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
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
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.
Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry by Robyn Sarah (Biblioasis Press, 2007)