What Makes A Good Poem?

It was a good meeting at my writing group last week. There weren’t many of us but everyone had brought something to read and had also written it with a market in mind, including Woman’s Weekly, People’s Friend, National Women’s Register short story competition (restricted to NWR members only, unfortunately) and a Writers’ News competition.

But Iona had also written a beautiful poem that was looking for a home. It was a moving verse about a soldier trying to find peace. I liked the poem because it was accessible. It rhymed (and none of the rhymes were forced) and the language was easily understood. This led onto a discussion about whether poems should or shouldn’t rhyme and how some, much praised, poems are often difficult to understand.

I rarely write poetry (because I’m not much good at it) but when I do attempt the odd verse I automatically make it rhyme and try to give it some sort of recognisable meter. More often than not it tells a story too – I find purely descriptive poems difficult. But my poems usually end up sounding rather childish and I don’t know whether this is because of the rhyming or just a reflection of my poor writing.

Of course, not all free verse is difficult to understand, I’ve just discovered ‘You’re Beautiful’ by Simon Armitage – have a read, it’s wonderful.

What do you think makes a good poem? Should it have a recognisable form and meter or should the poet be free to compose however he or she wishes?

And just in case you’ve come over all poetic, I’ve found a free to enter poetry competition. Blue Mountain Arts is offering prizes of $300, $150 and $50. You can enter by email as many times as you like and the closing date is June 30th 2012. Full details are here. Interestingly they state, “Poems can be rhyming or non-rhyming, although we find that non-rhyming poetry reads better.”

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  1. #1 by blogaboutwriting on May 10, 2012 - 11:39 am

    Sally – as someone who has struggled this morning to mark a poetry assignment (written by someone for whom English is their second language) – and it was HELL – I think this: it doesn’t matter if it rhymes or not. A good poem makes a connection with the reader – it speaks a truth. It shouldn’t be complicated, or try to be too clever. It should just speak to us.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2012 - 11:43 am

      Helen – I can’t imagine trying to write a poem in a second language! I like your feeling that a good poem is one that makes a connection with the reader – that makes sense.

      • #3 by blogaboutwriting on May 10, 2012 - 11:45 am

        The poetry I’ve just read sounds like she wrote it in her first language (which is something like Bulgarian) and then translated it using one of those internet translation programmes. It just doesn’t make sense… aaagh… But it’s done now and I’m going out for a much-needed walk in the sunshine!

  2. #4 by juliathorley on May 10, 2012 - 12:33 pm

    I don’t write poetry and I don’t read it every often. Perhaps I had the joy taken out of it by having to study it at school. But what I don’t understand is, when does poetic prose become poetry? Is it simply a matter of poetry following some formal structure or is there more to it than that? Perhaps I should challenge myself to enter a poetry writing competition and see what comes out of my head.

    • #5 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2012 - 6:13 pm

      That’s a difficult one, Julia. Apart from the way it’s set out on the page, there’s not always a lot of difference between prose and poetry when the poet is writing in free verse. Perhaps before trying to write poetry we should read a lot more of it first.

  3. #6 by shirleyelmokadem on May 10, 2012 - 12:41 pm

    I agree with what’s been said. It doesn’t matter whether a poem rhymes or not, it’s the message and story that matters and these can be delivered in many forms and styles.

    • #7 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2012 - 6:15 pm

      You’re right, it is the message that matters, Shirley, but it’s important that the message doesn’t get lost if the poet is trying to be ‘too clever’.

  4. #8 by susanjanejones on May 10, 2012 - 4:57 pm

    I agree. A good poem for me tells a story. I like ones that ramble on, and include flowers. Also nonsense verse always grabs my attention, such as ‘ The owl and the pussy cat went to sea, in a beautiful pea green boat, they took some honey and plenty of money wrapped up in a five pound note. That honey and money may be the wrong way round, but you get my drift…

    • #9 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2012 - 6:18 pm

      Rambling and nonsense poems aren’t for me, Susan, but, like you, I do appreciate some sort of story behind the words.

  5. #10 by Vikki (The View Outside) on May 11, 2012 - 7:11 am

    Like you, I struggle writing poetry 😦

    Beautiful words are beautiful words IMO, whether they rhyme or not.

    Xx

  6. #13 by Heather Musk (@HJMusk) on May 11, 2012 - 7:17 pm

    I always used to think that poetry was supposed to rhyme and have a meter. As soon as I see a poem that has neither of these I’m put off reading it, mainly because I’m not sure how to read it properly in order to appreciate it. I’m doing a literature course at the end of the year that has a section on poetry, I’m hoping that it will enlighten me.

    • #14 by Sally Jenkins on May 11, 2012 - 7:23 pm

      Hi Heather, at primary school we’re encouraged to write rhyming poetry and maybe that clouds our vision as we grow up. I too don’t know how to appreciate more ‘subtle’ poetry. I hope the course helps you in that – if so please come back and enlighten me!

  7. #15 by Patent Attorney on May 31, 2012 - 10:09 am

    I’m sure if it matters whether the poem rhymes or not, but certainly, I agree with you that it shouldn’t appear forced in any way. It should just flow naturally (which can be a difficult thing to achieve in writing).

    Having said that, is it even valid to ascribe what a poem “should” do, it being such a subjective thing?

    • #16 by Sally Jenkins on June 3, 2012 - 6:48 pm

      Luca, I agree a poem is a subjective thing – so may be youre right and there is no right or wrong form of poetry.

  8. #17 by Creative Holiday Girl on July 23, 2013 - 8:52 am

    I’ve always wondered what makes a good poem actually, it seems unfair to say that it has to correspond to a certain set of rules, but that’s one of the many restrictions of art!

  9. #18 by London Accountants Worker on May 22, 2015 - 10:57 am

    For me, what makes a good poem is a real sense of passion from the poet, like they really put their all into it, not just that it fits a rhyme scheme or uses clever, long words.

    • #19 by Sally Jenkins on May 22, 2015 - 7:39 pm

      I agree. It’s good to get a poem from the heart. Thanks for dropping by, Jamie.

  10. #20 by Serviced Apartments Guy on June 2, 2015 - 10:54 am

    There are so many different forms of poetry now, it’s hard to police exactly what makes them good and what makes them bad. For me personally, I always feel that you can tell when a poem has incredible thought and emotion behind it, the sort of emotion that can barely be contained within the stanzas!

    • #21 by Sally Jenkins on June 6, 2015 - 4:24 pm

      Good point, all the greatest poems start with a strong emotion in the mind of the poet.

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