Features of a Good Poem: A Golden Nugget Post

Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.

One of the most common questions we seem to get is, “What do you look for in a poem?” Given the number of submissions we read, and the relatively few number of poems we’re able to accept, it’s not a bad question.

There are a lot of answers, but none of them are very specific. We look for poems that move us, that make us laugh or cry. We look for poems we’ve never seen before. We look for poems that we’ll remember in a week, a month, a year — a truly memorable poem might be the ultimate goal.

As honest as those answers are, they’re not very helpful. Recently I’ve been trying to think of a way to better quantify the way we read. At editorial meetings, I’ve been paying more attention to the way we talk about the poems we’re considering, looking for patterns in why poems succeed or ultimately fall short. Often we’ll say things like, “This poem is technically great, but what’s at stake?” Or, “I love the idea behind the poem, but it just sits flat and prose-like on the page.”

So I came up with the three main features above, and subsequently made this silly little pie chart, which is, of course, a gross over-generalization. These do seem like the three main levels on which poems operate, though — and if you have all three working, you really do have a memorable poem. A poem can be successful working on two features if they’re very strong, but one is almost never enough.

Lyrical: Is the poem fun to read out loud? Does it sing? While the overall impression is somewhat subjective and intangible, all of the usual lyrical criteria apply — alliteration, rhyme, internal rhyme, meter (regular or irregular), pacing, etc. For example, these lines from Alan Fox’s “Silk Woman“:

am I the moth inside
her mouth where words
form, silk cocoon dark skin

The “moth inside / her mouth” dances on the tongue like…well, like a moth inside your mouth, only perhaps less disgusting. Not only does lyricism make a poem fun to read, but it also serves as the muscle-memory — beautiful lines become a part of your body.

Intellectual: Does the poem present an original idea? Interesting facts? Can you learn something just by reading? A great example of this is “Alan Greenspan” by Tony Trigilio. What could be more boring than a poem about the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, right? Wrong. Did you know that he was a saxophone player? Intimately involved with Ayn Rand? Just reading this poem changes the way you look at the world, the way you see this man we keep seeing “on 7 televisions all at once.”

But like any good intellectual poem, it’s not just about those interesting facts — there’s also a great cognitive leap in the final line, that transforms it into an important statement about the absurdity of where we are in history: “Things are like they are now, like never before.”

Emotional: Does the poem evoke a visceral response? It’s not easy to write a few lines that make others burst out laughing, or feel like a punch in the gut. Even more difficult to parse out how those lines achieve their effect. Often emotional poems deal with subjects of gravity. A great example is Cheryl Gatling’s poem of longing and loss, “Even the Nails in the Sheetrock Missed Her“, which I can’t help but post in its entirety:

Cheryl Gatling

EVEN THE NAILS IN THE SHEET ROCK MISSED HER

When she entered a room, the room paid attention.
When she entered his house,
the leather couches plumped up and shone,
the hardwood floors were giddy with tapping
against the soles of her small black shoes,
the books on the shelves jostled each other
for a better view of the waves of her hair.

When she didn’t come, the walls held their breath,
straining to hear her voice, her laugh.
When she still didn’t come, that crying noise wasn’t him.
The white gauze curtains hung keening,
as they remembered the stroke of her fingers.
And at night, when he turned and turned,
it was only because the bed prodded him continually,
as the pillows pleaded in his ear, “Bring her back.”
And when he sat up, his hand on his chest,
how could he breathe,
when all the air had gone out into the street
calling her name?

Poems that are lyrical, intellectual, and emotional are the ones that endure. They’re what we like to read, what we’d like to write, and therefore what we’d like to publish.

If anyone can think of a better way to break down a good poem — other categories, blind spots in this one, or a completely different rubric — please share. I’m curious what you think.

4 thoughts on “Features of a Good Poem: A Golden Nugget Post

  1. Your drawing elicits two reponses from me. One, you’re writing “Seven Habits of Highly Successful Poets” or two, you’ve hired Ross Perot to work at Rattle!

  2. I rather like your poetry pie chart….and I don’t suspect in the least it is what the Robins William’s character ripped out of the textbook in the beginning scenes of “Dead Poet’s Society!”

  3. Amazing that I discovered this almost a year later. I do agree that those are the three levels on which most poems operate. But there is something to be said for narrative forms, and you did say a good poem can operate only on two of the three. Nice pie chart.

    I’m writing a series on my blog that explains my philosophy of Millennial Poetics. You might like it.

  4. Pingback: Prose on Poetry: A Reading Group (of sorts) » Timothy Green

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