The “Level Four Poetry Manifesto”

In the Spring issue of the Museletter, The Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets newsletter, Lester Smith, the WFOP President, writes about how William Roetzheim selected poems for the Giant Book of Poetry.

To back up a minute, I’d like to say that I sure wish I’d seen these criteria first but since this blog is my on-line poetry scrapbook, I want to make note of them here so I don’t forget them. They are good.

Okay. William Roetzheim is the editor of the Giant Book of Poetry, which was published in 2006. In the introduction, he writes that to understand what makes a poem good, and thus understand the criteria for including a poem in the anthology, we must turn to his “Level Four Poetry Manifesto.”

Poetry, according to Roetzheim, operates on four levels. On Level One, the poem must communicate on the denotative level, or on a direct level with the casual reader, e.g., the poem might tell a story, describe an image, or contain a surprise ending.

Level Two poems communicate on the connotative level; they suggest something more, such as music, communicated through meter or rhyme.

At Level Three, poems may have a separate message conveyed through a metaphor, for instance, that becomes apparent when pointed out to a non-skilled reader of poems.

Finally, Level Four uses a symbol to communicate a separate message. Roetzheim says Level Four poems have both literal and representational meanings, and readers should be able to “fill in the specific meaning that applies most closely to their personal life.”

Each level builds on the previous level and should not be skipped, although many poets go straight to Level Three or Four, leaving innocents in the dust. Roetzheim contends that Levels One and Two grab the reader and without them, the poem will be lost to history, and not read and re-read. Further, he says poets should begin writing at Level One and then move on to Levels Two, Three and Four.

I am used to looking for symbols in art, but not so much in poetry. But now I own a Kindle copy of The Giant Book of Poetry so I will read the poems knowing that all four levels are there, waiting for me to find them. “The Level Four Poetry Manifesto” is a very interesting and useful construct for readers and writers of poems. I’m grateful to Les for writing about it in the Museletter.



  1. Reblogged this on khafidfoundation and commented:

  2. I’m reading The Giant Book of Poetry – one poem a day. I bought a Kindle copy like you did. It’s a nice thing to look forward to every afternoon.

    Thanks for sharing.

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