I’ve always loved writing poetry. It’s a highly artistic and expressive form of writing. Poems can be intellectual, emotional, or abstract. Poetry can feel like a snapshot of a moment in time, or it can feel like a riveting three-hour film. Every poem offers a unique perspective and experience.
I believe that all poetry is good poetry, and here’s why: The very act of writing a poem, of expressing oneself, can be therapeutic and liberating. There’s value in that.
But then there’s the matter of craftsmanship. A poem can be valuable, to the writer or the reader, but does that mean it’s a work of good craftsmanship?
When I was a youth, I believed that all art was subjective, that beauty was in the eye of the beholder. One person’s masterpiece was another person’s trash heap, and every opinion was valid. My view has become more nuanced over the years. I still believe that all poems are good from the perspective of the poet, who is able to express a feeling, explore an idea, or share an experience. Writing poetry can also be a learning experience, and learning is always good.
However, just because a poem has value — just because it did something good for someone — doesn’t mean that it’s objectively or subjectively good as a piece of work.
As you can see, the word good can have multiple implications. A poem might be good for the poet, even necessary for the poet, but that doesn’t mean it’s good enough for publication. A poem might be good for one literary magazine, but not good for another.
Subjectively Good Poems
I’m a fan of e e cummings’ poetry. I think he was a poetic master who knew how to play with language, grammar, and punctuation to render interesting effects in his work. And I’m not alone. Cummings is widely read, celebrated, and respected. But some critics disagree. They might see his experiments with language as antics or gimmicks. Or maybe his poetry just rubs them the wrong way. Or perhaps regardless of the quality of his work, they just don’t like it.
We all come to poetry with personal tastes and preferences.
A critic of e e cummings’ poetry can argue that his work is childish. A supporter of his work will argue that childish isn’t bad. Here we have two subjective views. Neither is necessarily right or wrong. They’re simply two different perspectives.
Objectively Good Poems
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary describes objective (adjective or transitive verb) as follows:
expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations
An objective view of a poem, then, doesn’t determine whether it’s good based on one’s personal feelings or opinions. We would use a set of criterion to assess a poem objectively.
Now, I have a bit of a problem with this. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to remove one’s personal feelings or opinions when assessing a work of art. That said, there was a popular band when I was in high school that I thought was objectively good, but not to my taste. I turned the station every time one of their songs played. You might think that one movie is objectively the best movie ever made, but that doesn’t mean it’s your favorite movie. You might even dislike it, even though you can identify its merits.
The same applies to poetry. You can assess a poem’s qualities objectively: Is the language concise? Are the words well chosen? Does the poem flow well? Does it use imagery? Is every word necessary? Is it free of forced rhymes and awkward language to fit a metrical pattern? You could make a list of poetic qualities and review a poem, checking off every item on your list, one by one. Through that process, you can determine whether a poem is objectively good.
But as I’ve pointed out, that doesn’t mean you’ll like the poem, even if it checks every box on your list.
I have found that assessing poetry through these three lenses is a useful way to study the craft: personal value, subjective preference, and objective quality. I might read a passionate love poem that’s peppered with bad rhymes and uneven meter and determine that this poet probably purged some intense feelings, which is good. Another poem might be mediocre, but something about it appeals to my personal aesthetic — maybe it reminds me of a fond childhood memory — so I just like the poem, regardless of how good it is, objectively speaking. And I can view another poem and see that it adheres to all the best practices in poetry. Maybe I like this poem, maybe I don’t. But I can determine that objectively, it’s a good piece of work.
So what’s a good poem?
Well, that depends on the lens through which you’re judging it. If you want to express yourself and learn the craft of poetry, you must allow yourself to write poems that might not be publishable. If you want to write poems that will get published in literary magazines and journals, you’ll probably need to step up your game, study the craft, and learn how to produce objectively good work.
How do you decide whether a poem is good? What criterion do you use? Have you ever written a poem for the purpose of pleasing nobody other than yourself? Have you ever written a poem with an intent to get it published? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!