagery
 
Imagery can be defined as words and phrases that create descriptions (or “images”) based on the five senses. Poetry relies heavily on imagery and should include more than visual imagery alone. A fun exercise in strengthening your skills with imagery is to pick something that you would normally perceive with a certain sense (like vision) and attempt to describe it with a different sense (like touch/feeling). Examples: “how does something that appears green taste?” or “how does something that feels jagged sound?”   
 
When critiquing imagery, you’ll want to assess how well the poem describes an object, person, feeling, place, etc. Good imagery will paint a vivid picture that the reader can clearly imagine. Weak imagery will make a poem feel bland and may be caused by lack of strong adjectives, metaphor or simile that’s too far-fetched, no diversity of senses used in descriptions and “telling” instead of “showing.” 
 
A poem with weak imagery may garner the suggestion to “show, don’t tell.” As a poet, you want to show your readers that the shoreline was pretty with colorful and stimulating descriptions; don’t just say that it was lovely and hope the reader will take your word for it, help them experience the beauty for themselves. As a reader, if you find a poem that tends to tell instead of show, let the poet know. You can go beyond commenting with “show, don’t tell” by giving the poet an example of telling and then demonstrating how much more poignant showing is, or you can offer adjectives and adverbs that will help the poet spice up their words. 
 
Remember: A poem should show, not tell. Try to use more than just one sense when describing (or, if you predominantly use sight in your imagery, try incorporating more of the other four senses for a more complete image).  You can suggest these things if you think a poem needs stronger imagery.
 
Critiquing Literary Devices
 
Common literary devices used in poetry include alliteration (and assonance and consonance), rhyme, meter, metaphor (and simile), personification, imagery, satire, symbolism and tone. You can find definitions and examples of these (and many more literary devices) on Wikipedia’s Annotated List of Literary Techniques. 
 
When critiquing a poem’s employed literary devices you’ll want to assess how well you think the device develops the descriptions, word efficiency, flow/rhythm or deeper meaning of the poem. To critique something like rhyme, you will want to read the poem aloud and determine if the rhymes sound ‘forced’. A forced rhyme occurs when the poet had to throw in some strange juxtaposition or a nonsensical phrase to find a word that fit their desired rhyme scheme. Thesauruses and rhyming dictionaries will come in handy when offering suggestions here. 
 
To critique something like meter, you’ll need a strong grasp of the form of meter used and have a good ear for determining if the poet got all of their syllable stresses correct.
 
Remember: Literary devices should add to the word efficiency, flow, imagery or deeper meaning of the poem. Don’t be afraid to have fun with your suggestions when critiquing literary devices. 
 
Critiquing Syntax
 
Syntax (or grammar and spelling) can be the most overlooked aspect of poetry, but can also really set a poem back if it’s neglected. Yet, grammar and spelling are complicated issues when we look beyond what we have been taught in school about grammar and spelling. 
 
SImple misspellings or misuses of punctuation are one thing, but using dialect, slang, or other lingo should not be considered wrong if done so purposefully. Not every poem has to be written in Standard Academic English and considering Standard Academic English correct, proper, or superior to dialects is problematic.  
 
Encyclopedias, dictionaries and grammar guides are you’re go-to tools when critiquing syntax. It’s easy to miss a misspelling or to be uncertain about the purpose of a semicolon, but the information is out there if you’ll take the time to check. This is not to say that you should become a human spell-check device. It’s not your job as a critic to go behind someone and point out every little misspelling or misused ellipses. 
 
When critiquing grammar or spelling you can write your suggestions in many ways. An easy one is to quote the line in the poem and include the suggested syntax in brackets (“this is you’re [your] line of poetry with a suggested change in brackets”). You also don’t have to point out every choice of syntax that seems to be an “error”. Remember that tone, mood, dialect, and irony are all a part of writing and use of dialect, slang, shorthand, or other forms that deviate from Standard Academic English are not necessarily wrong or bad or errors. You may want to have a conversation with the writer to determine if they are choosing non-standard syntax purposely or not. 
 
Back to the idea of syntax being neglected and how it can set a poem back: if the poet is using dialect, slang, or other non-standard features purposefully, they should be doing so authentically and consistently. A poet adopting the persona and voice of a soldier and using military or army slang to write about the experience of war when they have not experienced war will come across as inauthentic and pretentious. The poem may be full of “errors” based on their lack of experience with actually using the slang they are employing. But an actual soldier using their own lingo to describe their own experiences should not be treated as “mistakes” just because the lingo is not Standard American English. 
 
Remember: Syntax is an important part of the poem and every word should count. There is more than one valid way to express oneself and the “correction” of “errors” of non-standard dialect is a complicated issue steeped in colonialism, racism, and the exclusion of poor or non-white people from education across the western world. So have a conversation about the writer’s choice of syntax instead of “correcting” (unless it’s clearly just a simple typo).    
 

Comments

for providing food for thought...makes me believe that for your doctorate you may have chosen something related to poetry for which you have done hard core research as can be evidenced through the guidelines...tips etc. which you keep presenting in your blogs....since my attention span is not too long i will go through these notes over time...however as homework on imagery I am writing a few lines to know your opinion on to how many senses does it appeal

Tom was peeping through the key hole in the ladies room
smacking his lips and dancing on his paws
Jerry knew he's watching her nude with lenses on zoom
and she feared of his pretty dirty claws

so she spat through the key hole on his wet smelly nose
then made it to the pool through the hose
(just an example)
............................................................................

raj (sublime_ocean)

I see "pretty dirty claws" which is how they look

I see "wet smelly nose" which is how the nose feels and smells

We could also say "paws" (being used instead of feet) is visually describing his animal-like nature as a predator.

I would like to add that this segment of a poem does an excellent job of showing instead of telling. "Peeping" demonstrates how he is watching better than just writing "he was looking at her with perversion in his eyes". "smacking his lips" demonstrates how he feels (aroused, hungry, excited, etc). "Dancing on his paws" achieves the same thing in a totally different way.

All of these action words: peeping, smacking, dancing, watching, feared, spat, etc. are what make the positive difference for showing instead of telling.

To add more imagery through the use of the senses, you will need more adjectives and descriptive words.

Keep up the great work and thank you for reading,
Kelsey

Advocates Coordinator

Critique, don't comment.

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author comment

Yes, PhD will be focused on teaching writing and blending the study of rhetoric and the study of literature, if I get in.

Advocates Coordinator

Critique, don't comment.

To see our learning resources, click the "Curated Resources" link under the Resources tab in the top menu bar.

www.kelsey-burroughs.weebly.com

author comment

i can't read so much ...as eyes nearing blindness... at my age
but I believe in one thing
there is no stopping continue in ur efforts of learning 'tis like dreaming

on another site they also say
show don't tell
as you say
peep
but not say how to

dream
but say not what about
be it day or night
just go about
and see the difference it made to Frost

had he taken the road he did not
where now would've he been
Frost
ask him in your dream
ask me how not ...

any views of an ole mindless one's crap?
kelsy the poetic wizard are thee

I also noticed that many people who suggest "show, don't tell" don't really explain it.

Here's a website with some examples: https://jerryjenkins.com/show-dont-tell/

Telling: When they embraced she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.
Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he was shivering.

Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.
Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun reflecting off the street.

Telling: Suzie was blind.
Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with a white cane.

Telling: It was late fall.
Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.

Telling: She was a plumber and asked where the bathroom was.
Showing: She wore coveralls carried a plunger and metal toolbox, and wrenches of various sizes hung from a leather belt around her waist. “Point me to the head,” she said.

Telling: I had a great conversation with Tim over dinner and loved hearing his stories.
Showing: I barely touched my food, riveted by Tim. “Let me tell you another story,” he said.

See the difference? Of course, there is always some telling necessary. Not everything can be showing but it helps when trying to add more imagery and engage readers.

Kelsey

Advocates Coordinator

Critique, don't comment.

To see our learning resources, click the "Curated Resources" link under the Resources tab in the top menu bar.

www.kelsey-burroughs.weebly.com

author comment

PhD in Lovedly's hands
is showing
all know Kelsey is getting

This is showing not telling eh!

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