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


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.

The Baseball Metaphor: 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.

When I was in high school I had a t-shirt that said “Baseball Is Life.” Taken literally, even as a teenager, that statement was a little depressing. As a metaphor, I was never quite sure what it meant: That even the best strike out more often than they hit homeruns? That no matter what we do, we’re all trying to make it home? Still, I wore that shirt with pride under my maroon mesh jersey (#25 for Mark McGuire, before the ‘roids).

Being in the poetry business, you can’t help but think about the nature of the poetry business – the process of constantly submitting, being rejected, getting things published, competing with yourself at the same time as you’re competing with others for little more than the joy of it. Being obsessed with baseball for much of my life, I can’t help but compare the poetry business to sports.

One of the things that bothers me is how offended some people get when their work is rejected. I have to send out over a hundred rejection letters every week, and no matter how delicately I phrase things, no matter how honest and sympathetic I actually am, at least a handful of people will write back angry. Most people approach submissions as if there’s no doubt their work deserves to be published, as if every rejection is an editor dropping the ball, is proof of inattention or bias. Every amateur thinks they’re a pro.

At first glance this seems like human nature. But then I think of baseball. Including the minor leagues, there are about 10,000 professional baseball players in this country at any given time. I have no idea how many amateurs are playing recreationally, how many kids there are in little league, how many parents playing catch – but it has to be tens of millions. Do any of them think that if they’d stepped into the batter’s box against Roger Clemens they’d hit a homerun? No one’s that naïve.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. For generations people have been marveling at these monstrous men throwing cowhide 100 miles an hour, hitting moonshots into the stands – that doesn’t make the local batting cage any less fun. We’d all love to face a major league pitcher sometime, to swing with our eyes closed and hope. Why isn’t that enough for a poet? Why can’t we marvel at Li-Young Lee and have fun writing a little lyric in our backyard? Why can’t we send that poem off for fun, and still be happy if we don’t make contact?

You might say that in writing a poem, we’re exposing our very soul – a rejection is a rejection of one’s own existence. But for a lot of people, baseball really is life.

There’s a guy I see every time I go to the park. He’s almost 40, works at the mail room at Universal Studios, and has no desire to climb that ladder any higher. He plays baseball almost every day; sleeps and eats baseball. Pays league dues over and over again just to be on a team. No recognition, no prize at the end of the season. He does it because he loves it. And he’s not the only one.

So why the difference? There are probably a lot of reasons. It might be that the amateur/pro line is much more blurry in poetry. Baseball players have bodyguards, a fenced-off path to the team bus. You see them play on national television; they sit on David Letterman’s couch. Even the greatest poets don’t get that kind of treatment, and if you’re patient enough with your own poetry, someone will publish you.

Or maybe it’s just that poetry is much more subjective. My fastball tops at 70mph. Who knows how good our poems are.

I don’t think we should let that keep us from playing for the simple love of the game.

So I’m wondering: Do they make t-shirts that say “Poetry Is Life”? Would you wear one if they did?

Syntactic Complexity

And she, her back to him, seems only what she shows
as she bends over, reaching between her splayed legs
to pick it up, her face a moment upside down
beneath her crotch, her pink tongue flickering level
with the face she watches watching her, the face void

of expression, dense as stone, clinical as light,
unmoved, as if the fantasy is that there isn’t one,
that she isn’t dancing any gesture of what she
imagines he imagines she would feel like if he
were doing to her what she pretends he does.

–from “The Naked Eye” by Alan Shapiro

I haven’t tried to diagram a sentence since the 6th grade, and I’m not about to start. A diagram of this sentence would take a scroll. The only action is the simple clause “She bends over.” The rest of the sentence — another 100 words spanning 10 lines — twists and contorts around its one movement like a nimble stripper around her pole (so to speak). It’s actually difficult to trace where each limb connects to the body.

At workshops everyone talks about diction, about similes and metaphors, about using fresh language and avoiding cliches — but syntactic complexity seems to me the unsung hero of great poetry, the secret tool that’s also one of the hardest to develop. Compare a great poet like Shapiro to any of the million lesser poets, and you’ll find they address similar topics, use similar images, have a similar vocabulary — there aren’t any words in that sentence a 6th-grader wouldn’t know. And yet Shapiro’s poems are engrossing, engaging, alive, while the others lie flat on the page.

And of course it’s not just a matter of writing the longest, most convoluted, Nabokovian sentences one can manage. Here are Shapiro’s next two:

The fantasy is wholly of the eye. The eye is his.

The intricate avalanche of the 103 words preceding it, all their mass and momentum, fall onto those last four: “The eye is his.” The effect is as dramatic as a gasp; it echoes. First with the amazingly dexterous acrobatics, and then with the long fall.

The need to vary your sentences, a simple matter of rhythm and pacing, is no great secret, but it’s one that amateur poets most often ignore. When reading the countless submissions that come in there’s something intuitive that you start to sense within the first few lines, where you know the voice just isn’t singing. We always keep reading, of course, but despite that, you know what the ultimate decision will be. Looking more closely at why those poems aren’t working, it always seems to be a bland, repetitive syntax. One could be writing the most profound thoughts in the world, but if the sentences don’t work like a song, the inflections of the voice like notes, then it’s not a poem.

Unless, of course, it’s a different kind of poem, an experimental poem that doesn’t care about voice…but that’s a different topic altogether, and that isn’t the goal for the majority of poets who send us work.