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How To Rate and Judge Poetry

by Moses Hochstetler (Age: 68)
copyright 06-01-2003


Age Rating: 10 +

This judging system is not meant to take the place of the rating system now in place on PnP's Front Page. Rather, it is written to help all judges in determining which poems should be highly esteemed, and selected as the top choices in PnP's monthly contests. Please do not feel intimidated by the concepts in the categories listed below, nor be discouraged from writing just because you can not write at the top level in each of the ideals listed below. We are all learning and developing our God-given talents, and PnP is about helping each other, sharing our ideas in writing, and having fun. No one is out to cut you down, regardless of what level you are as a writer, and you can only get better! The judging is based on a 100 point system, with the highest possible score being 100 points. I list 10 areas which can be rated from 1 to 10 points. The categories are listed and explained below.

(1) BEAUTY, POWER, EDUCATION, or ENTERTAINMENT
At the very least, poems need to have one of these values, and if it has more, so much the better!

A. BEAUTY - A poem can be beautiful in its combination of colorful and descriptive language, beautiful word pictures, the beauty in the thoughts which are evoked: such as serenity, nature, the cosmos, idealism, inspiration; or perhaps even beauty in the general appearance of the poem, as it looks on paper. Some poems are shaped and formed to appear as something connected to the poem's subject matter, such as a lamp, an hour glass, a tree, a sail boat, a loaf of bread, etc. This, in itself, if the writer has done a good job, should be worth extra points.

B. POWER - A powerful poem is one that moves you, stirs your passion, hits you square between the eyes, lifts you up emotionally and makes you feel good inside, or takes you, the reader, into the depths of sorrow and pathos, flaming rage, or bitter disappointment. It may lift you up mentally and take you to exotic and far off places, or take you back in time and place you in the middle of some cataclysmic or earth-shaking event (Lord Byron's "Charge of the Light Brigade" is a good example). One way to gage the power of a poem is to gage the emotional impact it has on you personally. Does it put a lump in your throat or move you to tears? Does it make you angry? Are you sorrowful? Or perhaps you are awe-struck, overjoyed, filled with wonder and amazement.

C. EDUCATION - Does the poem have any educational value? The poem "Charge of the Light Brigade" is a very beautiful poem, written in powerful language, and since it is based on a historical event, has great educational value. You can see where points A,B,& C should cause us to rate this poem highly. However, we shouldn't necessarily assume a poem has no educational value just because it is not based on true events. The events may be plausible, hypothetical, give us a valuable lesson, or moral, and have great educational value. Also, keep in mind, just because a poem has educational value does not give it license to reject beauty. Education is "enlightenment" and should be treated as such, and not as a dry lecture, a tirade against the "ignorant," or come across as "holier than thou" and show contempt toward those who do not have "higher education."

D. ENTERTAINMENT - Does the poem have entertainment value? If it is not in some way beautiful, powerful, or educational, then it should certainly serve to entertain or amuse the reader. This
could include such things as humor, irony, rhyming riddles, mystery, drama, horror, science fiction, parody, and satire. Using the 4 points of A,B,C,& D, I would have to give Lord Byron's poem a perfect 10 in this group rating. In reality, Byron masterfully uses all 4 of these points in his classic poem. Beauty, power, education, are given to us in a delightfully entertaining way.

A poem need not necessarily have all four of these points to rate a perfect 10 in this category. In fact, if it uses only one of the above values in a superb way, give it the full 10 points.


(2) MESSAGE & INTEREST

Message and interest are at the heart of the poems "reason for being." It gives it legitimacy. If it is only of interest to the writer, then it doesn't deserve to be in the public arena. Ask yourself, is the message clear? Is it a good message, or is it of little value to anyone? Is the subject matter profound, or is it trite? A poem dealing with trivial matters or concerns should not rate as highly in this category, unless it is of keen interest (entertainment) to the majority of people. "Love" is not a trivial matter, whereas your own personal love life may be a trivial matter to others. On the other hand, it may be of great interest to others, depending on how it is written, so the judge must be able to balance the message value and the interest level when judging in this category.

You must rate the poem fairly, even if the topic or subject matter of the poem is of little interest to you. Let's say you don't like the game of golf, and you were asked to judge the merits of a humorous golf poem. You would have to ask yourself, "Would someone who likes this game find this poem of great interest?" Then rate the poem accordingly. If you cannot see where the poem's message is clear, or where it is of any importance to anyone, and you do not see much possible interest in the poem for you or others, then you would have to give the poem a low score in this area. Poems with profound concepts, and/or unforgettable "punch lines," or endings, should be given extra credit. Score between 1 & 10.

(3) TECHNICAL EXCELLENCE

If a poem is riddled with grammatical errors, misspelled words, double negatives, wrong punctuation marks, with "your" for "you're," "there" for "their" or "they're," "toll" for "tole," "bear" for "bare," etc., etc., then it needs to be rated accordingly. These types of mistakes also take away from the beauty of the poem, so you would have to dock points from the first category as well. However, keep in mind that technical excellence is more than using proper grammer and spelling. It also includes the way a poem is organized, and how the thoughts are presented. Does it have the proper form for the type of poem: Haiku, Villanelle, Sonnet, Tanka, Limerick, etc.? Is it titled appropriately? Should the lines be shortened? Is there proper "economy" of thoughts and words? Should the overall poem be shortened and streamlined? Does it reveal too much and leave little to the imagination, or does it not reveal enough? Perhaps there should be another "fill in" verse. Does the poem "work" - that is, does it accomplish what it sets out to do?

Giving a poem some time to "digest" will often reveal to us what it needs or what it lacks. I have written poems which at first I thought were excellent, but the same poems have since been either totally re-written, or relegated to the trash pile. One cannot always tell the special qualities of a poem with the first reading. If a poem is technically correct, and has a finished professional look, give it the full 10 points for this category.

(4) RHYME and/or METER

Poems don't have to rhyme to rate highly in this category, but rhyming poems need meter as well as rhyme. If a poem is written in rhyming verse, then it should be rated according to how well the rhymes fit, not only with each other, but with the flow and the intended nuance of meaning the verse demands. Read and study the rhymes in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Builders" as an excellent example of good rhyming verses with beautiful cadence. A poem needs to have some sort of acceptable meter (rhythm or cadence). Meters/rhythms can alternate from line to line, and even from verse to verse, but they should form a pattern that creates a pleasing effect. Even in free verse, the words need to form their own pleasant rhythm and not clash with each other, cause clumsy pauses, twist the tongue, or put emphasis in the wrong places.

An excellent example of good rhyme and meter, with a powerfully emotional ending, is found in Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver." Notice how the words are phonetically pleasing, the rhymes are excellent, and the syllables in the words create a natural and pleasant rhythm, even though the poem itself is sad. This creates an emotionally satisfying experience for the reader. It is not just a collection of sad thoughts on a page. Score up to 10 points for exceptional rhyme and meter.

(5) ASSONANCE and ALLITERATION

Assonance in poetry has to do with the sounds of the
words, and whether those sounds create the proper mood sought for in the poem: the sharp and soft sounds of the consonants, the hard (long) and soft sounds of the vowels. A good example of pleasing asonance is found in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells," in which you can almost hear the bells ringing in the words themselves. Another good example of using vowel and consonant sounds to the best advantage is found in the free-verse poem "Lincoln, Man of the People" by Edwin Markham. The author uses powerful words and powerful sounds to express powerful thoughts. In tranquil and pastoral type poems one would want to see words like softly, peacefully, quietly, hushed, etc., and not a lot of words that "snap, crackle, and pop." In describing a battle, one would hardly think of using a lot of soft and placid sounds.

Alliteration has to do with a pleasing repetition of sounds, such as "She soared through the air with the greatest of ease" - note the repetition of the "s" and "th" sounds. Sometimes a pleasant alliteration can be achieved by repeating whole words, such as in Poe's "The Raven" - "Nevermore" and "Lenore" among other repeated words. For excellent sound quality, give a poem up to ten points, for average, 4-6, and for poor quality, 1-3 points.

(6) FORM & FLOW

The "form" of the poem simply refers to the shape the poem takes on paper: long lines or short lines, broken into verses, or left in an unbroken chain. Normally, a poet would strive to keep some kind of pleasant symmetry and balance in his/her verses; keeping corresponding lines close to the same length, so that each verse appears similar in size and shape to the rest. Also, it is not good to have a "bristled" appearance in a poem, where some lines stick out like misplaced bristles, giving it an unpolished and "skewered" or "lopsided" appearance. On the other hand, if the poem is about porcupines, or disheveled hair, a "quilled" or "bristled" appearance may be quite appropriate! Remember that good form can also be given extra points for beauty, but in granting "form" points here, make sure that the form is best suited for the poem. Study the unusual but fitting form James Whitcomb Riley used in his poem "Little Orphant Annie." Other poems to study for beauty and symmatry are Walt Whitman's "O captain, My Captain!" and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Builders." Do not penalize a writer for creating unique and original form and shape in his writings if it is fitting.

The flow of a poem is determined by its natural progression, both in thought, tempo, and speed. The words themselves, their pronunciations and emphasis, along with natural pauses at the ends of thoughts, commas, periods, etc. help determine the speed and flow of the poem. Notice the difference in flow with the following 2 lines, both expressing the same thought: "I'm going to go to work to earn my pay check" and "To work, to work, to earn a pay check." Three things serve to speed up the tempo in the second line: The use of all one syllable words, the repetition and two commas gave it more rhythm, or "bounce," (not always good in every poem) and the line itself being shortened, even though a phrase was repeated to emphasize it.

A poem describing a serene setting should naturally flow slower than a poem such as "Charge of the Light Brigade." Certain emotions should cause the poem to flow faster: anger, fear in the heat of battle, a desperate fight for survival, etc. (with pauses, perhaps, to "ponder" or "contemplate"). On the other hand, tranquility, satisfaction, benevolence, condolences, and love (unless it involves excitement!) lend themselves to a slower "flow" of thoughts and events, with faster flow if there are exciting moments dispersed in an otherwise serene and calm poem. A proper and professional balance in form and flow should give the poem up to 10 extra points in an overall evaluation.

(7). CHOICE OF WORDS & READABILITY

As a judge, ask yourself whether the poet has used the best possible choice of words in his poem. Assonance has to do with using the best sounding words, but here we are talking of using the words with the best nuance of meaning. Here is where a rhyming poem could be severely penalized. The words used to make the best rhyme may not necessarily be the the best choice of words to convey the idea, or stir the emotion. A person can ball, cry, sob, whimper, whine, moan, groan, and shed tears, but which term would best fit the mood the poet is trying to convey? The choice of words the writer uses should be geared toward the audience the poet intends to reach. A poem for a young child would certainly not include college-level language, nor should the poet use vulgarity and/or profanity. A religious poem, intended for religious audiences, would not include crass language, or anti-God slogans. Bigotry and racial slurs should be left out of all poems. A poem written for senior citizens should not denigrate old age. In general, all poems written for the public should show proper respect and honor to all the races, ages, ethnic backgrounds, sexes, and religions.

I feel too much criticism has been leveled against the "cliche`." If the cliche` fits, and makes the poem work, then it should not be penalized. After all, in one sense, every commonly used word in the English language is a cliche` of sorts. Many phrases are repeated time and time again, does this mean we should avoid them at all cost? A few examples are "green grass," "morning sun," "flower garden," "garden fence" "south wind," "cloudy sky," and we could list hundreds more. Even the terms most used in describing cliche`s have become cliche`s of their own: "hack-kneed" and "over-used." A cliche` is just a phrase commonly used in society, usually to make some sort of comparison or point: "dead as a door knob," "free as a bird," "smart as a whip," etc. We don't reject commonly used words in poetry, and neither should we
reject commonly used phrases out of hand. I have been criticized for using the cliche` "happy as a lark" in my poem "A Fruitful Yield." I used it because it made the poem work. Had I used a term like "happy as a wren," "happy as a monkey," or "happy as a chipmunk" it would not have had the same impact, and would have degraded the poem. Sometimes old familiar phrases work much better than original ones. However, these phrases should be used sparingly, and where an original phrase is called for, or might work better, it certainly should be used.

"Poetic license" is another tool that judges need to be aware of. It is not uncommon for even the best of poets, in order to maintain correct meter, to drop a syllable from a word. A few examples are: 'round for "around," 'neath for "beneath," 'tis for "it is," 'twas for "it was," 'bout for "about." A poet may even drop a syllable out of the center of a word at times. In my song lyric "The Angels In Heaven" I spelled "ministering" as "minist'ring" in order to drop a syllable. This kind of "poetic license" is commonly used in song lyrics, and may occasionally be used in other poetry if it is done in good taste. Read Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (one of my all time favorite sonnets) for several examples in using "poetic license."

After you have checked the author's choice of words and phrases, read a few verses out loud. Does it read easily, with the periods, commas, accents, and syllables flowing naturally, creating the proper tempo for the subject matter? Are there areas within the poem which seem to "trip" your tongue? Would it be "readable" out loud for the average person? An excellent choice of words by the author, along with good readablity, should add up to 10 points in evaluating the poem as a whole.

(8) OVERALL IMPACT

Overall impact is the ability of the poem to etch itself into your memory and to become a part of your psyche. A poem may be ever so beautifully written, be technically correct in every way, have excellent rhyme, meter, form, and flow, and still not be a great poem. What makes a poem truly great is its ability to get under your skin, or to be so delightful as to be virtually unforgettable. The difference, then, between a mere "good" poem and an exceptional one is how deeply it affects you, and how long it holds you in its clutches after you are done reading it; not necessarily while you are reading it! If you can read the poem and forget about it, then the poem did not have a great overall impact on you, and it probably won't on others, either. I would give very few poems a "10" in this category, even among the "classics." This is one area where you can, and should, be brutal in your ratings. One other consideration is the age of the author. If a young child writes an exceptional poem, we should allow the age itself to "impact" us, and grant extra points in this category.

(9) ORIGINALITY

Are the word groupings and phrases the writer uses the author's own words, or are they borrowed from someone else? I am not referring to outright and intentional plagiarism, but all of us are influenced by the writings of others. It is not that difficult to determine if extra effort has been taken by a writer to coin unusual phrases, or to make unusual comparisons. Here is where using too many cliche`s can hurt the writer's overall score.

Check the rhymes to see if there is originality, or if common rhymes are used. There aren't very many words that rhyme with love. Perhaps the author needs to work harder at using the word "love" at the beginning or the middle of the sentence, so that more unusual rhyme schemes can be employed. Extra points should be given to a poet who creates his own style in the rhythm and the rhyming patterns of a poem. Rhymes don't always have to be placed at the end of lines. They can be at the beginning, or even in the middle, of sentences. Ending sentences and placing commas in the middle of a line is an effective tool in creating interesting, original, and unusual rhythms and pause patterns in a poem. A poet needs to be given extra points for originality in subject matter, phraseology, rhyme, rhythm, and style. For an unusual poem with an original, or unexpected ending, and a good amount of original wording, grant up to 10 points.

(10) POLISH & EXPERTISE

A poem can do well in all the above criteria, and still lack the flair and polish of an experienced and expert poet. In this last category, ask yourself, how well are all the elements of the poem put together to give the reader the impression that an expert poet was at work? Is the poem "seasoned with grace?" - That is, does the poem itself appear graceful, smooth, natural, almost effortless? Ask yourself: Is every word perfect, with nothing out of place, so that the whole poem, like a beautiful work of art, fits together flawlessly to form a masterpiece? A gifted poet does not need to "wax eloquent" with incomprehensible words and indecipherable phrases. Certainly you have seen beautiful figure skaters, expert ballerinas, and/or trapeze artists at work. In a flawless performance, their crafts may appear to be easy, effortless, graceful, and perhaps almost simple, but you recognize the hard work, practice, and preparation, that went into that performance. a "masterpiece" in poetry should have the same effect on you. Can you literally see the time and effort that went into the poem, or does it have the appearance of being thrown together haphazardly, with little effort at editing out clumsy wording and awkward rhymes?

You have heard the expression "without rhyme or reason." The modern trend in poetry has been moving toward poetry written with no "rhyme or reason." Poets often use mere word patterns and word assonance on paper. Poems with mere "color and design" on paper (like some modern art) have very little to offer in my book. The vast majority of people today would agree with me, that a group of words on paper is not a poem unless it has "reason for being." While there are good poems full of dark and mysterious phrases, and some are written as riddles, parables, and metaphors, and guessing games, no poem should leave you feeling empty and totally perplexed as to the purpose and intent of the author. If the poem is written as a metaphor, or its purpose is to keep the reader in suspense, it should still be concluded in a way that enables the reader to understand the objective of the poem. Ask yourself whether the poet expresses feelings of anger, frustration, or some other emotion, but leaves the reader wondering why. Are the "loose ends" tied together, or does the poem leave you out in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to go? Does the writer have a good angle, or approach in his/her poem? Poems can attack an injustice head on, and bludgeon it to death, or take a much more subtle and reasonable approach, which should merit extra points. Extra points need to be given for a well thought-out and flawless "work of art" with graceful transitions and vivid imagery. Score highly in this category for poignancy, profundity, and wit, presented with class, style, and dignity.

******************************************************

Each of the above areas are critical in the creation of a professionally crafted, polished, and quality poem. Once you have rated a poem in the ten categories listed, add the scores of each to get an overall rating of the poem. With an honest rating, an average poem should score somewhere close to 50 - with five points from each category. A good to very good poem should rate in the sixties to the lower eighties. It should take an exceptional poem to rate in the upper eighties. Scores of ninety and above should be reserved for the truly great poems. Whether you score points liberally or conservatively, you need to be consistent with every evaluation and rating. These scores are for you, to help you rate the poems, and should not be posted or shared with others, unless it is to tell a poet of a very high score. Never reveal an "average" or "poor" score to an aspiring poet. You may wish to share ideas with them on how they might improve, or what areas they need to work on, but for the most part, this kind of corrective criticism should be done one on one. Hopefully this system will help you in determining which poems deserve to be given a chance to win big in poetry contests. You may wish to copy and paste the points below, and print it out for future reference.



SCORE 1-10 POINTS IN FOLLOWING CATEGORIES:

(1) BEAUTY, POWER, EDUCATION, or ENTERTAINMENT
(2) MESSAGE & INTEREST
(3) TECHNICAL EXCELLENCE
(4) RHYME and/or METER
(5) ASSONANCE and ALLITERATION
(6) FORM & FLOW
(7) CHOICE OF WORDS & READABILITY
(8) OVERALL IMPACT
(9) ORIGINALITY
(10) POLISH & EXPERTISE

TOTAL POSSIBLE POINTS 100






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        09-19-2004     Paula Tsvayg        

I'm going to print out the one through tten list at the very end and judge work by comparing it to the list.
As for this, I give it a .......
Well, you tell me what you think you deserve.

        08-09-2004     Mary -BrytEyz- Ball        

This should effectively eliminate the "I liked that a lot" comments, no?

And though I've never taken a poetry course, or obtained any further education in the art of writing... I have always attempted to look beyond the surface of the poem, and rely on more than first impressions.

Thank you for the education. This goes to show, you never stop learning!

        06-28-2003     Gregory Christiano        

Another thought crossed my mind. Many people on the site should use this as an official checklist. It will bring thier own feeling into focus and help with an honest evaluation of a person's poetry. Bring it up at the next meeting and see what can be done.
Gregory

        06-28-2003     Gregory Christiano        

Moses this is magnificent in detail. I printed out a copy and will follow your indtructions. Certainly, I have read other instructions on rating and reading poetry and prose, but this is concise, and filled with poignant facts. Great job, thanks for posting it, it will help me sort out my reviews a lot better now.
Gregory

        06-17-2003     Nancy Pawley        

Moses, this is very educational for those who have no experience in juding or rating written words..and I agree with Robert, it's a must have for tools of the trade.
Nancy



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