In the world of art and entertainment, everything is subjective. Millions of fans loved that blockbuster film that dominated theaters last year, but maybe you found it lacking in substance. Maybe some of the great works of literature you were forced to read in school left you wondering why they were considered important enough to be included in the curriculum. Maybe that song that your best friend plays over and over causes you nothing but agitation.
Poetry is no different. You might work your way through dozens of poems before you find one that speaks to you. And your favorite poem might be dismissed by your writer friends as campy or dull.
You can’t please everyone. No matter how great a poem is, someone, somewhere is going to hate it. That doesn’t mean the poem is good or bad; it just means it doesn’t appeal to everyone’s taste.
Taste is subjective. But there are some elements of poetry writing that are objective; we can assess a work of poetry (or any work of art, for that matter) while separating our personal tastes and preferences from our objective understanding of what makes a good poem.
All Poems are Good
One some level, all poetry is good, because it’s a form of expression. There is real value in the act of making a poem, even if it doesn’t catch on with readers or get published. Many people come to poetry because it’s an accessible form of self-expression, and it’s highly therapeutic. Teens, in particular, find poetry writing to be a useful tool for navigating the dynamic thoughts and feelings they experience as they transition from childhood to adulthood.
The very act of writing a poem is a reward unto itself, and that is a good thing. But writing poetry as an act of creation and writing poetry that is meant to be read, appreciated, and valued are two different things.
Poetry that’s meant to be shared with the world will undoubtedly undergo scrutiny, from public criticism to reviews to audience reactions at an open mic. If we, as poets, want to create work that will be valued, then fortunately there are some things we can do to increase the likelihood that we’ll produce good poems that appeal to an audience.
The Guidelines of Good Poetry
It’s always important to note that some of the best art breaks the rules of conventional wisdom. For every piece of writing advice, there’s some example of written works that defied convention and succeeded. But guidelines are not rules. They are guides, meaning they are designed to help you find your way; they are not a roadmap etched in stone to be followed exactly.
The guidelines below are not guaranteed to produce a good poem, but they will certainly give you an advantage.
Rhythm and meter: One of the identifying features of poetry is its musicality. Whether or not a poem rhymes and regardless of whether it’s written to a metrical form, it should have rhythm and meter, a cadence. This can be achieved through the sounds of the letters, the number of syllables in the words, which syllables are stressed, and the length of the lines.
Word choice: Choosing the right word can mean the difference between a poem that soars and a poem that crashes. Words are to the poet what colors are to the painter, what clay is to the sculptor, what the instrument is to the musician. Words matter; choose them wisely.
Vivid images: Images show readers what’s happening rather than telling them. We don’t want to hear that the old man was sad; we want to see him struggling to hold back a sob and blinking away the tears in his eyes.
Economy of language: In most cases, if you can express something clearly and fully in a hundred words, you shouldn’t use a thousand. Language that is concise is more memorable and resonates more deeply than verbiage, which tends to feel messy.
Emotional and intellectual quality: Most readers want to have an experience, and they want to engage with a poem on an emotional or intellectual level. Better yet, give readers poetry that resonates on both levels. Make them think, and make them feel.
Engage the imagination: If everything is laid out in so much detail that nothing is left to the imagination, then it will be difficult for readers to participate in the poem, and remember — readers come to the page for an experience. Letting them use their imaginations makes a poem more personal, more immersive, and more enjoyable.
Read all the poetry: The more poetry you read, the better your own poetry will become. Imagine a musician who doesn’t listen to music! Poets should take in poetry, know the canon, and understand their personal tastes and how to tell a good poem from a great one.
Make a Good Poem
What do you think makes a poem good? Do you focus more on your personal expression or on making poetry that others will appreciate? Share your thoughts about poetry by leaving a comment.