What Makes a Good Poem

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Monday, 18 June 2007

In one way or another, explicitly and implicitly, something that’s cropped up across all the blogs (and comments on said blogs) that I regularly visit is the issue of what makes a good poem. This probably has something to do with all the blogs I read being written by writers. It also has a lot to do with the issue being highly contentious: an upshot of it being something that’s quite personal. However, that said, and most good poets and poetry readers do tend to generally agree on what makes a good poem, even if in recognising whether a poem’s any good or not, they often draw on differing reasons as to why it is.

So I thought I’d put my opinion on the line, and list five (technically six) things that go towards making a good poem. This list isn’t supposed to be definite, of course; at the best, I hope its representative. And at the very least, it’ll be interesting to see what you make of it. Comments are, as always, welcome.

1) Rhythm and scansion

I’ve grouped these two together as they lend a poem its momentum, and along with the diction of the piece, determine its tone and the way in which it approaches its subject matter. Good contemporary poetry (as with poetry of any era) has a line to tread: that between creating an almost musical rhythm that carries the poem along successfully and envelopes the reader, and adopting a combination of diction and poetic rhythm that is appropriate to the language we currently think and talk in, without coming across as too ‘newladspeak’. Of course, scansion is purely a page-based phenomenon, but where poems on the page are concerned, it is crucial to the flow and fruitful development of the poem. If the poem can pull this balancing act off, then, and it is appropriately matched to the subject matter in hand, it stands a good chance of tapping into poetry’s transformative power.

2) Transformation

Ok, so we’re not talking about cars and planes that change into robots to the sound of techno beats. The good poem has a transformative power. It takes something that we think we know, understand, and are comfortable with, and it turns it on its head: the good poem makes us ask questions thanks to its ability to offer the reader new perspectives and make the world a less certain, briefly scarier place to inhabit. This transformative power is honed to its full effect in the greatest poems: those that combine a dazzling new slant on something with poetic style, syntax and rhythm in such a way that we can never forget it.

3) Rhyme

Rhyme still has an important role to play in poetry today, one which I think is overlooked in many academic institutions that tend to focus too much on the message of the poem rather than the poetic techniques and craftsmanship employed within it. Rhyme’s primary purpose, as far as I can tell, is to allow words to merge and play off against one another; forging new meanings, ideas, and thoughts in the mind of the reader. Paul Muldoon is a good contemporary example of such poetic wordplay: using rhyme to echo words that may even be absent from the poem; opening up new avenues of semantic exploration (makes reading poetry sound like potholing...). But perhaps most straightforwardly, rhyme works well when effectively combined with the rhythm, diction, and scansion of the good poem: it gives the poem its inner musicality, it lends the poem a singularity of sound and sense that merge to the extent that one is indistinguishable from the other. In short, rhyme helps to complete the poem. Moreover, it is often best employed when akin to a conjuring trick or illusion: working its subtle magic in capturing the reader’s attention before eventually revealing its various tricks slowly but surely, in careful close readings.

4) Ambiguity

Language is inherently slippery. It constantly escapes itself. Words cannot be pinned down to any final or transcendent meaning, much as philosophers and thinkers may want this to be the case. But where philosophy finds problems in language’s failure to express something with absolute certainty, clarity, and no potential margin of communicative error, poetry exploits it. Poetry revels in language’s slipperiness. The good poem is a testament, then, to the simple fact that just as the universe is a constantly shifting and brilliantly unstable thing, so is our way of talking (and by extension, writing) about it. This is why the good poem merits many reads. It makes full use of language’s many, many dualities of meaning in order to make full use of the transformative power mentioned earlier. As William Empson famously states in his seminal critical work, Seven Types of Ambiguity: ‘Is all good poetry supposed to ambiguous? I think that it is.’

5) Memorability

This is a difficult one, because we remember poems for different reasons. Some poems, for example, people remember because they were forced to do so at school. And of course, there are poems like Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ that have appeared in numerous books, films, posters and so on, to the extent that they are drilled into our minds while potentially lacking any of the good poem’s true memorable force. (This is not an attack on Kipling, just a hypothetical suggestion). But I do think that the good poem has a certain memorability about it. This might only be a line or two, or a particular phrase that sticks, but good poems tend to make use of language in such a way that they stumble upon brilliant ways of putting or describing things. And once again, a poem’s memorability is borne out of the good poem’s marriage of sound and sense: capturing something in language so as to resonate with the reader in its ingenuity, and ultimately, its freshness.