Telling a Good Poem from a Bad One
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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