I got a card from the University of Iowa press when I was a senior in college. It is bright green with bright blue writing; it reads POETRY IS FOR EVERYBODY. I hung it over my desk when I began graduate school.
It's a complex sentiment for me, this democracy. Yes, poetry is for everybody. I believe this. But then how do I differentiate between good and bad--can a value judgment even be made? I knew I would have to confront this question as I began teaching. Good. Bad. They're relative, right? I know many of the poems I cringed at were met with high praise by their authors' peers in class critique. So what makes a good poem?
For me, a strong poem is marked by its innovative and intelligent use of language first of all. I am thinking of Anne Carson's writing (specifically Autobiography of Red
: "Herakles lies like a piece of torn silk in the heat of the blue saying/ Geryon, please
. The break in his voice/ Made Geryon think for some reason of going into a barn/ first thing in the morning/ when sunlight strikes a bale of raw hay still wet from the night"--pg. 54). The images are precise and beautiful and evocative, and they are communicated by language that is unexpected and interesting.
A strong poem will make its reader think. I don't mean that poetry should be, necessarily, a mental strain. I don't think the aura of difficulty that's projected onto poetry is healthy for it or for the people who would like to read it, but feel (or have been made to feel, perhaps by a high school English teacher with a snobbish attitude) intimidated by it. But reading poetry is not like watching a blockbuster movie. It's a place for work.
In the end, though, the purpose and strength of a poem is its expression of truth (the Keatsian truth, which equates to beauty, and is "all ye know on Earth/ And all ye need to know"). The work of poetry is the work of creating beauty--not glossing over what is dirty or depressing or ugly, but somehow rendering those things in such a way as to create a consciousness that goes beyond them. Not just
anger, not just
sadness.AND A FEW QUICK TIDBITS:
1/ Poetry doesn't have to rhyme. In fact, most modern poetry doesn't. If you'd like to see a master of the formal poem, look up Elisabeth Bishop's work. Her most widely anthologized poems are probably "One Art
" (a villanelle, I believe) and "Sestina
" (a sestina).
1.5/ Also, most contemporary poets don't capitalize the initial letter of every line. Some do. some do, depending on the poem.
2/ Journaling and so-called 'writing therapy' are useful and helpful ways of working out initial problems or ideas on the page. In the end, though, the poem is a communication device, meant to establish connections between writer and reader. Being so, it is important that there is at least some point of access for the reader--that not everything is totally private or involved with the self.
3/ The emotional response is a valid and important primary response to a work of writing. When you're reading and you feel
, that's worth noting. But figuring out what you're feeling, and why, and how the poet makes it happen--that's the next, equally necessary, response. Just liking the poem can't be enough.
4/ The 'paragraphs' of a poem are called stanzas. Lines that end with punctuation are 'end-stopped,' and lines that break without punctuation are 'enjambed.' I realize this is kind of basic but thought maybe some people wouldn't know and might like to.
I hope I don't sound just awfully didactic. I don't write about this here much because I do love it, and I love teaching it, and it is hard to convey nuance through the blog. I would love to answer questions, engage in dialogue, whatever you like, in the comments.
And a favorite poem, to end with:
From the book Eve's Striptease
, which is totally worth the sixteen bucks or however much, by the poet Julia Kasdorf.
On Leaving Brooklyn
after Psalm 137
If I forget thee
let my tongue forget the songs
it sang in this strange land
and my heart forget the secrets
only a stranger can learn.
Borough of churches, borough of crack,
if I forget how ailanthus trees sprout
on the rooftops, how these streets
end in water and light,
let my eyes grow nearsighted.
Let my blood forget
the map of its travels
and my other blood cease
its slow tug toward the sea
if I do not remember,
if I do not always consider thee
my Babylon, my Jerusalem.
It gives me chills.
Until tomorrow, then.