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What Makes a Good Poem?

The definition of a ‘good poem’, as well as of the poet’s role and qualities in general, varies among the different commentators. In this short essay, the opinions by James Tate, Robert Bly, Billy Collins, and Matthew Dickman on the constituent features of a ‘good poem’ and its evaluation criteria shall be examined. However, its main aim shall be to present my own view on the subject matter, being based on the propositions derived from the aforementioned authors.

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In Tate’s opinion, the definition of a ‘good poem’ proceeding from certain objective criteria is scarcely possible, as the poets do not necessarily craft their works under the impact of some personal experience or the external situations. Nor is poetry a simple expression of social and cultural life; as noted by Tate, the readers “don’t just want to have [their] ideas or emotions confirmed” (18). On the contrary, poetry is “a search for the unknown”, and each individual poem may arise spontaneously as the result of the poet’s internal and supra-rational need to uncover some new horizons in human language and expressive abilities. Moreover, the real poetry does not rest upon the exact words it contains; it is the interpretation, the “unspoken [that] rests in the darkness” (Tate 19) that may embody the real spirit and appeal of poetry.

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For Bly, a good poetry is predicated upon the notion of “dragon smoke” (161), i.e. an equally supra-rational ability to freely form one’s associative vocabulary and to transition from one (conscious) state of self-expression to another (unconscious). In Bly’s opinion, while in pre-Christian era, a poet would be free to carry out such a ‘leap’, the Christian and post-Christian capitalist society have repressed this creative streak in favor of a linear and rational-reductive reasoning, thus contributing to the gradual withering away of the poetry’s associative richness (Bly 163). Thus, a good poem would be the attempt at replicating this lost world of wild artistic creativity exemplified by a ‘leap’ notion.

On the other hand, for Collins, poetry is the most rational activity of all possible. In his interpretation, a poet, just as his/her reader, attempts to “create a logical, rational path through the day”, and, in spite of each and any obstacle, the poet is willing to stop at any place and in any time frame (“Billy Collins”). Thus, a good poem would be then that addresses its reader’s concern and enables the latter to understand the rationale of a poet’s argument. This rationalist argument appears to be in a stark contrast with the other noted poets’ viewpoints, representing a more ‘commonsense’ understanding of the poet’s role.

Still, Dickman clings to the inspirationalist view of the poetry’s sources and occurrences. Judging from Dickman’s interview (“Matthew Dickman”), he seems to be a believer in the instantaneous and supra-rational nature of poetry, as he claims that “I believe the whole poem was “received” only some of that reception came through pulling my hair out and chewing the end of a pen to death. Every poem is “received.” (“Matthew Dickman”). Hence, the majority of the aforementioned poets appear to regard poetry as the activity that cannot be rationally conceived or construed.

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In view of these arguments, I may claim that a good poem is the piece of poetry that combines two key factors: 1. a rich associative and interpretational vocabulary (including the generation of new meanings) and 2. a potential to reach out to the potential audience so as to address their strivings for the qualitatively new meaning. Hence, the evaluation of such a poem would encompass both the poet’s intrinsic ability to craft new works of literature and the extrinsic capacity of his/her readership to integrate the poet’s insights. In this way, a multi-dimensional understanding of professional poetry may be attained.

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