How to read and critique poetry, a line by line explanation. (The Darkest Hour)

It has come to my attention that far too many lovers of poetry are unable to read it properly, they cannot look into a thing, but only see it as ‘pretty’.  That dreaded word..  poets know the anguish of the thing.  In this I thought I should run through a piece with you, picking apart my own work (with quite appropriate subject matter) to show what to look for, and how to find it.  Below you will find a written piece, beneath that we will analyze and critique the work.

“The Darkest Hour”

Scratching, scraping, softly turned
as pages swiftly take sojourn.
In such a place you may release
smoldering hate or gentlest peace.
Find within, the worlds you seek,
know the voices that would speak.
See the visions as they pass
study them well, they never last.

See the truth, or mold the lies
display for them cunning disguise.
Tell them what the dreamers see
yet know that only slight degree
of intended wonder and design
will light within the dreamers eye.
Know that as the evening passes
they will stop to fill their glasses,
sitting to explore the senses,
stripping you of all defenses.

You who created such a world
must bend to see its wings unfurl
or crumple as it plunges down
hurtling towards the rushing ground.
Broken pieces of the dream
abandoned like some weary scene
bastardized or left to rot
berated by whimsical thought.
You now must search this hallowed ground
and find the pieces to be found.

So here we are, again at last,
that moment when the moment’s passed.
To hate the sinner or hate the seed,
or do we hate the things we feed?
These inner demons call and sing
they speak of gifts they wish to bring
but leave us only ever pain
I wish, I wish it were not in vain.

© Melissa Black, 2015 All rights reserved.

Now let us start, before even reading a word of this piece, by looking at its framework.  I see 4 stanzas, at length and pattern of 8, 10, 10, 8 lines per.   This is a smaller piece then, and should be packed full of emotion or vision, or it need not bother.  It is symmetrical in stanza format, which is appealing to the eye.  It appears to follow a simple enough AABB pattern, though perhaps there is more.   Lets look at those lines now.

Scratching, scraping, softly turned

as pages swiftly take sojourn.

Good line, lots of alliteration, this is going to make the words more difficult to say, the piece may be better suited for visual and non-auditory audiences.  Also, what is turning?  Think of the sounds described, pages of a book perhaps.

In such a place you may release
smoldering hate or gentlest peace.

Yep, definitely a book.  A place where one may release all emotion freely.  I’m not crazy about the placement of ‘gentlest’ there, may come off the tongue in an odd way.

Find within, the worlds you seek,
know the voices that would speak.
See the visions as they pass
study them well, they never last.

Those seem pretty self explanatory.

See the truth, or mold the lies
display for them cunning disguise.

Now we know that the subject of the piece is a writer.  The narrator keeps encouraging them, look further, find what you seek, put it out there, in whatever form you choose to give it.  I do enjoy this line.  The use of truth and lies indicates some deep meaning to the writers work, something to be taken under great consideration.

Tell them what the dreamers see
yet know that only slight degree
of intended wonder and design
will light within the dreamers eye.

This could be paraphrased as ‘Write, show the world the visions in your head, but don’t expect the world to see them in the way you do, they will only see parts of what you wish to show.

Know that as the evening passes
they will stop to fill their glasses,
sitting to explore the senses,
stripping you of all defenses.

This is pretty simple also, to say that at night, a reader will pick up the thing this writer has created, they will sit and drink and read, looking for some salvation in binding.  The imagery here indicates the reader may be bored before ever beginning the piece, that perhaps they were not looking for what they found.  In the desire to find the thing they seek, the writer is left vulnerable.

You who created such a world
must bend to see it’s wings unfurl
or crumple as it plunges down
hurtling towards the rushing ground.

If the subject, (the writer) refuses to let his work go, to be given to the masses, then his work will never be seen, nor appreciated.  On the other hand, if he does put it out there, it could be torn to shreds by weaker minds.

Broken pieces of the dream
abandoned like some weary scene
bastardized or left to rot
berated by whimsical thought.

Now here we start to see some slightly deeper imagery.  ‘Broken pieces of the dream’, the piece was not so well received, or if it was, it was not understood in the way the writer wanted.  ‘abandoned like some weary scene’, How easily bored humanity is, they possess the ability to simply declare boredom out of lack of understanding, and walk away.  ‘bastardized or left to rot’, again the image of the thing being twisted and turned into something it was not, and then left carelessly.  ‘berated by whimsical thought’, the work is resented by the reader, for speaking to them in a language they did not understand.

You now must search this hallowed ground
and find the pieces to be found.

Don’t give up, go find the broken bits of that dream you had, or whatever inspired the piece.  Rebuild it, make it stronger, (faster *ahem) make it more clear.

So here we are, again at last,
that moment when the moment’s passed.

So the writer has collected his broken bits and is staring at the pieces with sadness, thinking of how to reassemble.

To hate the sinner or hate the seed,
or do we hate the things we feed?

Finally, the twist and perversion sets in.  The rest of the piece has been written for the writer, yet this stanza seems to come from the writer.  Should he hate the reader, the fool of an unimaginative mind?  Should he hate his dream, his gift, the things that keep him up until he puts them to paper, as they are never truly seen?  Bitterness and resent begins to set in here.  Do we hate the things we feed, now that as yet been unexplored.  We can assume that the writer is telling us about something that feeds his vision, but it has yet been unaddressed.

These inner demons call and sing
they speak of gifts they wish to bring
but leave us only ever pain
I wish, I wish it were not in vain.

Our last sentence, in this we discover the ‘things that feed’ to be some personal demon(s) the writer struggles with.  We see slightest degree of the relationship, we know only that the demon(s) feed into the writer, and thus the writer must feed into the demons.  ‘but only ever bring us pain’ Perhaps the writer feels that his arrangement doesn’t seem to be paying off.  ‘I wish I wish it were not in vain’ The writer seems resigned, depressed, as he has just realized that he has sold his soul to play guitar and the next day his hands are terribly mangled in some supposed accident.  The reader of this poem is left with the image of a writer, beaten, nearly broken, slumped at his desk in what we hope is only temporary defeat.  We know that he will write again, because it is all he has.  We know he sits looking over the work, piecing it back together.  He is hurting, defeated, hopeless, and so what will he do?  He will mope for but a moment, and then he will turn his emotion into his art, and try again.

The rhyme scheme remained the same, it was not furthered.  The line beats were alternating 8 and 9 syllables, a very structured piece with very tight binding.  Now as the critic, what else can we see?  A journey is begun in this piece, and we know it doesn’t end at the writer sitting down, defeated to study his broken thing.

Why would the poet end there, on such sour a note?  Perhaps it was intended to display the struggle, to emphasize the often overlooked trials.  I (as both an editor and the poet in the case) would say that this piece is solid where it stands, though more would be better.  It shows a thing, but the thing has far more angles than we are given.

I would suggest to go deeper still.  Explore the reasons why it was misunderstood, show us the reader, show us more of the writer and tell us of his demons.  There is a dark place the piece can go, if the poet is willing to dig deeply enough to wrest it from it’s hiding place and chain it to paper.  I might even suggest, though this is a personal suggestion, to tie the ending in a neat bow, bring us back to creation, maybe add to the beginning and start us there, allow us to see the writer work and struggle as he writes.  Perhaps it would increase the empathy, to see the starving artist filled with hope and dreams before having them stripped away and beaten to dust.  Show his heart breaking, not just the resent that came from it.  If you begin a piece with his dreaming, his creating, to end the piece on his having begun anew would complete the cycle.  Perhaps even mention something about the readers, as he sits, toiling away and the readers, unseeing go about their lives, uncaring.  If that is done,it is important to show that the writer has renewed hope, he must be placed back where he was in the beginning.  If he was placed in any other state, why would he try again?

Here we have broken the piece down, studied every word, we know the image, we know the characters we have been shown.  We have nit-picked a few points and encouraged growth.  Style and structure were examined and found flawless.  Now we must look at the piece for a few key elements.

Was it original?  Well, no writer, writing about writing is truly original, but the approach can be, the angle from which we are shown the thing.  It is original, if not overly so.

How well did the writer display emotion?  The pain is evident, the regret and bitterness is apparent.  The reader will know the intended emotion, though would be able to better connect to the subject if they were not so separated from him in the mindset of the subject.  To rectify this I would add to the piece as previously mentioned.

Did the writer follow grammatical rule, poetic theory? Overall, yes, the structure was clean, there was no Shakespearean moment of creating a word to fit.  Clinically speaking, it’s solid.

Did the writer create a connection to the reader?  I may have been weaker in this area, the reader is likely to resent the writer, as they feel they are resented by the writer.  This may not be the intended outcome, but some will go there.  This could be remedied by furthering the piece and finishing the story.

With this breakdown, a writer can see exactly what they are showing us.  They can see where the flaws are, where they need to improve, this is far, far more helpful than the already telling statement of ‘it’s pretty’.  Read the piece, give an honest opinion, it means the world to the writer, even if it hurts.

With that, I hope this has been helpful, as I hope you enjoyed the excerpt of “The Darkest Hour” which is still under reconstruction.  Read well, write well, and critique well, my friends.

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