Monday, November 18, 2013

What Is Good Poetry?

I was asked recently if I thought I was a good poet. I replied somewhat facetiously that I was just a working-class oik who liked messing about with words.

But the question of what is good poetry intrigued me. We all sort of know what bad poetry is: clich├ęd, rhythmically inept, sentimental etc etc... but what makes a good poem? It's harder to quantify, isn't it? Especially if your idea of a good poem is, say, a concrete poem by Bob Cobbing. Ok, if your idea of a good poem is something by Shelley or Tennyson; or if you have something by Duffy or Armitage, or Don Patterson, in mind. You've got a whole tradition behind you. There are certain criteria to do with the 'logic' of the poem, whether your rhymes if you have them are not too obvious, whether your underlying metaphors are subtle enough, whether the narrative hangs together or not.

But if you've rejected those 'mainstream' criteria in favour of disjuncture, cut-up, visual appearance on the page, a whole host of different 'modernist' or 'post-modernist' criteria come into play. What makes a good 'flarf' poem? Or even a good 'performance poem' (did people laugh in the right places?)

I've deliberately put all those words like 'modernist' and 'mainstream' in quotation marks because of course their meanings are largely in dispute; but it is nevertheless true that are different value systems running along side each other, and what makes a good 'mainstream' poem doesn't make for a good 'non-mainstream' poem.

By some criteria, even Shakespeare is a 'bad' playwright. He let comedy into his tragedies and vice-versa. This was against the rules of drama in his time; but of course, he was also a great playwright. A lot of very good poets do in some ways break the rules of their discipline. So it's not just about how closely you adhere to the instructions (for, say, making a sonnet...)

Does it all come down to personal choice? What floats my boat won't float yours. But does that make the inspirational verse of Patience Strong as good as TS Eliot? We'd rather not think about that, but a lot of perfectly nice people have found her verse comforting and inspirational. Who's to say they're wrong and we clever-trousers intellectuals are right?

We're no nearing answering the question are we? There are, I'm afraid, different criteria for different communities within poetry, and sometimes these criteria conflict. You can't judge Bob Cobbing in the same way you'd judge Armitage, and vice versa, and we will all have different likes and dislikes among the vast array of poetries there are in the world.

So I come up with the inevitable fudge: poetry is about messing about with words. Of course, there's more to it than that, but how you choose to mess about with words, you'll never really know if it's any good or not.


Andy Sewina said...

Hi Steve, subjectively and objectively I think you're a good poet. However, that's probably about my limit for messing about with words.

Alistair Noon said...

I think that the one element of "good" poetry that is common across all styles is that the poem contains some element of surprise (though what exactly that surprise will be varies in the extreme.) Surprise, by definition, can't be defined. And that's why you can't define good poetry.

drew said...

Interesting take on the nature of poetry.
But I disagree that "we all know what constitutes bad poetry".

There is good talk about this over at

Thanks for introducing me to Patience Strong !


The best piece of art or entertainment,I think,is the one that gives you what you need at the time you view it (or listen to it).