Sunday, June 7, 2009

Good Poetry

Well, after two weeks of thinking about bad poetry, how about good poetry?

What is good poetry? -- or is there nothing more to it than just, good poetry is poetry that isn't bad poetry?

One can just go with Archibald MacLeish, I suppose, who told us that "a poem should not mean, but be."

But I find this rather useless advice: any bit of tripe can be said to "be" (whatever other lack of virtues a poem may have, "failure to be" is not often enough one of them). That worn-out excuse "it doesn't have to mean!" is justification for far too much bad writing. --although I gotta admit that the poem in which he said it is actually pretty good. (Archie, I disagree with what you say... but I love the way you said it.) Sometimes an empty doorway and a maple leaf is just an empty doorway and a maple leaf-- if you want me to feel grief here, you'd better do a little more than that.

Kim Addonizio's list of what makes good poetry (from Ordinary Genius) is:

  • Surprise
  • Music
  • Sufficient thought
  • Syntax
  • The parts contribute to the whole
  • Mystery

Is that is? Is she missing anything?


Shelley Chernin said...

Hmmmm......Tough to define “good poetry” without first defining “poetry,” and that’s no simple task. I’ll go with the modern definition that poetry is a creative act using language – with “language” defined loosely by the human thought process that creates it. I realize I’ve defined poetry so broadly that it includes prose. Maybe it should, or maybe I’m about to use a bad definition to discuss good poetry.

So, in evaluating a poem, I would generally ask myself, “Is it creative?” and “Does it use language well?” Kim Addonizio’s list addresses specific aspects of my questions for some types of poetry, but not all.

For example, music is important in sound poetry, syntax not so much (although a sound poem may use its own invented syntax). And there’s not much music in some kinds of visual poetry, like asemic writing.

That’s one of the elements of good poetry that Addonizio left out – the visual appearance of the poem. Not always relevant, but can be.

Most importantly, I’m not satisfied with Addonizio’s use of “mystery” and “surprise” as elements that I’m guessing were intended to address the thing that I personally respond to most in poetry but that is so difficult to define. The poet William Matthews spoke in an interview about the “sense that the poem is the vehicle to get at something which is unspoken or unspeakable behind that.” A poet can craft a Maserati, but if he or she doesn’t start the engine and move us through space and time, so that our attention is drawn to something outside of the vehicle, then it’s not a good poem.

Good poetry also humanizes us by linking the inner poet with the inner reader/listener.

Oh, and good poetry must speak truth (which it certainly can do by lying).

Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

Can I take the cop-out approach of, "I can't definite it, but I know it when I see it"?

I'm engrossed in reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance right now, which--for those who aren't familiar with the book--grapples with the question of "quality" and what it is. So my thoughts on "good poetry" are going to be coloured with that book in mind. I do think it's hard to define what "good poetry" is. Or just "good art". Or even "good" anything!

Because, inevitably, along will come some piece of art that defies all the rules of a "good poem", but will, by determination by readers and listeners, be deemed, nevertheless, a "good poem".

And of course, what I may think is good, you may not--as we can see by many past discussions that have taken place here on this page. So maybe it's a personal definition that we need to lay out for ourselves without expecting anyone else to internalize it? But it would still need to conform to enough guidelines that enough people would be able to recognize it as a "poem".


Still pondering...

Poetic Genesis said...

Good poetry exists when it feels good while read silently -or- it sounds good when spoken -or- it does neither of the above, but you still like it for some odd reason.

Extremely subjective, good poetry is.

Shelley Chernin said...

I wonder whether we're talking about 2 different things. I agree that what each of us likes and what each of us responds to is subjective. But perhaps "good poetry" is a different thing. Perhaps we can define some objective standards for "good poetry" -- which may not, in fact, be liked by everyone or even a majority. It still may be "good" by objective standards.

I think we've already established in the posts on "bad poetry" that many of us enjoy poetry that we recognize is "bad." I got a big kick out of the bee haiku, but I wouldn't call it "good poetry."


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau