Telling a Good Poem from a Bad One

By Maeve Maddox

What makes a poem “good”?

The answer ultimately lies with the reader of the poem, but there is a certain consensus as to what makes a poem “good” or “bad.”

According to the critic Coleridge, prose is “words in their best order,” while poetry is “the best words in their best order.

Poetry demands precision. The novelist can get away with less than precise expression from time to time because the story will pull the reader along. The job of the poet is to create a picture in the mind and an emotion in the heart. Every single word counts. The wrong choice–a word with the wrong connotation or the wrong number of syllables or an unlovely combination of consonant sounds–spoils all.

The underlying thought of the poem is also important. Some poems are written to create a picture only, but the most memorable poems also convey a universal truth about the human condition. For me, a “good” poem leaves me with goosebumps along my arms. I think a poem is “bad” when it lacks a discernible point and sounds like prose.

People are led to write a poem because they have been strongly moved by some event. They’ve experienced a strong emotion, received an insight, and wish to capture the experience in words. Only a few, however, succeed in turning the experience into a poem that will be meaningful to another person.

On his site dedicated to examples of bad poetry, Prof. Seamus Cooney observes that most bad poetry is “simply weak and ineffectual and lacking in interest.”

He says that memorably bad poetry is created by “a poet unaware of his or her defects.” He says that a really dreadful poem is the product of “the right combination of lofty ambition, humorless self-confidence, and crass incompetence….” He collects examples of bad poems as a teaching device:

For the student, having a genuine insight into the true badness of some poems is, I think, a necessary corollary of having a grasp of what makes good poems good.

Here’s an excerpt from one of Prof. Cooney’s bad poems:

‘Twas the year of 1869, and on the 19th of November,
Which the people in Southern Germany will long remember,
The great rain-storm which for twenty hours did pour down,
That the rivers were overflowed and petty streams all around.
–from “Saving a Train” by William McGonagall (1825-1902)

A successful poem doesn’t have to rhyme or scan or have a certain pattern of lines. It does need to paint a picture with carefully chosen words. It should have a point that a reader unknown to the poet can respond to.

Fortunately, poets can study a wide variety of poetry–good and bad–in order to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Some anthologies for the poet:
The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1950
The Norton Anthology of Poetry (from Old English to Cynthia Zarin [b. 1959])
The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry
The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse

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20 Responses to “Telling a Good Poem from a Bad One”

  • Cecily

    Re “consensus of opinion”? Is there any other sort of consensus?

    Apart from that, I think it’s an interesting post on a tricky and, as you say, subjective topic.

  • Maeve

    @Cecily,
    Thanks, I knew that!

  • AmaT

    I think your conclusion here is correct:

    “A successful poem doesn’t have to rhyme or scan or have a certain pattern of lines. It does need to paint a picture with carefully chosen words. It should have a point that a reader unknown to the poet can respond to.”

    Aside from that, I hesitate to judge any poem as being”bad.” Poetry is personal and if we succeed in reaching that point of response in our readers, even just one reader, then we have successfully shared that personal part of us with another.

    Prof. Cooney’s definition “simply weak and ineffectual and lacking in interest” merely points out what might be uninteresting to him, failing to reach something deep within himself.

  • Deborah H

    I know I don’t like Vogon poetry!

  • Chandrashekara

    I would most humbly submit:
    Poetry is personal, no doubt, but good poetry should be universal.
    I am reminded of the grading of cardamom- Grade AGEB (Alleppy Green Extra Bold) is the best cardamom that fetches the best appreciation; the others are graded lesser, but nevertheless in terms of flavour or frgrance they are equal to AGEB. Similarly all poetry is good (to somebody at least), but the best are those that convey a universal message (truth?).

  • Kathryn

    “Whereas story is processed in the mind in a straightforward manner, poetry bypasses rational thought and goes straight to the limbic system and lights it up like a brushfire. It’s the crack cocaine of the literary world.”
    Thursday Next, in Jasper Fforde’s First Among Sequels

    AmaT, I agree that poetry, like anything else, is to a degree personal–meaning, a matter of taste. But. . .would you hesitate to condemn a badly written novel, just because there might be someone (other than the author and his/er mother) who enjoyed it? I’ve read a lot of good poetry that I personally found tedious; but I’ve also read a fair amount of bad poetry, and there absolutely is an observable quantitative difference.

    T.S. Eliot, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” observed that

    “. . .the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates. . .”

    To me, that is to a significant degree the litmus test of good writing, particularly of good poetry. If I can detect the human who suffered, it isn’t good art, it’s egoizing.

  • Kathryn

    Sigh! Oh, the devil in the digits!

    Qualitative, of course, not quantitative.

    Eyeroll!

  • RDB

    Bad poetry does exist. Meaning can be found in literally anything, if a person tries hard enough to find it. Just because you can find meaning in something does not make it “good”. Art cannot be completely opinion based (on a grand scale). If it could, we’d all be rich and famous because our mothers found something moving in our macaroni art from 1995.

    P.S.

    The word, “hella”, is under consideration to come into formal existence. Where are the protesters when you need them?

  • Rocky

    A friend sent this poem asking me whether it is good or bad. Please comment:

    Lost, again

    For the nth time
    I am losing control
    My head reels
    Thoughts scatter
    From a centre
    That cannot hold
    Like desperate sperms
    Swimming both ways
    From the ovum
    Missing the goal
    Every time they come close
    To die unborn.

  • david jon

    hi,as far as i am concerned poetry is for one person and that person is the person that wrote it and to be honest that is where it should be left. I have tried many times to read poetry which has been sent to newspapers and to magazines but it is to much like hard work to bother because it is generally absolute tripe. Poetry belongs with latin,forgotten,and should stay there. There are a few con-merchants around as well who offer to publish ones poems if they come up to the mark. In this case the mark is if you are prepared to pay for the thrill of seeing your rubbish in print and people constantly fall for it. I even pointed this fact out to one guy and he was still adamant that the quality of his work was “good”. I am sorry but it was absolutely terrible,”ignorance is bliss”,cheers,david

  • Chiccreekgirl

    Thank you for your lovely post. It is one of the best I have read while browsing for similar posts. I like your style of putting the good ideas.

    To me, yes, poetry demands so much of precision and delicacy both in writing it and reading it that it can only be digested at leisure. And it takes great skill and art of detachment, wisdom and patience to make the feeling relevant to someone else.

    Good poem, to me, is one that has a fresh view, imaginative painting of a view/event/picture. With some kind of insight that is universal and even metaphysical. A good poem would bring out the out-of-the-box attitude, delivering it in the most effective and imaginative manner possible( both language wise and idea-wise). Like a venture into how imaginative can one allow oneself to be. (Excuse me, I am being Romantic here?)

    Sadly for me though I still sometimes, to use Kathryn’s nicely put expression, ‘egoize.’ But I guess it is not that bad, if there is no self-indulging lamentations, and if we can show detachment- consider The Raven y E.A.Poe and so many others..

    Bad poetry, is just maybe unpolished and not yet refined drafts of what could be a good poem. But yes, the question of how far editing can kill the energy in it is another debate I think….. (puzzled.)

  • Jenny wilson

    I have read poems that a are gibbrish, and just don’t make any sense at all, I believe a poem should make sense and that it should reveal the meaning before it ends. i also think a poem is very interesting if it is spine-tingling,but you have to really read it several times to get its meaning, or even be challenging like a puzzle, that you just really like alot but can’t quite figure out its meaning, but truely, I have read so-called poems that are just words thrown together,sota like the poem submitted here in the comments, it sounds like just crazy words, sorry, but it does to me.

  • Bob

    Enjoyed the article, as it mostly nailed the beast to the wall. Poetry, in my definition is “the emotional content of literature.” As such, it is an
    art form, and in any art, no such judgement can be made regarding “good or bad” as did the honorable Prof. Seamus Cooney proceeded to do amateurishly. One can only say they liked it or didn’t like it. Period.
    Beyond that it is up to the reader to like or dislike, but not assign labels.

    Looked up the good professor, couldn’t find anything he’d written. Without a public body of work, there is zero credentials to back up his opinions.

    Bob

  • Bob

    Enjoyed the article, as it mostly nailed the beast to the wall. Poetry, in my definition is “the emotional content of literature.” As such, it is an
    art form, and in any art, no such judgement can be made regarding “good or bad” as did the honorable Prof. Seamus Cooney proceed to do amateurishly. One can only say they liked it or didn’t like it. Period.
    Beyond that it is up to the reader to like or dislike, but not assign labels.

    Looked up the good professor, couldn’t find anything he’d written. Without a public body of work, there is zero credentials to back up his opinions.

    Bob

  • David

    @Rocky – Bad and somewhat borrowed. Compare the middle of your ‘friend’s’ poem and the 3rd line in this poem by Yeats.

    The Second Coming
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;………

  • Luke Johnson

    @ David

    I wouldn’t call the poem bad, but underdeveloped. Underdeveloped work is like a spine without the skinned wrapping. All he/she needs to do is delve back into the piece, examine it, remember it, feel it, form it, and re-mold it.

    In fact the concept is rather interesting – this notion of displacement from oneself – the ego & the self. Very Freudian. I would encourage the author to give a second go around. Stab the best words and lines to act as a template to the piece.

    I would re-use “Thoughts scatter/ from a centre/ that cannot hold.” Very honest and fluid, yes intelligent and it gives me the image of a centre – a place of coping – that jelly feeling too, when I read “scatter” and “cannot hold.” A jelly heart-? Paranoia? Lost and in love?

  • frederick

    A good poem usually has a good idea or unique observation at its centre. The form of the poem is not important, but the words are everything and must be vivid and suggestive in the mind.
    A bad poem is the opposite. It has a cliched and over-used idea and lacks any insight. The words might try hard to be profound but just come across as being pretentious.
    That’s what I think, but of course, like music, one person’s idea of a ‘good poem’ differs from another person’s idea.
    For example, Wordsworth, who is rated as one of the great poets, leaves me indifferent.

  • Darth Figpucker

    So, what if the poetry is meant to be bad, horrific, grotesque, offensive, etc.??? If the evil or ill-intent shines through, is it still considered bad poetry? Or is that just well-written disgusting poetry? Hmmm… Quite a conundrum we’ve constructed here.

    Perhaps you might not even classify it as poetry, but just childish and demented ramblings. Where are the lines drawn. Oh, I’m so confused. How will I sleep at night until my works are placed in their appropriate box???

  • Nikhil

    I am hurt. I hurt myself. I make commitments, i dont fulfill. Those are commitments made to me. I need discipline, i need to live in the moment. I get angry, because of me. I often wonder, what is life. I waste a lot of time, wondering. I aim excellence, i aim perfection. I know its a long term process. I am optimistic. I am energetic, i am lazy. I hate that. I evaluate humans, behaviour, and then judge. I feel, aimless. There’s no goal. Maybe there’s none. For everyone. Or there’s just one. For everyone. Sometimes i wonder…

  • Victoria hunter

    A bad poem is one that isn’t written in natural speech, in which the person is trying to speak like they in a Tyler perry play or Shakespeare play. A bad poem is one that doesn’t show insight into a sight, but just skims the surface of most of the images in the poems. A bad poem is one with force rhyme and is loaded with abstracts and too many adjectives. A bad poem is one that switches subjets in the poem and subject are not connected to bring the theme closer to the reader senses. Poets will write bad poems simply because they know the basic things to avoid, so they don’t write bad poetry, and they don’t know somethings that they must do to create great poetry. Poets always write pass the point in which they’ve emptied their mind on the theme. Also many poets don’t know how a poem begins, and each stanza should, so they just try to mimic the sound and volume of voice of famous poets. I love it when I get from a reader, a comment that is just Wow or let me digest this, or they say I’m in awe. Then come back and write a letter expressing how the poem affecting them. I know then I dove deep into the pleasure of my theme in my poem, so deep that I drowned my readers senses in it.

    Poets forget that images have many layers, the first layer is often easier to discover and can be very literal and abstract.

    Poets often forget that poetry is almost the truth of ourselves, whispered to ourselves in secret. I l’ve nothing I say to myself in my mind, unwritten.

    All this I know and much more, and I never went to college for years in poetry. I took a few courses and taught myself through learning books. I was a fast learner in poetry, and came very natural to me. I have always written the way Jack Kerauc, says to, before I knew who he was. I find him to be one of the best teachers in writing, in his articles.

    I am a poetry coach. My first student fell in love with poetry and said after taking my beginning poetry lessons, he would of paid me a couple of hundred. He was that impressed. He will be my advanced poetry to mastee poetry writing student in august. I have a girl from India, who after taking my free beginning advanced lessons have asked me if I could critique all her work. She is very sad that the course is over.

    If you are looking for an affordable poetry coach please contact me at Writer Victoria Hunter on Facebook

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