Monday, August 24, 2009

On Poetic Quality

How do we distinguish between good and bad poetry? There are plenty of people who will say that it’s impossible to judge – that quality is a subjective thing and that one man’s literature is another’s junk. As a book reviewer who spends many hours a week judging the quality of a range of books, many of them poetry collections, I disagree with that. Of course there are always subjective elements to any assessment, but there are also objective criteria which we can use to judge other people’s poetry and also to ensure that our own work is consistently high quality. They aren’t a guarantee. According to Martin Amis there’s only one way of judging quality, and that’s time. There’s not much you can do to ensure that your writing will survive a generation. But there are elements that you can find in other work, and strive for in your own, that will help. I’m sure that there are more, but I’ve narrowed down my list to 3 things: originality, surprise, and connection. They are intimately related to one another.


A good poem should say something in a way that has never been said before. It’s hard, I know, to write original verse about love, hate, or the ocean! But that’s the whole point of poetry – to do something entirely new with language – to break boundaries. If you can’t do this, you’re better off writing in a different form. Do you really think it’s impossible to say something new about love? How about this, from Brenda Hillman:

Early life was a looseness;
even if your preferred mode is fragment, you need syntax
to love. (Loose Sugar, Wesleyan, 1977)

One way in which to attempt this is to employ that old chestnut of showing rather than telling. Concrete images, sensation, detail, and above all, your own individual, resonant voice all provide unique elements that, combined, no one else can quite replicate.

Another way is to get rid of the junk: the cliché, the trite, the laboured, and go straight for the reader’s jugular. The reader needs to be brought into the poem. We need to feel the words in our own bodies, enriched by our own individual package of experiences.


I love the denouement of a great poem. That moment of shock and wonder when we feel the chair is pulled from beneath us (and no hard bump at the end). A good poem should surprise us with its novelty; it should reveal something unpredicted. How? There’s no straightforward answer to this, but masterly employing poetic devices: sensatory, auditory, emotive can help. Another good trick is to pull together elements which might, at first seem discontinuous. Call it a clever use of dichotomy if you want to employ the critic’s tongue. Pick on things that are often not poetry fodder and turn them on their head. Write about love by looking at the cosmos (that’s my trick – hands off :-), or death by looking at a newborn, or a piece of clothing dryer fluff (always makes me think of death).


It isn’t enough to use language in novel, surprising, and even powerful ways. Your work has to connect with a reader. It has to mean something. That’s the bottom line. It is sometimes difficult to toe that line between obscurity and originality. Not everyone will be coming at the poem with the same vocabulary and set of internal references. Nevertheless, there has to be some kind of overall thematic going on, and it has to have a degree of universality for a poem to be high quality. A poem so personal that it only means something to the poet isn’t high quality. Similarly, a beautifully written poem that doesn’t yield something: a question, a point, empathy, a challenge, an idea, just won’t move the reader. We’ll be locked out. Good quality poems do the opposite: they drag us in, sometimes kicking and screaming (I'm probably the only one who kicks and screams while reading poetry...).

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