Robyn Sarah

Poetry’s Bottom Line :  Towards an Essay on Poetics


What makes a poem a poem?  What makes a good poem good?  Where poetry is concerned I have always been long on passion, short on theory, but I believe I know a good poem when I see one.  Is this just another way of saying, "I don't know a lot about poetry but I know what I like"?  Do I like a poem because it is good, or do I believe it is good because I like it?  Suppose I like many different kinds of poem, and "like" them differently: what is it that I like?  What do I think a poem ought to be?  Is there a common denominator?  Is there a bottom line?

No single definition of poetry, or prescription for what a poem should be – mine or anyone else's – has ever satisfied me.  There is in the very endeavor (of trying to describe, define, analyze what poetry is, or hold up some sort of standard for what poetry "should be") so much vagueness, so much mystique, so much potential for question-begging, meaningless abstraction, and dogmatism.  Poetry criticism and theories of poetry too easily morph into so much hot air – traditional terminology and new coinages being bandied about as though the terms meant something we were all agreed on, as though they could be applied universally – often without the slightest attempt to give them a test run on some actual lines of verse to see how they apply at all.  

Yet one keeps looking for a sine qua non, some litmus test for poetry that is "the real thing". Over the years, I've had many stabs at it, but inevitably – as soon as I think I have got it nailed down – there comes to mind a poem I love that is an exception, one that simply does not fit the paradigm.
My way of judging a poem is by its effect on me.  Generally I recognize a good poem by one or more of the following signs, in no particular order of importance:

1) I remember it individually from a body of poems, as one remembers an individual face from a crowd.

2) I want to say it out loud, for the sheer pleasure of the sounds the words make.

3) I want to save and savour it – either by memorizing it (learning it "by heart” – the expression says something about this impulse), or by making myself a copy to post or keep handy to muse on.

4) I want to share it – either by reading it aloud or by passing on a copy to someone I know.

5) I am puzzled by it in a way that stimulates me and draws me back to read it again and again, even if I don't think I like it.

6) It makes me want to write a poem myself.

No doubt there are other tests (the sheer volume of published poetry I find uncompelling would suggest many contemporary editors have other tests) but I believe these are the ones that have carried great poems through the ages, in every language.  The poetry collections that remain on my shelves are those in which many of the poems succeed on at least one count, or a shining handful succeed on several.  If poems endure, it is because people remember them, recite them, keep them, share them, ponder them, and draw inspiration from them.

But what is it in a poem that prompts people to do these things? Now we are back to square one. Shall we name qualities: "memorability", "musicality", "wisdom","  "communality", "strangeness", "contagion"?  Each of these begs its own question.  What gives the poem its qualities?  What makes it memorable, musical, wise, communal, strange, or contagious?  Here we open the door to the entire vocabulary of poetic tropes and figures, techniques and devices – and here I get off.  Talking about these things in the abstract is meaningless:  they only make sense when we have an actual poem in front of us.

Of this much I am convinced:  the poetry of poetry, the "goodness" of good poetry, does not reside in beautiful or bizarre images, fine phrasemaking, artful mystification, esoteric allusion, linguistic mirror tricks, fractured syntax, anecdotal appeal, gorgeous description, prurient confession, political missions, social consciousness, academic research, exoticism, topicality, or pick-a-backing on the lives and works of the famous dead.  All of these things are to be found in abundance in so much literary magazine poetry that I find underwhelming as poetry – so many "acclaimed" small-press collections that leave me cold.  I flip and flip the pages, looking in vain for a real poem – something that moves me, that feels true – something I might want to read a second time.  (Am I alone?)  No denying that some of this writing is polished, stylish, sophisticated, elegant.  But something's missing.  These may be exercises in verse, but are they poetry?  I believe that a true poem, whatever its subject or style, has a density of meaning, a felicity of language and an authenticity of feeling that cannot be faked – a  mysterious synthesis that doesn't happen every time a poet picks up a pen, but is born of some urgency of the moment.  It's a synthesis devoutly to be wished, but one that cannot be willed.  A true poem has a voice one can trust –a  distinctive voice, utterly its own, one that is unaware of audience.  It is a voice less heard than overheard, and this is partly what moves us.  (I do think poetry should move us.)  I have sometimes thought my bottom line for what is a good poem should be that it is able to convince me that the poet means it.  Not such a common quality, this.

Here are some notes I have made, over the years, feeling my way towards a personal credo for what constitutes a poem:

(1976)  It should have heart.  It should sing.

(1984)  It should transcend biography.  It should not be a "confession" but an object.  Even if a poem is transparently biographical in origin, it should have a hard clear surface that takes it out of the biographical mode – a hardness as object – so that it ceases to be one's own and becomes everybody's – becomes public.

(1992)  [A poet friend] attended an Irish wake and described how people were called upon to "testify", that is, to speak spontaneously their feelings and memories of the departed; and he described how moving, how real and raw and true, those utterances were; and he said he thought poetry ought to be that, ought to be "testifying."  This model stimulates and moves me.  But I look at the work of certain poets and see that poetry can also be a way of stretching language, bending language – of using language in order to bend the mind – and this also stimulates me... Yet I don't know if it can be reconciled with the other – I still feel poetry ought first to be "utterance", a pure heartfelt utterance, with clear links to speech and to song.  The objectivist idea that poetry "ought" to be purged of ego, of the emotions and life and presence of the poet, seems to me absurd – though I acknowledge that fine poems have been and can be written on this model, too...    

(1993) I distrust the overly personal or personally-specific, in poetry...My view is that poetry must transcend the personal narrative, the biographical facts, or float above them, carrying a distillate through image and sound, functioning to evoke a mood or feeling in the way a piece of music functions, or a Chinese landscape painting.  To my mind, no matter how raw or forceful the writing, the mere dumping-out of one's personal laundrybag into a reader's lap is always something less than a poem.

(1995) A poem is an object made of words.  A poem, like a kite, can be built different ways and different shapes.  It needs only to be able to get off the ground.  A reader should be able to run with it, and see it lift up.  The words that a poem is made of must be words that open out, to catch the winds of thought.

(1999)  These are the things I want in a poem:

1) it should transcend its own particulars.
2) it should be built to bear weight.
3) it should have lift.

(1999) [on reading some of Shakespeare's sonnets out loud] I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the language--its simplicity and grandeur, and above all how easily the poems speak themselves – that they "roll off the tongue", they are easy to speak aloud – the tongue nowhere trips or stumbles.  They ride on their own resonance.  This is a powerful gift, this sense of the spoken, of utterance in language – not just the sound of language, but its sayability.

I look at these notes and see there are things I keep coming back to: utterance (connecting poetry to speech and song); transcendence (going beyond particulars – from the immediate, personal and private to the timeless, universal and public); "lift" (a movement from the poem's surface "aboutness" to a higher plane – whether of metaphor, myth, or sheer melody); and emotional authenticity (honesty, urgency).  What can I add to these?  

I can add thoughtful substance:  I like a poem to embody thought as well as feeling, to give me something I can reflect on, some earned wisdom delivered through the artistry of its language.  (This is what I mean by "bearing weight.")

I can add form: I like a poem to have shape.  It need not have the prescribed shape of an existing form, but I like to see sense in its proportions, to be able to discern (if I look for it) a relation between its parts, to see how its structure participates in what it has to say – a participation that can be delivered visually, aurally, syntactically or intellectually. (Traditional forms, unlike free verse, impose this participation by their very nature – for which reason I consider that even a bad formal poem can automatically claim the right to be called a poem.  Conversely, the formally perfect execution of a sonnet or a villanelle or triolet does not guarantee a good poem.  In the absence of authentic feeling, thoughtful substance, "sayability", transcendence, metaphoric lift... it can fail as easily as a freeverse poem, reducing itself to academic exercise or mere doggerel.)

I can add wholeness.  A terrific last line does not a poem make. Neither does an occasional brilliant image or striking thought, embedded in otherwise flaccid or imprecise language.  If a poem is a good poem, I should be able to trust that the poet knows, on some level – can be brought to articulate, if asked – what every word, every punctuation mark, every stanza break, is doing in it; will be able to defend them with poetic reason.  And if I, the reader, scrutinize the poem for myself, I too will be able to intuit this reasoning.  A good poem holds together with an even tension.  Pull one thread and, mysteriously, it starts to come apart.  (That comma needs to be there.  It needs to be a comma, not a dash.  This word works here; a synonym would not.  No other word would do what this word does, placed right here.)  There's a rightness to all of the parts of a good poem that makes the whole greater than the sum of them.

And what of accessibility?  Do we need to understand a poem?  As a poet I have personally preferred to err (if it be error) on the side of lucidity.  But I cannot pretend to understand every poem that I like – not if "understanding"  means being able to paraphrase it or identify exactly what it is talking about.  Sometimes the very strangeness of a poem is the thing that I like  about it – if  that strangeness is delivered memorably, musically, beguilingly, contagiously – emanating not just from words but from an object made of them, an object with a certain hardness to it, possessed of the quality of "lift".  

Still, I think the over-emulation of strangeness in modern poetry has led to something pernicious, a shunning of named emotion, direct statement, as though these were, by definition, unpoetic.  Reading world poetry in translation, I'm struck by how naturally poets of other cultures can say a thing like "I am sad today” – the simple articulation of a state of mind – and how moving and human such a naked utterance can be, set amid the imagery of a poem.  Why does our current aesthetic reject plain statement?  Do we confuse simplicity with simple-mindedness—have we come to regard plain speaking as simple-minded?  Are we so in thrall to the Creative Writing doctrine of "Show don't tell" that we have lost our ability to appreciate "telling" under any circumstances?  Used judiciously, I vastly prefer direct statement of feeling to the fashionable poeticisms proliferating like an algae bloom in contemporary Canadian poetry: lapses into rhetorical, heightened language, solemn quasi-philosophical pronouncements that are really a kind of posturing, neither grounded nor emotionally honest – a retreat into high-sounding vagueness that dodges real emotion to deliver pseudo-emotion.

I come back to the thought that, whatever else it is or does, a poem should deliver to us unmistakably the sense of an urgency behind the words.  The sense that there was a need to say this.  That the poet means it.  That every word is a meant word.
From Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry by Robyn Sarah (Biblioasis Press, 2007)
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