Sunday, April 25, 2010

What Constitutes a Good Poem?

On Tuesday night, I gave a talk at the Bainbridge Island Library on What Constitutes a Good Poem.

Here are some notes from that talk--

I wrote my first poem in second grade.  Was it a good poem?  My mother thought so, and so much she framed it and put it on her bedroom wall.  But would others think so?  That is the great thing about poetry, there is no right or wrong.  My mother’s poem might not be anyone else’s good poem, but that’s okay.  We each get to choose our own good poem.

So before I can begin, I first have to tell you that my “good poem” may not be your “good poem.”

But we need some poems as examples to discuss what makes a good a poem, so tonight I will share some poems to open up the conversation.  They will be our examples of some things that make a good poem.  They may also be your good poem.  Or maybe your “okay poem,” but they are here for our conversation for What Constitutes a Good Poem.


I’ve spent the last couple months asking myself, What Constitutes a Good Poem?  I realize there are so many answers to that questions.  Sometimes a good poem is funny and sometimes a good poem is tragic.  Sometimes a good poem is three pages long and other times it’s three lines long.  The more I asked myself this question, the more I thought that there was no way I could discuss what makes a good poem in the time allotted, I’d need weeks!

So I’ve thrown everything into the pot and placed it on boil.  Once everything was bubbling and spilling over, I reduced what constitutes a good poem down to three ideas, the 3M’s I’ve come to call them--

and Meaning   

These are three things each *good poem* needs.

1)  MUSIC--

Music in a poem is a little different than music in song.  In a song there are instruments to keep the tune, rhythm, and beat.  There is a melody and sometimes background singers.  In a poem, the words are the instruments.  The words set the rhythm and pace, the words build the music as well as the form of the poem, the line breaks, the spaces.

Let’s look at two poems that while do not literally have instruments to help them, are full of music.

1)    The Pool Players by Gwendolyn Brooks
2)    Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams

What is happening in these two poems are creating the music?

1)    line breaks
2)    repetition
3)    intentional rhymes
4)    alliteration
5)    assonance
6)    meter/rhythm


For a poem to be a good poem, you have to remember that poem, otherwise it just floats into the abyss of what we’ve read. Even if you can’t remember the whole poem, but there’s an image that still remains with you, the poem continues on because of that.

Before we continue on, I must clarify one thing, when I say, “A poem should be memorable,” that does not mean a poem should be shocking.  Or that a shocking/memoriable poem equals a good poem.

Stephen Knight said it best when he said, “Not all memorable poems are good, but all good poems are memorable.”
— Independent on Sunday, 14 December 2003

So what makes a poem memorable? 

1)    Images
2)    Subject
3)    A surprising element (this could be a metaphor, simile, juxtaposition)
4)    The words the poet used
5)    The shape or form of a poem
6)  A specific or detailed image or moment
7)  The title and a poem well-crafted enough to live up to it

3)    MEANING—

So you’ve written or read a poem and it has music in it and it’s also memorable.  But is it a good poem?  Well, it might be, but it might also need one more thing to make you connect with the poem—meaning.

When I say “meaning” I’m not saying you had to have understood everything about the poem because I have some favorite poems, "The Waste Land" by TS Eliot being one of them, there are times in that poem when I’m not exactly sure what’s happening, but the overall feel of the poem has meaning to me on a level that’s hard to explain. 

When I look at the word “meaning” – the first word I see inside that word is “me.” – You will each put yourself in the meaning.  It’s what the poem means to you—not anyone else.  Even if you are interpreting it completely differently than the poet intended (and believe me, this happens a lot with poetry),  it is still correct.  We each take our own experiences and bring them to a poem. 

We each find our own meaning in poems.  We put the “me” in the “meaning.”  We decide what poems mean to each of us. 

What are some ways a poet might add meaning to a poem  (and let me add a note here that many times, the poet is unaware of the meaning in his/her poem, many times the poet is discovering that for his or herself as s/he writes the poem.)

But meaning can come out a few ways—

1)    Through the narrative
2)    Through irony or discovery
3)    Through images
4)    Through actually quotes or speech in a poem
5)    By what the poem doesn’t say or what it leaves out
6)    Through the poems’ ability to start in one place and end in another
7)    By the way the poem transforms from beginning to end
8)    In the tension created in the poem or by the title and poem
9)    By the voice of the poem and what is said
10) By being multi-leveled, you can’t just read it once and as you read it more, you discover more
11) By taking a regular experience and making it special
12) By looking closely at the details of something (an event, an item – manmade or natural)
13) By allowing images to move the poem (the show don’t tell)
14) By allowing the reader to bring her own experiences into the poem

This list can go on, but mostly what happens is the reader adds meaning to what you've written.  You may write with the best intentions to what you want to say, but it will mean different things to different people.

Meaning is what we each individually take from a poem.

The poem is one half of a handshake, by writing the poem, you have outstretched your hand, the reader reaches out and (hopefully!) grabs on.  This is the connection, the meaning, this where the letters on the page move from just being words to being something greater, this become the poem.


It was hard to focus down on what makes a poem good.  I once read that "defining poetry is like grasping at the wind - once you catch it, it's no longer wind."  And it felt that way as I tried to catch it here, but hopefully there will be something you can take away, always knowing in the words of Dylan Thomas:  "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing."    



  1. Thanks. Well done. You've saved me huge amt. of time/energy (& it's limited) today. I can send your link to several folks. Cheers.

  2. very thought provoking - must have been an interesting talk!

  3. this is wonderful! i find myself linking to your site on a regular basis because of tips like these!

  4. I love this line:
    The poem is one half of a handshake, by writing the poem, you have outstretched your hand, the reader reaches out and (hopefully!) grabs on. This is the connection, the meaning, this where the letters on the page move from just being words to being something greater, this become the poem.

    You've inspired me to think about a post on What Makes a Good Short Story.Hmm...

  5. Thank you so much! I'm glad you boiled it down and kept it simple, because I will remember the 3M's! :)

  6. hey, there, i came here through Jessie's shout out..
    very enjoyable look on such a complicated thing..

    i most like your idea of "The poem is one half of a handshake" - this is so very true...perhaps a poem is one hand and the reader is the other - together a clap can be born


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