What makes a good poem?

‘What features should a good poem have?’ ‘What makes a poem good?’

For a start one would expect a successful poem to be doing what poetry is especially good at – so one way of approaching this question is to ask what a poem can do that other literary forms cannot. Well, a poem is, or at any rate was originally, vocal, intended to be heard, and, whether heard or not, it differs from prose by having a discernible repeating rhythm. One would thus expect a good poem to be musical.

Apart from being agreeable in itself, rhythm helps the reciter to learn a poem off by heart and helps the listener, or silent reader, to recall lines and passages without having ever made any conscious attempt to memorise them. Poetry — at any rate poetry that scans — is memorable: apart from proverbs and extracts from the Bible, most of the literary snips we carry around with us are in verse, and not in free verse either.

Despite Pater’s dictum (that “All art aspires to the condition of music”), poetry is not music manqué. A poem uses words and words mean something in a way sounds do not — Oxford University Press does not publish a dictionary of sounds. Many celebrated poets very much had a message to get across to the world, Dante, the Romantics, the World War I poets, Auden &c. &c. So why didn’t these people write reports or philosophic treatises? The answer is that for certain kinds of truth a poem is a very effective, indeed nearly ideal, vehicle. Truths of human experience, it would seem, as opposed to, for example, mathematical or physical truths. This, of course, applies to other art forms also such as theatre, but poetry holds an advantageous middle position: it is compelling enough to give you an ‘inside’ view, yet has enough distancing to encourage reflection. This is what Wordsworth was getting at with his famous phrase about “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. There are two features here : intensity and distancing, both essential. A poem without intensity is not arresting, but without a certain distancing it ends up as a sequence of ‘Ooh!’s and ‘Aaah!’s.

A poem, if read silently rather than listened to, needs to be read slowly — and this is an important point. It would be intolerable to be forced to read a book of (good) poems at the same pace as one reads a newspaper. But why is this the case? Basically, because a good poem has content that is worth pondering, dwelling on, coming back to again and again. One could say that a good poem should have depth but this is not quite the right word, since it is not exactly depth in the philosophic sense that is important. Often the points being made in certain very memorable poems are seemingly obvious, unsubtle, yet somehow well worth making, as when, for example, Housman writes

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

Instead of ‘depth’, to describe what I have in mind, I prefer the term pithy, though it is not perhaps ideal either. An author who has this quality to a remarkable degree is Thomas Hardy. This is why we read him, not for his sound or imagery.

A poem attempts to make a definitive statement on a particular theme. I shouldn’t think many people who have read and enjoyed The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s translation are much tempted to want to try their hand at expressing this particular brand of melancholy hedonism in their own words — Fitzgerald has pre-empted them.

Secondly, there is the question of constraints. Poetry has constraints that prose does not – one might go so far as to define poetry as rhythmically constrained prose. (In the exceptional case of Haiku which has no metrical constraints, it makes up for this for having very strict constraints of length and also, traditionally at any rate, subject matter.) If our aim is ‘truth’ in a narrow sense, i.e. truth rather than entertainment, formal constraints are thoroughly undesirable which is why no contemporary scientist, journalist or historian writes in verse. Coleridge in his Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare says exactly this, “Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. (…) The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication of, truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” The latter point is surely worth making: published poetry should be in some sense enjoyable and enjoyable not only to write but to read. A textbook on physics may conceivably be enjoyable to read, but this was not the main intention concern of its author.
These considerations give me a few initial guidelines — or, some would say, prejudices. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As it happens, I have for some years now been taking the trouble to type out manually (or very occasionally to photocopy) poems which I keep in a file “Memorable Poems” and the other day I wondered whether loafing through these offerings, there were any features more or less common to all, or a large number of, these chosen poems. I had never previously pondered the question of what makes a good poem, let alone written an article on the theme. I made a list of such features and give it below. This approach — my original one — is thus strictly a posteriori : I chose the poems first over a period of years and only later looked for common denominators.
A poem should, on the basis of my selection, be (not in order of importance)

  1. Enjoyable (!)
  2. Brief
  3. Concise
  4. Musical
  5. Intense
  6. Distanced
  7. Universalised
  8. Pithy
  9. Definitive
  10. Unified
  11. Memorable
  12. Accessible

Of course, not every poem in my personal anthology exhibits 1 – 12 inclusive but they all score on 1 and on at least five or six other counts (though I repeat I did not choose them with my criteria at hand). I take two examples at random.

Dylan Thomas’s And Death Shall Have No Dominion is in my file. I immediately give it a tick for 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 i.e. it is enjoyable, brief, musical, intense, universalised, definitive and memorable. And I think it deserves at least a double tick for 3 (musicality) — it sounds magnificent read out loud whether it means anything or not. It is not so certain that the poem meets the other criteria. I do not think anyone would call Dylan Thomas pithy mainly, although he is usually very sure of how he feels, he is never quite sure of what message he is trying to get across. It is debatable whether the poem is accessible since, although no foreign or erudite words are used, as is typical with Dylan Thomas there is an uncertainty about his wild mixing of metaphors and how literally we are to take them. Still, most ‘men-and-women-in-the-street’ hearing this poem recited at a funeral would get the broadly pantheistic message — and Dylan Thomas’s messages are rarely more than broad.
R.S. Thomas’s The Coming, a very different style of poem, makes it to my collection and scores at once 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 11. It most likely rates double ticks for 2, , and 5, pithiness. Though not disagreeable in sound, it is hardly in the Dylan Thomas class for reading aloud and so doesn’t make 3, musicality. Whether it rates 12, accessibility depends on whether we consider a poet has the right to assume a working knowledge of Christian theology on the part of the reader. Certainly, this limits the accessibility as compared, say, to taking a more universal theme such as love or the coming of spring.

Something should be said on each of these counts.

1. Enjoyable Isn’t this obvious? No, in fact it is somewhat contestable. Most books and articles are written not to please but to inform, and some are deliberately written to displease, shock, appal &c. either from sheer bloodymindedness or from a desire to convince or convert. I suppose there’s no absolute reason why someone shouldn’t use verse in this way but one would like to feel that poetry is kept apart from politics and religion and other things people argue and fight about.

This raises serious problems if, as most writers do these days, one wants to be both a pleasure to read and ‘true to life’. Can/should the ugly and trivial be turned into something pleasurable? One way out is by humour but funny poetry is rather limited and some subjects, e.g. war, demand serious treatment. Poets who experienced the ultimate horror of World War I were acutely conscious of the beauty/truth predicament and grappled with it in different ways : for my taste Rupert Brook is too pretty (not truthful enough), Wilfrid Owen too grim (not very enjoyable to read), Sassoon at his best just about right.

2. Brief How brief? For my taste a poem should fit on two open pages so one does not need to turn over the page. Most in my selection are shorter, single page poems. The longest in my selection is Tennyson’s Ulysses , seventy lines, which is near the maximum length to which I at any rate can give my full attention without a break, probably near the maximum that one can listen to as well.

‘Long poems’ these days are not that long and are usually broken up into sections.

3. Concise. This is not the same as being brief: it all depends how much or how little one has to say. Since there is no limit of length in ‘free verse’, poets today tend to ramble on until they run out of things to say, then stop. The resulting poem, though typically only about twenty lines in length, is more often than not long-winded rather than concise. D.H. Lawrence, perhaps the only really good true ‘free verse’ poet, does manage to get away with it, but even he only just. Cypresses would be a much more devastating poem if it was as tight as, say, a poem by R.S. Thomas.

4. Musical  Nothing needs to be said, I think, on this score — except that contemporary poetry is singularly unmusical, and this is not a good thing.

5. Intense. Coleridge talks about a poem “attaining its end by the use of language natural to us in a state of excitement…”. What naturalism fails to grasp is that most of what goes on in everyday life is pretty dull and most of what is said is not worth remembering. The language of poetry, even in a dramatic monologue, should not aim be ‘natural’, it has to be heightened.

6. Distanced This is necessary in order to get beyond private outpourings which may be therapeutic to the author but tend to be tedious and  embarrassing to read.

7. Universalised

The idea is to exclude purely private writing.

“Soldier from the war returning…”

As Auden comments, “It is quite unimportant, though it is the kind of question that is not infrequently asked, who the soldier is, what regiment he belongs to, what war he had been fighting in, &c.  The soldier is you or me, or the man next door. Only when it throws light on our own experience (…) does poetry convince us of its significance.” (Auden & Garrett)

8. Pithy. Difficult to define. Certainly must be concise and must make one think. Best conveyed by illustration,

                        I

 

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk

With an old horse that stumbes and nods

Half asleep as they stalk.

 

II

Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass;

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.

 


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               III

 

Yonder a maid and her wight

   Come whispering by :

War’s annals will cloud into night

   Ere their story die.

 

               Thomas Hardy

There is so much here in small compass: a theory of economic history as against history viewed as wars of ‘great men’, the suggestion that personal values are ‘higher’ than general ones, and so on. The poem is notable also for its ambivalence, typical of Hardy – are we to view the human story as something futile and trivial (“only a man harrowing clods”, “only thin smoke without flame”) or, on the contrary, should we exult Zen-like in the ‘ordinariness’ of life?

9. Definitive. A really good poem is a definitive statement of a particular theme which almost attains the status of a sacred text (for this reason).

It follows that a good poem, or at any rate a great poem, cannot be idiosyncratic, subjective since this stops it being definitive. Rimbaud in his Une Saison en Enfer could have listed the drinks/drugs he took, the pubs where he sat – as a contemporary writer would do — but he doesn’t bother us with such trivia.

10. Unified. Ideally sound, imagery, theme and stance should all be unified anda listener who was ignorant of the language would ‘understand’ the poem. This cannot happen, of course, and in cases where we have unity of sound and emotion (as often in Hopkins or Dylan Thomas) this is done at the expense of subject-matter which is either non-existent or thoroughly opaque.

To give an impression of unity, the style must be appropriate to the subject matter. Thus, since we today at any rate feel the neatness of rhyming couplets is alien to the spirit of epic, Pope’s translation of Homer is a non-starter. However, in his Heloise and Abelard there is a pleasing ‘contradictory’ unity of style and theme (polyphonic?) since the passionate sincerity ‘carries’ the baroque style while the mannered form effectively stops the poem collapsing into sentimentality.

11. Memorable A poem should be memorable both in the figurative and the literal sense. If it’s not memorable, what’s the point of it?

Memorable because it makes a strong impression. But does not all writing aim to do this? No, the greater part of a novel , setting of scene, past history of character &c. is intended to be skipped through fairly rapidly, and the same of course goes for newspaper articles often destined to go out of date in the course of a single day. It would be intolerable if everything were memorable and Thoreau remarks pertinently “how hard it is to forget what it is worse than useless to remember”.

Memorable in the literal sense, i.e. easily learned off by heart. In good traditional poems expressions and whole lines stick in the mind without one making any specific attempt to learn them off by heart. But modern literature, set adrift from its origins, is largely incapable of providing an up to date equivalent to the mass of proverbs, jingles, Biblical and Shakespearian snippets that we still carry around in our heads. There is the anecdote of the diplomat at a large dinner party who challenged the guests to recite a single poem written during the last twenty — or maybe it was fifty —  years. No one could.

“Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: ‘memorable speech’. (…) The test of a poet is the frequency and diversity of the occasions on which we remember his poetry.

from Introduction to The Poet’s Tongue, W.H. Auden & John Garrett

12. Accessible. By this I mean accessible to the reading public. It is ridiculous that so many twentieth century poems, often written by persons who regard themselves as socialists, require a whole barrage of footnotes and critical commentaries.

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I am most impressed with your awesome talents and have forwarded your poetry blog (which I loved) to your Uncle and my daughter.
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3 Comments

  1. ron hansford said,

    October 19, 2008 at 7:40 am

    Regarding the ‘lyric’ poem, I believe this needs a fountainhead of emotion to push it along. It cannot be engineered by the intellect alone.

  2. Sylvia said,

    October 16, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    This is an excellent list and very useful to keep for reference. It’s sad that much contemporary poetry lacks many of these definitions. Enjoyment depends to some extent on personal preference e.g. I prefer Owen to Brook or Sassoon, because of the way he encapsulates the grimness in musicality. As for brevity, I think we no longer have the time to appreciate long poems because of pressure from other media. I agree with you in the main about brevity, but I still get a lot from some of the longer poems of the Romantics – eg.Keats’ Eve of St. Agnes, Wordsworth’s Prelude – and contemporary poet Matthew Francis has written some very good longer poems which include most of your definitions eg. Blizzard. I strongly agree that the best poems are musical, distanced and universal – many modern poems are too contemporary and don’t refer to anything larger or more distant, therefore soon becoming no longer relevant.

    Sylvia Oldroyd

  3. April 12, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    A very interesting article- thank you.
    I do so feel, though, that so many think a poem is a “riddle’ to be solved. The language of poetry is seen as arcane and distancing by the “non-user”, whereas true poems are engaging and life-affirming. How to break through this barrier and increase understanding? I do not like the idea that one has to be initiated into understanding and yet perhaps this is the case. Sometimes a footnote is necessary , sometimes a poetic whack round the head in terms of study!
    I guess would prefer all of language to be used with more colour, so that we all had the tools for expression. I heard once that a doctor had encouraged his patients to describe their pain in terms of metaphor. They talked of “metallic” pain or “fiery” or similar. It seems that this was a release for them and reduced the pain itself. I would like to think so, anyway.
    I often think language is an underused tool.
    I have often stood up and read my poems in groups, it can be a sharp experience. Often I find myself asked to “explain” myself. I never will- it is all in the poem, I am not a particularly obtuse poet. poetry is often seen as an obfuscation or occlusion of truth- as though it is not rightful speech. How odd we are, to expect so much(and so little) of language.

    Veronica Aldous


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