What Makes a Good Poem?
There are lots of dictionary definitions of poetry, and they are all very clinical, so they really do not communicate what poetry is. Poetry is the most artistic form of writing, sometimes bordering upon visual art, as in shape poetry that actually arranges the line in a particular shape in order to communicate something that the words cannot. Most dictionary definitions will mention that poetry may use imagery, rhyme and rhythm to strike an emotional response in the reader. However, it is the emotional response that is the only requirement and the tools are different for every poet and every poem.
So how can we decide what makes a good poem, and how can we judge? Frankly, there are poems that simply do not work, because they do not touch the audience, but each listener or reader will get something different from each poem, so it is very subjective. I would propose that everyone likes some kinds of poetry or some works. Just like visual art, some touch only some people and some touch us all in some way. So I guess that popularity is some measure of the quality of a poem. That would make rap songs poetry, and they certainly are. I do not care for most rap, because I do not like the method of delivery. The strong beat bothers me and I can seldom actually understand all the words. I guess that dates me, but I do think rap is bona fide poetry.
What makes a good poem is vision, form and universality. Poets look at things from different points of view from the average. Robert Frost wrote a lot about ordinary people and their work in farming country. Elizabeth Bishop wrote a wonderful poem about an ugly fish she caught. I have written poems about worms and earwigs. The subject matter is not restricted, because there are so many ways to see. Frost showed us the beauty and strength in working people and the wonder of nature. Bishop looked at that old fish and saw a wonderful prize hard won. Worms and earwigs are mighty forces in our world, far more important to the planet than we are.
It is the symbolism that the poet uses to communicate something about the perception or observation made that carries the power of poetry to communicate a message that cannot really work in just words alone. Telling someone that losing a child is terribly painful and creates a lasting feeling of loss and grief is not really a shared moment. It is a shared observation. However,
Form is also important to poetry, because it makes the poetry work. The most important part of form is rhythm. Much poetry is written in conversational rhythm as we are comfortable with that. However, changing the rhythm can express anger, sorrow or joy. Form directs how long lines are to control the speed of reading. Punctuation, or lack of it, expresses emotions and controls speed. Capitalizations can also indicate emotion and some poets are now also using Netspeak and emoticons. There are formalized forms that we learn in school and for which there are thousands of examples of great poetry. These forms make writing the poem more difficult and it is a challenge to some to make the form work. Sonnets are, perhaps the most well-known of forms since Spenser and Shakespeare made them popular. Many of our modern poems are songs, but not all songs are poems.
Universality is the most important thing in poetry, as it is this that connects to the reader. It is not the reaction, or even the perception and expression of the poem that needs to be universal. It is the connection. It is not important that a reader connects with how Elizabeth Bishop sees the fish she caught. The audience need never have even seen a live fish on the line. What is important is that the image created in the mind of the audience strikes a cord and makes a connection, causing a sort of “ah!” moment. Every good poem must have this or it fails, at least for that particular reader.
This works, because all human beings share certain experiences, such as the birth of a child, and we all share many images, such as the first crocus in spring, the last rose of summer or the winter landscape. Poets use these shared images to touch the audience and ppoint to unspoken, perhaps inexpressible meaning by manipulating the context and the other objects in the poem. The winter landscape may look very bleak to a new widow, but would excite a hockey player and might remind children of Halloween or other holidays.
The poet usually begins with a moment of truth which he or she experiences, or an observation that seems important, funny or otherwise interesting or amusing. Sometimes he or she only has an emotional reaction to something and has to trace that in order to try to share it with a carefully crafted poem. IN all of these the poet uses the tools I covered above, but the most important is universality, though no poem is good if the form is wrong or badly done, nor if the imagery does not work. Sobasically a good poem makes us react, feel or think. Then read again.