September 17, 2008

A Rubric for Poetry?

writingAs the chairperson of the College Prep. Department at Miami Dade College, North Campus, I am now a team leader on "Authentic Assessment," and we are using the methods developed by Jonathan Mueller to enhance our measurements of our learning outcomes. To this end, we have been developing rubrics with performance based criteria in order to evaluate holistically student essays in our department.

Of course, deciding on these descriptors for the criteria are never easy, especially if the team uses standards of performance such as unacceptable, acceptable, and excellent to develop a rubric. One method that Mueller suggested in our workshop was to start with the finished product and to work backwards. In other words, if you have a clear idea about "excellence," you can then decide by degrees the categories of unacceptable, acceptable, and excellent.

This, of course, got me thinking about my criteria (especially after a spirited discussion over at Jahworld with Pam, Fragano and JDID) for evaluating poems:

The poem has a distinctive "voice" or point of view.

The economic, connotative language seduces me into thinking and feeling about the subject in a new way. In other words, after reading the poem, every time I see the subject, I think and recall the emotional tone of the poem.

Although the language suggests new ways of thinking and feeling about relationships/connections among subjects, the word choice and imagery are unified and coherent.

"An image or group of images that are analogical, melodic, and rhythmical.”

Language does not draw attention to itself, but allows the reader to enter a "vivid and continuous dream."

(9/30/07) Using these criteria, a teacher could then develop a simple grid using performance levels such as Never, Sometimes, Always to create an analytic rubric or merely keep the criteria in mind while evaluating holistically a portfolio of poems or book.

Here is my poetry rubric: Poetry Rubric

By evaluating analytically a teacher could assign different weights to each criterion depending on one's particular bias. The importance of this exercise is also to recognize one's bias, especially since some of the best poems convince by inference. For as I always say to my students, a successful poem is like a dirty joke: you are talking about one thing, but you really mean something else.

Do you, Dear Reader, have similar criteria that you'd like to add?

12/9/08: Jonathan Mueller has linked to the rubric: English/College University

Thanks, Jon!

"...poems are, or should be, experiences
in themselves, and not just accounts of or
commentaries on experience; they should be
additions to the world, not simply annotations
to it."
~~ Reginald Shepherd

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clarabella said...


It was, indeed is, a very useful exchange! I'm thinking about these criteria and will, hopefully, get back to you, but I wanted to ask how discriminating a rubric needs to be. You link several aspects together (e.g., analogical, methodical, and rhythmical, for images) and I wondered whether you would rate these as one or separately, in which case, how would you aggregate a final 'score' for 'images'?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Pam, I think I do this holistically in order to decide whether i think a poem has succeeded.

Every poem has its strengths and sometimes I find that just the imagery is so overwhelming that I get lost in the poem.

It's a VERY personal experience.

Rethabile said...

I agree that evaluating a poem is a very personal matter. But the experiences of several readers necessarily intersect, somewhere, to produce the effect of what we generally call good poets and poems, recognisable as such by a wide range of readers and writing professionals.

For me, a poem must paint a coherent picture, much like a story will create an atmosphere and hang on to it, or paint a character that does things we expect of them, according to their nature, even if they are (thankfully) allowed to surprise us.

A poem uses a certain language whose purpose is to make the message of the poem clearer. Which supposes that a poem must have a message, whatever that message might be, however explicit or not that message might be. It also supposes that any language that does not further the aims of that message does not belong in that poem, and will distract from it. This is the language that draws attention to itself you were talking about.

Some people have said before that a poem is distilled language. Based on what I’ve just said, I believe this to be true.

A poem must move, in any direction, move one to tears or joy, anger, laughter, marvelling, and so on.

I suppose there are as many rubrics (filled each with different descriptors) as there are poetry lovers out there. And I think I’d hate to be required to set up one of those for an authentic assessment on poetry writing.

To be more audacious and use your analogy:
Poem: ball meets bat, clears fence, breaks window.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Rethabile, I certainly agree with 'A poem must move, in any direction, move one to tears or joy, anger, laughter, marvelling, and so on" and the surprise that a poem should have.
& I love:
"Poem: ball meets bat, clears fence, breaks window. which actually happened--the cricket match--to me when i was a yute--so I can relate to that elation, surprise and dread.

Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

A rubric for a poem is a good idea for beginners who might be afraid to try writing a poem, or for teachers who don't quite know what to make of poetry.

I don't think I'd like to be in on the writing of the rubric,though, too many variables, too many opinions!

Here's one standard that may apply–
the language of a poem moves beyond the literal.

I came here from Rethabile's blog. Thanks for this discussion.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Christine,


Yes, "the language of a poem moves beyond the literal."

I've also found that talking to others helps me to clarify my values and when i have to put them in print in public forces me to ask myself, "is this what you really believe?"

But also comments such as yours that remind me what I should be doing with my next poem, help me to grow. And I want to grow.

give thanks, Christine!

this too will pass said...

Hi; intersting Blog; I am currently reading a recently published novel; called "Pynter Bender" set in Grenada, by Jacob Ross... it's beautifully written; out in the UK ( see but not yet in the States as far as I can tell

clarabella said...

Hi Geoff:

I was interested in Christine's comment, especially because, from my experience in the classroom, a rubric of this kind would NOT help beginner's though it MAY be useful for more advanced students. Rubrics for creative writing ought to focus on the task itself: Write a story with a twist a the end. Write a story where something magical happens but in a very ordinary way. Imagine you've just had your hundredth birthday. Write a poem that's no more than ten lines long. Write one as long as you want. And so on. Now I may have got rubrics all wrong, but what I'm confident I've got right is that creative 'rubrics' should focus on stimulating the imagination, especially for beginners – and almost nothing MORE by way of strictures. (I make an exception for limericks and any task that's inherently funny. Then you can 'rubric' them with far less risk of damage. Otherwise students end up hating literature. and that's been such a tragedy!

Geoffrey Philp said...


I, too, am worried about poems being written to be studied which has been an unintended consequence of pushing LITERATURE in schools.

J.M said...

I read this post last week and clicked through to that spirited exchange, I didn't have anything to say until I had a poetry lesson and the very words came back to me; a good poem "makes you see the subject in a new way". My students now despise housing schemes, after having read the poem "Ad. for a Housing Scheme" by Anthony McNeil.

Some of us still teach poetry for enjoyment. I do because many of my students are barely able to read, and they do not express themselves well in standard English. As a result they do not qualify to sit CSEC. So what do we do? Drop literature from the timetable? Not at all.

You do have a point in that last comment- poems should not be written in a formulaic sort of way. I mean don't you just shudder at the idea of someone creating a write-your-own-poem-in-five-minutes software?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Jacqueline Smith,

Greetings & Welcome!

"Though I try to find the answers to all the questions..."

I really don't know. On the one hand, I've seen the damage that forcing students to read LITERATURE can do, and on the other hand, I know that without developing their imaginations, their lives will be limited.

What to do?

I guess one solution is to continue to teach them the pleasures of reading, but I also know that they have exams and there is always the temptation to teach to the test.

It's a very difficult question, but I can tell you this, I want for your students all the opportunities that my children had/have, so we continue to teach the best that we can and hope that they will learn either by our words or example.


Rethabile said...

" teach them the pleasures of reading."


J.M said...

"I want for your students all the opportunities that my children had/have..."

I feel that way too. The differnce between the child who is exposed to good literature and the one who is not, is like the difference between the sun and the moon; one illuminates his whole world and one offers dim light and shadows aplenty.

Annie Paul said...

Hi all,

joining this discussion quite late but i was wondering what room would this rubric allow for something that sets out to be jarring rather than lyrical,deliberately clumsy rather than graceful, inchoherent by design rather than coherent etc.

in other words room should be left in the rubric to appreciate poetry that is completely different say in the way that much contemporary art differs from and therefore cannot be judged by the same rules that applied to cubism or abstract expressionism or impressionist painting...i don't know don't you think?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Annie,


This is really designed for students who are just starting to write, so the level of sophistication about which you speak would be rare and if such a prodigy were to appear in a class would probably fail the course and curse her professors for the rest of her life--even as she accepts her Nobel prize.

The rubric also betrays my biases--every teacher and critic has them. As teachers and critics we need to step outside our prejudices and see a work for what it is--sometimes in direct opposition to our lifetime of work, yet recognize its genius.

That to me would be the only way out of work that "differs from and therefore cannot be judged by the same rules that applied to cubism or abstract expressionism or impressionist painting."