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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Critiquing the poem, hearing the music, singing the song

Let’s take a look at this poem or, better yet, a listen:

Unconditional Love Is A Fallacy
by R. Nella

You ought to know I love you, you ought to know I care.
I ought to know you love him, and that I don't compare.

But he is just a fantasy, with whom you'd like to be.
While I'm a mere reality, the one you'll never see.

We both know the ensuing years, will fill you with temptation,
and you must resist all my fears, that will lead you to damnation.

If you make it through that time, without causing me such grief,
my love for you will still be strong, as sure as my relief.

But chances are, that one day soon, your love I will despise,
as making it unscathed through the years, would be a huge surprise.

Yet even if you make it through, and settle for a lover,
I know already my heart will break, as he will be another.

Those lines have a highly lyrical subject with such solid rhyme and strong rhythmic beat that I stopped hearing the poem as a poem. So my response had less to do with the poetic aspects of the lines than the qualities that go into a song – a song I can hear with hit potential.

I’ll get to that positive aspect in a moment, but my Number One Hit to the poem as is concerns conjecture. The last four couplets (sets of two rhyming lines) seem to be based on assumptions concerning what may or may not happen, rather than what has occurred or what presently is. So whether we see this poem as a poem or hear it as a song, the verses suffer for lack of the detail needed to give us something we can see and hear and feel.

By being abstract and not really grounded in any scene, place, or time zone, the verses lost their credibility with the exception of the first four lines.

Those first four lines have that elusive “it” which goes into the chorus of a highly marketable song. They have words people actually say and thoughts most of us have had, and so, those lines entice us with their honesty, credibility, and familiarity. As listeners, we immediately connect.

To clarify and strengthen the lines even more for a song as you revise, these suggestions may help:

You ought to know I love you. You ought to know I care,
but I just know you love him, and I do not compare.

He is just a fantasy with whom you'd like to be.
I am real, but the one you never seem to see.

If you read both versions aloud, your ears can better assess those suggestions, but basically, the idea was to cut unnecessary words (“that,” “mere”) and round out the beat.

The suggested changes also work toward a natural but rhythmic speech that sounds like people often talk. This enhances the honesty of those already credible lines too.

As the chorus of a song with hit potential, the lines themselves can lead your rewrites for the main verses. For those, I suggest putting the people of the song into a scene with sensory details, so readers (or listeners) can see, feel, and touch that first meeting (perhaps in the first verse) and experience the relationship in verse two and feel the relationship gone wrong in verse three.

Each of those scenes and verses could also tie into the last choral line, illustrating that this guy just never seems to see the very real and wonderful person before him and, perhaps, never did.

Hmmm. This makes me think the title might be “You Never Saw Me.” That title or something similar will ensure the interest of most listeners as they readily relate to your words and easily embrace the singer, the story, and the song.

[For a private writing consult, edit, or critique of your poetry book, chapbook, batch of poems or songs, see The Poetry Editor website – http://www.thepoetryeditor.com. ]


  1. Thank you for your critique. In your e-mail to me, you hoped you didn't seem to harsh at first, however having read your blog, the points you picked up on were in line with my expectations.

    Reading the poem like a song wasn't something I'd expected, but as someone who listens to a lot of music, music certainly does have an influence on my writing, and even on the way I talk (I throw song lyrics in to conversations regularly).

    The abstract nature of the poem is something I expected you would identify. I have mixed feelings about that, as the abstraction was deliberate, to avoid what you descibe as "Gives unasked-for advice" in an earlier post. There are some great songs which tell a story, and set a scene very well. A few which come to mind are "Harper Valley PTA", "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant", "The Gambler", and "Garden Party". What they mean to the person who wrote them, or the people in the stories, may be clear, but but at the same time I often find them difficult to relate to. Stories which are over-prescribed take away the opportunity for me to find my own meaning. In music, there may be one or two lines in a song which appear to have some deeper meaning, and give me something to think about. Often I will end up on songmeanings.net, wondering how other people interpret a song. I like a poem to be relatively open-ended for that reason.

    There is one important difference between a song and a poem however. A song may be listened to many times, for reasons other than the words, while with a poem, if the reader can't find meaning the first time, chances are there won't be a second opportunity. Definitely something to consider for anything I write in the future.


    R. Nella

  2. Happy to hear we're singing the same tune! You definitely have a flair for the musical, which reminds me that I have an article on the poetry of the song in this year's edition of Writers Digest annual songwriters' market guide, which then reminds me to add a hotlink to the book on Amazon. (Yes, I’ll get a small commission if anyone buys it directly from this page. Cool! Thanks.)

    Sorry the "Gives unasked-for advice" wasn’t clear. I meant that preachy, didactic, know-it-all, condescending, patronizing, somewhat disdainful tone that tells readers what to do or how to live their lives as though the poet or writer knows more about what's best for them than they do for themselves. You would probably be very surprised by how often beginning poets write this way, but even that tact can work if tempered with love.

    Generally speaking, unwanted and unwarranted advice seldom occurs when a poem or song focuses on telling a story. If that story happens to reflect experiences other people have encountered, so much the better. Also, adding sensory details to the story will draw readers and/or listeners into the experience even more.

    Hope that clarifies. Best wishes for you and your work.