One of the most common tips that established poets pass on to fledgling poets is to read poems ... and then read some more. However, you shouldn't only be reading poems, but also performing in-depth critiques. Every time you give an opinion on a poem, you are learning, by example, how to improve your own poetry; you learn what “works” and discover new techniques to try. You also benefit from receiving critiques from other poets.
Know the Elements
To build a critique of a poem, have a good grasp of the basic elements of poetry. All elements of poetry serve to produce specific effects on the reader. Your job is to find out what the intended effects are and how well the poem performs them. By familiarizing yourself with the elements of poetry, you can formulate clear opinions, express them in a consistent way and present them in a common language that minimizes misunderstanding.
Likes and Dislikes
Make a list of what you like, dislike and what you don’t understand about the poem. You don’t have to, at this point, understand why you have the opinions that you do. You could like a particular stanza because it reminds you of a pleasant childhood memory or hate a particular word because, to you, it sounds brash or vulgar. Unlike an analysis of a poem, a critique is subjective and relies heavily on what causes you to feel an emotion -- positive or negative -- and what you find dull or uninteresting. However, in the final critique, you can’t say or write only that you like something or you don’t, you will also have to back up your statement with reasons why it does or doesn’t “work” that show a logical and informed thought process.
Analyze Your Reactions
Name as many elements of poetry as you can that correspond with the specific parts that you liked or disliked. Pick out the three things that affected you the most and find out which device or technique is being used. For instance, if you really liked the “lion-in-winter” part of a poem, recognize that this particular phrase makes up a part of the poems’ general imagery and identify what kind of imagery the poem is intending. Ask yourself, “How well does this image convey what the poem intends? Does it strengthen or detract from the poem?” Then, explain how it does so. You could say, for example, that the image of the “lion-in-winter” supports the poem’s overall atmosphere of unnatural and potentially aggressive foreboding.
You might not like part of a poem because either you don’t understand it or, possibly, the poet has not made her point clear enough. Take the list of things you didn't understand and formulate them as questions. Either write down a list to send to the poet or, if she is present, ask the questions aloud. For a poet, this is often the most helpful part of a critique. As a poet, make sure to take these questions seriously and consider modifying your poem to make its intent more clear.
Balance Your Criticism
Make your criticisms constructive and be generous in your praise. It helps to talk about the poem rather than the poet. A person’s poetry often exposes a person’s innermost feelings, and receiving a critique can be absolutely devastating, even to the most seasoned of poets. Because critique has the habit of emphasizing the negative, many poets aren't even aware of what they do well. If it is your work that is being critiqued, remember two things: try not to take negative criticism personally, and it does get easier with time.