What makes a good poem?

Poetry is an intensely personal thing, so opinions abound regarding what makes a poem truly good. I’m not here to tell you that I know the magic formula or to try and pretend that I am some literary genius that has it all figured out, but I would like to share my opinion of what makes a poem stand out above the rest. Undoubtedly, some of you will disagree with my criteria, which is fine. In fact, I would encourage you to post a comment with your own opinion on the matter if you wish to do so.

So without further ado…my list of poetry must-haves:

1. Honesty – is this one really a surprise? After all, I named my recently published poetry book, “Not Afraid to Be Real”. And to me, that isn’t just a clever title. I strive in all my writing to be honest and present life realistically. Of course, since poetry tends to focus more on thoughts, feelings and images, the honesty in my poetry tends to be more about the inner life than about the outer life. However, both elements are involved.

2. Clarity – I choose this as second, because I really don’t like poetry that doesn’t make a lick of sense. That is probably my number one turnoff when I choose a poetry book to read or buy. If I flip through and find several poems that are overly ambiguous, I put it back down and keep looking. I should make it clear that there is a difference between random humor and pointless confusion. After all, I love the show Family Guy, and that humor is about as random as you can get.

3. Description – most writers know that poetry falls under the category of descriptive writing. Description is extremely important if you want to write a poem that really moves a reader and makes them feel a part of the experience. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to describe every single little thing you see, hear, taste or touch. Pick a few details that really give the vibe you want. Try to make them as specific as possible (instead of tree, use oak, instead of ice cream, use chocolate chip cookie dough, etc.)

4. Spelling and grammar – maybe a bit of a bummer, but writing poetry doesn’t mean abandoning ALL of the writing rules. Yeah, you have a lot more leeway with poetry as far as sentence structure and form goes, but please check your spelling and grammar. The only time a word should be spelled wrong in a poem is if the poet did it on purpose to introduce some clever word play.

5. Make a point – it doesn’t have to be revolutionary or mind-blowing, but poems are a lot more fun to read if they actually have a point and don’t just ramble on about nothing. You don’t have to make the poem preachy or moralistic or anything like that, but make sure you know what you are trying to say. If you don’t know what your poem means, then it’s highly unlikely that anyone else will either.

6. Don’t overdo it – some poets layer on image after image after image until their writing is so bogged down that it becomes dull and boring. Sometimes simple really is better. Know what you want to say and how you want to show it, then figure out the best way to share that with your reader. If your poem has you yawning halfway through, your reader probably won’t even make it that far into it. If you bring your readers to tears, you want it to be from a deep emotional reaction to your words, not from boredom.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this little list. You might have noticed that I didn’t include typical poetic devices, such as metaphors, similes, alliteration, repetition, rhyme, rhythm or form. That isn’t because those aren’t important at all, but because I don’t think they are absolutely necessary to create great poetry. However, if you already have a great concept, adding some of those poetic devices to your poem might make it even better, so do consider using them.

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