What makes a good poem?
This is the problem posed by every article and review of poetry. Poets and poetry enthusiasts – who are often one and the same in this country – are subject to the occasional antifesto (not to be confused with delicious antipasto, which better describes this article: a platter of tiny samplers) which emerges in response to contemporary poetry trends which are deemed by writer of said antifestos to be unsatisfactory, naff, boring, bad. These antifestos only emerge once or thrice a year and are written by esteemed members of the Australian poetry community. They tell us what they don’t like. They tell us what bad poetry is. While this is useful insofar as creating discussion and challenging our arts practice, it is also divisive. It creates a binary understanding of contemporary poetry: lyricist vs. experimentalist, academic vs. grassroots, printable vs. performable. Essentially, the antifesto fails to elucidate specific traits which make good poetry according to the author, thus differentiating it from a manifesto.
I preface the following list of my all time favourite poems and poets with a disclaimer that together they do not amount to much of a manifesto, either. They do, however, amount to a loose lineage of poetry chronicling and cumulating in what I think makes good poetry. Or perhaps it’s just a list of poems and poets that I love for various reasons; so, let us call this my lovefesto.
Francois Rabelais (1494-1553). Many of the chapters in verse of Gargantua and Pantagruel by this French Renaissance Humanist are hilarious and often naughty celebrations of a utopian life free of social shackles. As Mikhail Bakhtin points out, “The theme of birth of the new was organically linked with death of the old on a gay and degrading level.” And why should it not be so? The best part of reading these verses (and the prose, too) is that to read it is to escape into the eating and drinking and emancipated merriment and madness of the characters Rabelais describes.
Matsuo Basho (1644-94). Reading Narrow Road to the Deep North is like being able to see snapshots of a journey taken some 150 years before the first camera was invented. The perfect composition of each haiku Basho wrote is often lost in wonky English translations but this book reads almost seamlessly in English. What I and many Western poets before me learn from the haiku form is the power of language distilled (to borrow from Rita Dove’s definition of poetry). It takes a true artistic master to deliver an image, an emotion and a philosophy of life within 17 syllables.
Mary Leapor (1722-46). Leapor’s ‘An Essay on Women’ (1751) is a powerful feminist poem about how being judged solely on external appearances dooms a woman who will inevitably grow old. Aside from being one of the earlier examples of feminist poetry being as beautiful as it is political, the references to Sylvia – who is a young, beautiful and doomed wife – in the second stanza reads like eerie apparitions of the life and times of twentieth century writer Sylvia Plath. Not only are the themes in this poem timeless, but so are the specific images portrayed. There is a lesson here about the value of not pandering to the zeitgeist to popularize the subject matter in a poem.
William Blake (1757-1827). Although I like him for making the Devil a hero in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), and for rebelling against religious reign over sexuality; I love him because ‘The Argument’, one of the twenty-four plates from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, written between 1790 and 1793, is arguably the first known example of an English language free verse poem. This makes him a poetic pioneer. Stevie Smith’s ironic rhyming free verse which I adore is reminiscent of Blake, and Allen Ginsberg allegedly had auditory hallucinations of Blake reciting his poems. Were it not for Blake, Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (1956) might have been a sonnet!
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Revolutionary passion characterises the burning criticism of injustices perpetrated by the ruling class in ‘England in 1819’ (which was not published until 1839). This poem is a significant historical artefact as well as it is an earlier example of how a poet might unrestrainedly strike at the heart of the truth of things no matter how dangerous it is to do so. There is a great artistry in expressing something honestly without compromising for the sake of poetic form and still getting the form just right.
Walt Whitman (1819-92). Old Grey Beard’s Leaves of Grass (1855) reopened a world of possibilities for the next generation of poets through his paradoxically overt sexuality and politics expressed in long lines (ironically) inspired by the King James Version of the Bible. As well as writing poetry that would continue to influence poets in style and subject indefinitely, Whitman was arguably the first to put America on the map for poetry and indeed (according to Harold Bloom in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Leaves of Grass) for literature. Whitman helped to free American poetry from using stressors and rhythms typical to traditional English poetry. Occasionally, poetry is so good that it opens up new possibilities for all the poetry that comes after it.
Fredrico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). What isn’t to love about a handsome Spanish poet who mentions blood in most of his poems, fell in love with Salvador Dali and was murdered during the Spanish civil war. One of my favourite Lorca poems happens to be ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’ (1930) which Lorca wrote during his stint in New York City. This poem also happens to inspire a theme and a reference in Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Supermarket in California’. Good poetry is passionate and unafraid of darkness.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (1923) is the second poem any new poetic apprentice should read – after any haiku by Matsuo Basho – in order to learn about how a poet ought to be in control of the poem’s economy and intended meaning. As well as being a founding poet of Imagism which according to T.S. Eliot is “The point de repére usually and conveniently taken as the starting-point of modern poetry”, Carlos Williams was also Allen Ginsberg’s teacher and wrote the introduction to Howl.
Ezra Pound (1885-1972). I am not a great fan of his ‘Cantos’, or indeed of much of his own poetry, but not many people did as much public relations for modern poetry as Ezra Pound. He reinforced the influence of Eastern poetic forms on English language poetry, he helped write the Imagist manifesto and bring together American and British Imagist poets, and then when he was sick of that he redefined his stance on poetry and invented Vorticism. I wish we had a modern day Pound to organise us all. Part of a poet’s job is to define what makes good poetry; and redefine it whenever necessary.
Stevie Smith (1902-71). ‘Black March’, and specifically the space between the first two stanzas of that poem, is solely responsible for the past ten years of my professional life. Yes, a blank space between two stanzas in a poem about death by a “mousy, self-effacing and depressed woman” from suburban London inspired me to dedicate a decade of research into modern poetry. The lines surrounding this blank space read: His name is a breath // Of fresh air. Good poetry uses technique unselfconsciously.
Anne Sexton (1928-74). Her poem ‘Sylvia’s Death’, on the death of Sylvia Plath with whom she studied under Robert Lowell in Boston, with its musical cadence and commitment to self-destruction shows how vulnerability is essential in good poetry. As fatal as is a commitment to self-destruction, to present that commitment nakedly and without apology on the page is a courageous saving grace. The confronting rawness of Sexton’s subject matter is only emphasised by the rawness of her poetic: and therein lays her refinement as a poet.
Sylvia Plath (1932-63). The poem ‘Tulips’ (1965) is complex human emotion poetically incarnate. It is unimaginable for anyone to read this poem and not feel affronted by the obnoxious tulips, to yearn for quiet white emptiness, and a whole scope of other intricate sensations. Plath teaches us how to communicate to the reader on an intuitive level as well as at an intellectual level, just as the Imagists tried to do some fifty years earlier.
Charles Bukowski (1920-94). For a dilapidated outcast of society, he sure was adored like a rock star. There are innumerable lessons to be learned from reading Bukowski including, but not limited to: accessibility does not necessarily equate to artlessness, a poet should have something to say and then say it, and the world is much, much larger than the literary world but poetry lives everywhere (on the street, at the dog races, in a bottle, etc.). When I read Bukowski I feel more human and more engaged with reality – more poetry should do this rather than trying for the just opposite.
Allen Ginsberg (1926-97). Arguably the most creative and surely the most controversial English language poet of the twentieth century, he wrote numerous of my favourite poems including ‘The Lion for Real’ (1958) which inspired my current project: a prose novel. Ginsberg is a prime example of how a poet should learn from one’s influences (Blake, Whitman, Williams) whilst developing an utterly unique voice.
Audre Lorde (1934-92). Her poem ‘Coal’ (1976) exemplifies the potential for aesthetic beauty and innate vulnerability in political poetry. Lorde is one of the most marginalized poets I know of, having been born legally blind to Caribbean immigrant parents in New York, she was a lesbian and critic of 1960s white-centric middle-class feminism. Her poetry places the suffering of the individual at the centre of themes of social and political injustice.
Vikram Seth (1952-). His verse novel The Golden Gate written entirely in Onegin sonnets about yuppies in 1980s San Francisco is a captivating example of how traditional forms can be manipulated to tell contemporary stories.
Linton Kwesi Johnson (1952-). This Jamaican-born Londoner is one of a small handful of performance poets whose work is, by definition, poetry (as opposed to simply being spoken word). Why? Because, even for readerships unfamiliar with Patois, his poems are as captivating on the page as they are in aural performance in a way that has rarely been seen since the Beat generation poets – who partly inspired the recent fashion for aptly named “poetry slams” which fail to produce printable work. Further, his poems (particularly ‘Inglan is a Bitch’) are integral additions to the canon of British political poetry.
To summarise, good poetry MUST:
- Not compromise meaning for form (or vice versa)
- Remain in control of each poem’s economy and intended meaning
- Use poetic techniques unselfconsciously
- Match subject matter with poetics so that they are complementary
- Communicate to the reader on both intuitive and intellectual levels
- Have something to say and then say it
- Learn from predecessors whilst developing a unique voice
- Be equally captivating on the page as on the stage
- And, the poet must spend time defining what makes good poetry.
Hopefully the poet manages to also occasionally:
- Engage the reader in the poem’s unique world
- Deliver an image, an emotion and a philosophy economically
- Be timeless
- Use traditional form in new ways
- Open up new possibilities for everything that comes after it
- Be passionate and fearless
- Harmonize internality with politics and aesthetics
- Manipulate traditional forms to tell contemporary stories
I conclude my lovefesto with an apology for not including the following poets, all of whom will no doubt appear in a sequel: T.S. Eliot, John Keats, William Shakespeare, W.H Auden, Sohrab Sepehri, Kenneth Slessor, Siegfried Sassoon, Adrienne Riche, Frank O’Hara, Margaret Atwood, Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, John Forbes, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and the list goes on.
 Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and his World, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1984, p. 79
 Ostriker, Alecia (ed.), The Complete Poems of Blake, Penguin Classics, 1977, p.8
 Brooker, Jewel Spears, Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1996, p.46
 Mokhtari, Tara, Representations of Death in the Poetry of Stevie Smith, (PhD Thesis) RMIT University, Melbourne, 2011 p. 111