What Makes a Poem “Good”: a Completely Unbiased Investigation

Here’s something that’s been languishing in my drafts for a while that I almost forgot about. Enjoy.

Image by Jazmin Quaynor.
Image by Jazmin Quaynor.

If you’ve spent any amount of time around BookTube, you probably know already who Jen Campbell is. In case you don’t, she’s an author, poet, and book blogger based in the UK. Some weeks ago, she posted a video in which she posed this question to her viewers: “What makes a poem ‘good’?” It’s an interesting question, one that can be answered in a number of ways. Today, I thought I’d give my own personal answer and talk about a few of the things that, for me, make a poem worth reading.

Of course, one of the best things about poetry is how varied it is. Poems come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and poets themselves have a near-infinite store of techniques available to them to make their poems do exactly what they want them to do. When you meet a poem, you have to take it on its own terms, so to speak. All this to say that what I’m about to write is not a checklist that I apply to every poem I read to find out whether it’s “good” or not. Rather, these are just a few of the things that have stood out to me most in my reading and that have encouraged me to dig further into poetry.

OK, enough preambling, let’s get to the post:

I’m sure you know the old cliché quote, attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which says that poetry is “the best words in their best order.” I’ve always liked that quote because for me, one of the best things about poetry is getting to see an author use language in such a way that you feel as though no other arrangement of words in the world could express exactly what he or she was trying to say. That’s a defining feature of poetry, after all: the precision of the language. In prose, words are chosen primarily for their dictionary definition, and sometimes for their connotations. In poetry, though, words are chosen for their definition, connotation, sound, and sometimes even history. All of these elements have to mesh perfectly with what the poet is trying to say.

Father Gerard {PD-1923}
Fr. Hopkins // Image via Wikimedia Commons [PD-1923]
For instance, one poet who showed amazing skill at choosing words was Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his poetry, the sounds of the words and the overall meaning of the poem are so closely entwined that you can’t really have one without the other. The sound of the poem helps you understand what it means. (A really good example of this is “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”)

Jen’s video also included a portion of a conversation she had with fellow poet Alex MacDonald who said that one of the “great joys” of reading is finding your own thoughts expressed better than you could have done. Though I by no means restrict myself to poems expressing only the thoughts and emotions that I’ve experienced personally—and I don’t think anyone else should either—there’s nothing like finding a poem that feels like it was written with you in mind. Whether it’s a few especially insightful lines or a work that captures a particular mood or frame of mind, there are times when it helps to see your own thoughts printed out on paper. If nothing else, it gives you the sense that you’re not alone, that what you’re experiencing has been endured by others before you.

On the other hand, sometimes the thing that makes a poem worth reading is not what you and the speaker have in common, but what you don’t have in common. Sounds strange? It probably is, but bear with me.

I’ve always loved the Metaphysical Poets, and one of the main reasons why I love them is because they make me think in unusual ways. The same metaphors that caused Sam Johnson and John Dryden to write them off as poetasters were fascinating to me. If I can steal a quote from Seamus Heaney, a new metaphor is a new opportunity to see the same old things for the first time. I like that feeling of seeing old things as if they’re new to me.

And if I had to name it, I think that’s one of my main reasons for reading poetry: it gives me the chance to experience something new, or something old in a new way, by getting another’s perspective. It’s not just elaborate metaphors or metaphysical conceits that do the trick: it’s practically any poem that can make me understand (in however small a measure) the way in which the author sees the world.

dickinson-emily_cropped
Image via Wikimedia Commons. [PD-1923]
I’ll take for an example one poet whom I’ve been reading a lot of lately: Emily Dickinson. When I first began reading her work, I was intrigued and slightly mystified by phrases like “I dwell in Possibility” or “One need not be a chamber to be haunted.” Time and again, the passages in Dickinson’s poetry that most strike me are almost always the ones where she proves that her mind works nothing like mine. And that, of course, is the whole point: by seeing her thoughts laid out in black and white, I’m able to take a break from my own—to get a glimpse of a world that’s been remade simply by viewing it from a different perspective. I think poets are at their best when they can make you feel and think in ways you may never have arrived at on your own.

I could go on, but this post is too long already. Hopefully, I’ve given you some idea of why I love poetry so much, and have maybe even inspired you to read some poetry yourself.

Who else here likes poetry? Why do you like it? What tricks or traits will keep you coming back to a certain poet or poem? Let me know in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “What Makes a Poem “Good”: a Completely Unbiased Investigation

  1. I like poetry that captures a moment or a feeling or an experience — like a snapshot instead of a movie, if that makes sense. Which is probably why my favorite poets are people like Robert Frost, Billy Collins, Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Langston Hughes. They’re all great at distilling the essence of something, and helping me look at familiar things/feelings/etc in a new way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like those sorts of poems too. One poet, for instance, who I’ve always thought was very good at “distilling the essence of something” is Seamus Heaney. He used to say that his poems were all based on a memory or an image he recalled, and more often than not, that’s exactly what you get from him: a very simple image or event that becomes a sort of lens, giving you a new view on other things in the world. I had his poems in mind especially when I was writing this post. 🙂

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  2. “practically any poem that can make me understand (in however small a measure) the way in which the author sees the world.”

    this has me thinking of Jesus’ metaphor of “our father,” in the prayer to recite. This, i think was very fresh in those years. casting fatherhood, always known, in a different, refreshing and powerful way.

    and then to have his hearers see, also, the God of their fathers in this way:

    “to get a glimpse of a world that’s been remade simply by viewing it from a different perspective. ”

    thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, if you think about it, the Bible is full of poetic imagery, in the Gospels especially: God is hard to understand, but everyone is familiar with the concept of a father, so Jesus describes God in those terms. Or in David’s psalms which, being written by a warrior, use the imagery of war to describe spiritual turmoil. I think poets (the good ones, anyway) do a similar thing: they describe abstract truths in the terms of the temporal world so that we can understand and absorb them.

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