How Do You Know a Poem Is Any Good?

by Richard Davies, 2019

The title catches the reader’s attention, is engaging and makes the reader curious.

The look of the poem is likewise engaging. The reader is pleased by its first-look structure to the eye. Long continuous poems don’t work unless they’re Frost’s “Birches” or “Mending Wall”. They have to have continuously interesting images, sounds, and significant/engaging subject matter. Poems broken up into stanzas are more interesting immediately be they rhyming or not. Poems that break free of typographical restrictions and meander across a page can work if the choices fit the subject matter and the experience of the poem. See Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind.

Take a look also at the last words for each line down the page. Run your eye down those words to get a sense of what the poem is about. I have often said that these last words are the embedded poem, atmospherically or idea-wise.

Read the poem silently. If the grammar and mechanics are fine, you should be able to read it easily and continuously to the end. If something trips the reader up, it is an aforementioned error or a deliberate choice by the poet drawing attention to something. Punctuation can be very enhancing as E.E. Cummings demonstrated as long as it does not draw too much attention to itself or is actually a realized enhancement. Read it aloud if you can without stopping. It shouldn’t have any awkwardness or ‘stumbles’ in it.

It is one thing to write about ordinary, commonplace things and situations as Pablo Neruda did in his book of odes to things, but quite another if the subject matter never rises above triviality, A weak poem has no insight, no mystery, no surprises.

A good poem keeps the reader engaged, even to the point of ‘derailing’ the reader as the poem is read because the focus or ‘interruption’ is interesting, intriguing, or well-done.

Each poem will have a central purpose that is made clear; likewise, subject matter that arouses curiosity and interest which are both sustained, developed, and realized successfully.

The poem will have a rhythm or changing rhythms that work when the poem is read aloud.

Every good poem has effective sound choices and a ‘music’.

The poem will play with words effectively. Both simple one-syllable words or polysyllabic words will work (unless they’re unnecessary, don’t fit the poem, or are pretentious). The chosen words and phrasing should matter, communicate, and resonate with a reader and his/her consciousness.

Figures of speech should be original and used appropriately to develop feeling and thoughts.

Any names or allusions used should affect the average reader immediately. If notes are necessary, they should be added to enhance the reader’s experience. Epigraphs can cover most contextual additions for wider understanding and appreciation.

Quotations can add to a poem’s effectiveness reflecting ironies, voices, and situations.

There is nothing worse than a flat poem with no carefully chosen structure, flow, and music of its own. There should also be, as Frost suggested, both delight and wisdom.

I can think of very few successful poems that do not contain or subsume conflict, contrast, and irony. Good poems are also memorable and affect readers immediately and over time. A good poem will communicate the writer’s distinctive voice, persona, and style, thereby enhancing the reader’s experience. Overall, it is usually clear that a good poem originates from a sensitive and thoughtful person with something worthwhile saying in a memorable way.

(published in the May 31, 2019 Stroll of Poets Newsletter)

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