Mole Valley Poets, 31st January 2011
Marilyn Hammick: The Poetry Workshop

Mole Valley Poets offer the opportunity for members to submit poems to monthly workshop sessions; usually this is done in the second hour of our monthly meetings. Poems submitted are most generally works in progress, in other words, unfinished poems that you are seeking comment on from a group of readers with differing perspectives on poetry. You are welcome to bring further drafts of the same poem to another workshop and our January meeting provides the opportunity for members to read work completed in the past year.

The purpose of the workshop is

  1. To provide individual members with practical and constructive feedback on their poetry.
  2. For all members to develop a vocabulary with which to discuss poetry and receptivity to language and experience to help develop our poetry.

The workshop sessions are organised as follows

Hints for how to give feedback on poems

  1. After the poet has read their poem take a few minutes to re-read it quietly to yourself. You may want to hear the poem again -that's fine either now, before you comment, or at another time during the 10 minutes feedback time.
  2. When making comments on the poem:-
    1. Say what it is you like about the poem, and the reasons for liking these aspects.
    2. Comment on any parts of the poem that you don't understand.
    3. Suggest ways in which you, the reader, would find the poem more accessible.
    4. Avoid any argument with others in the group, or, later with the poet.

Some ways of looking at a poem

Consider the title -is it relevant, engaging, does it feel part of the poem, does it contribute to your understanding of the poem?

Look at the different parts of the poem -how is it organised, what guides this organization, identify any reversals, sequences, oppositions, surprises.

Think about the form of the poem -is it a sonnet, an elegy, a lyric, a narrative, a dramatic monologue, free verse, an epistle, an epic etc. All forms have their individual subjects, aims, conventions and attributes.

Look at the line breaks and line length -do these fit with the voice breaks you heard when the poem was read, do the enjambments work for the poem, are rhyme or half rhyme used effectively? Do the line breaks create a dynamic in the poem?

Consider the stanza breaks and length -is there a structure or purpose to these, are they helping to organise the poem, do they contribute to the meaning of poem?

Focus on the ending of the poem - does this feel authentic, does it trust the reader?

Consider the poem's tone -does it suit the subject, is it consistent?

Identify the poem's voice. What does the voice have to do with what is happening in the poem, what is its attitude, its tone, what is the perspective of the speaker? Is the perspective social, intellectual, political, physical?

Think about how the poem creates its meaning -is it through shape, form, language, use of metaphor, imagery, rhyme, rhythm. Is the poem direct or indirect in making its meanings? How does the sound of the poetry contribute to its meaning?

Think about the poet's choice of words - are these appropriate, economical, varied and engaging? Do you understand all the words? Focus on the verbs and ask if they drive the poem? Are words repeated? How effectively are they setting the mood, emotional rapport, distance?

Consider whether the poem is showing and not telling.

Does the poem refer to or use previous writing?

What is your overall impression of the poem - think about originality, honesty, coherence. Is the poem memorable, will it still have meaning several years from now?

Finally, remember that, although the poem you are commenting on may be different to the type of poetry you most usually read, your constructive remarks are still valuable to the poet. Throughout the workshop process, its the role of the group to be on the side of the poem, or of the poem it could be when it works! We give feedback to help it be its kind of thing. Even the poet might be surprised by what his/her work could turn into.


Fortune tellers may continue to read
Significant shapes into birthmarks or tea leaves,
Or study the forms of lead cast in play
Or in earnest on New Year's Eve.

Travellers will see stones in animal shapes,
And legends will always be woven round rocks
In human form. At all times natural objects
With a striking resemblance to familiar things

Have been collected as lusus naturae and regarded
With awe. But unless a craftsman has put such a stone
Or pearl into its appropriate setting to complete the image,
Few artists take cognizance of these accidents.

The Sick Cow

The sick cow lay on the wet grass,
mooing and mooing, her belly
as big as the smallest moon of Venus.
A black and white collie stood at the edge
of the sloped field, barking at her.
The cow paid as much attention as the sun
which did its best to spotlight the bloating.
Country music seeped from the hotel,
dancers twirling invisibly behind walls.
The sick cow began to roar, sending
the dog into a staccato volley of barks.
A walking couple stopped to stare,
then hurried up the road. The farmer
materialised in the field, then disappeared.
He returned in the passenger seat of a car,
whose driver removed from a bag a long
knife which he plunged in the cow's belly.
Gas and a foul smell whooshed out.
The cow mooed and roared, then lay
as still and quiet as a waiting roast.

by Mathew Sweeney, published in the London Review of Books