What Makes A Good Poem?
by Hale Chatfield
If any of us knew strategically how, exactly, good poems are written--then we would almost certainly write nothing else. But even if the question of quality in poetry is a bit mysterious and even more elusive, there are seven things I know that I look for in a good poem when I'm looking for one:
A good poem is:
(1) Enjoyable to read. From the very first words of a poem I want to be having a good time. The words and their patterns should be fresh enough to hold my attention--or even to wake me up if I am making a lazy start. I don't want to read for a while before the poem really gets going; instead, I like to think that the poem is quicker than I am and that I'm working to keep my balance.
(2) Concise. I want to have the feeling that every word of the poem is necessary, that no word or phrase is there just for padding or to make the meter come out properly. When I encounter an adjective, I don't want to feel that it might have been omitted if its noun were more carefully selected. Nor do I want to feel that an adverb has been stuck in to brace a poorly chosen verb. When the poem is finished I want it to stop. I don't want it to summarize or to explain itself. I am furious at a poem that tells me what conclusions I ought to have about it, or a poem that tells me how I ought to live.
(3) Unique. I want to know for sure as soon as I begin a poem that I have never seen another one quite like it.
(4) Competent. After the first few phrases, I am giving myself to a poem that I am reading--almost as I might give myself to a lover. I want wonderful things to happen, but I want to be safe to let the poem work me over. If the diction or grammar or spelling of the poem are clumsy or stupid or careless, I don't want to risk the nerve, the intelligence, or even the time to read it through.
(5) Filled with adventure. At every point in the poem I want a sense of excitement about what must be coming next. If I try to guess what is coming next, I want to be proven wrong. And I want being proven wrong to be a pleasant experience: I want to be delighted that the poem has done its next thing better than I would have done it. I want to be exploring energetically in a new town on a new planet.
(6) A potential for discovery. I want the sense that I am doing my exploring without a guide or a map, so that everything I find is a surprise--and so that I feel I have found it by myself. I want no sign saying "THIS WAY TO THE NEXT WONDER!" If there is something wonderful in this place I want to feel delight and take pride in having found it for myself, and in being able to recognize it. The very worst thing I can imagine is to find something interesting and, while I'm reverberating with it, have somebody come along and tell me what's good about it. I like to think I'm in this new place because I can manage for myself.
(7) A continuing surprise. If a poem has kept me surprised and delighted from start to finish, I like the poem. As an editor I'll publish it; as a reader I'll return to it. It is in the very nature of surprise and delight that nobody can tell anybody how to do it. I think most poets try to learn how to perform the task of surprising and delighting themselves as they write their poems, and when they succeed they are surprised and delighted to discover that they may have written a good poem.