What Makes a Good Poem? 6 Writing Tips

How beautiful / The usually hateful crow, / This morn of snow! (Bashō)

To paraphrase the literary critic Northrop Frye, poets deal with the “imaginative aspect” of environment. Frye was speaking about the physical environment, but I would stretch that to include any context in which the poem exists – which might be physical (explored and revealed through the senses), intellectual (the world of ideas and/or abstractions), or psychological (internal journey). This subject is the “thing” that stirs the poet to look deeply and with carefully chosen words, “voice,” and “music” (lineation, rhythm, rhyme) create the poem. What is “looked at deeply” becomes the theme, the thing written between the lines that moves the poem toward a new perspective, a new way of seeing and understanding the “thing” described. All gobbledygook? Let’s have an example.

Jane Hirshfield (Ten Windows) provides an haiku by Kobayahsi Issa to demonstrate the change that occurs in a good poem:

We wander
the roof of hell,
choosing blossoms.

Despite the grief and compassion we feel at the initial statement, we learn that life’s journey is made liveable by what is chosen. The pain is stated without sentimentality. The twist comes simply and effectively with the choice made, as Hirshfield says, the “bending down to pick flowers.”

In Issa’s eight words, we have all that is required of a good poem: subject, theme, carefully chosen words (even in translation), a twist/movement leading to a change of perspective, an opening toward seeing the subject differently. Hauntingly beautiful. One of the elements that sets poetry apart from prose is the emotional sub-text that exists in good poetry.

To quote Jane Hirshfield, “A good poem is a through-passage, words that leave poet, reader, and themselves ineradicably changed. Having read a poem that matters, the person who holds the page is different than he or she was before.” Wouldn’t we all like to leave our readers changed and feeling deeply, as well as thinking about what we have written?

Poet and editor Robyn Sarah (“Poetries Bottom Line,” Little Eurekas) says it another way:

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.… 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 [author’s emphasis], and this is partly what moves us.

Finally, Tony Hoagland has written an entire book about voice. In The Art of Voice, he concludes:

The role of voice in poetry is to deliver the paradoxical facts of life with warmth and élan, humor, intelligence, and wildness. Such art requires a particular spirit and a particular set of skills…. In the end, perhaps, each good poem is a kind of miracle birth, possessing a different ingenuity and metabolism. But poetry is a craft as well as an art, and the insights and techniques of craft, like carpentry, can be taught, learned, practiced, and relished.

When I studied writing with the late Alistair MacLeod, he was best known as a short story author. This was before he published No Great Mischief, winner of the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award (2001). Professor MacLeod maintained that the shorter the writing, the more difficult and challenging it is for the writer. Poetry, in part because of its brevity, demands that every word count and be chosen with nuanced care. A poem is condensed, dense, operating on multiple levels at once. And yet the job of the poet is to make the poem accessible, to take the everyday commonplace and  to open a window onto a new way of seeing. I believe that poetry is revolutionary in that at its heart lays the key to new awareness and change.

So, what is the “take away” for poets: 6 writing tips

  1. A subject that demands the poet dwell with it, explore it using the senses to get at its inherent multiple levels to find what exists beneath the obvious;
  2. A theme that resonates between the “thing” of the subject, the creative core that shifts writer and reader to a new awareness;
  3. A twist or shift that takes writer and reader into new ways of seeing what was initially commonplace or a problem unresolved;
  4. How this is done is complex, but voice is a key, an authentic voice, an honest voice, a voice that uses all the tools in the writer’s toolbox (metaphor, music, etc.) to connect with the reader eliciting in him or her the emotion that lingers after reading a good poem, the thing that haunts;
  5. My best advice is to read the best poetry – the poetic oeuvre of one’s culture and international poetry – study it and figure out how the poet manages to capture your mind and heart (because poetry is an emotive art).
  6. When you think your poem is finished read it aloud, again. Feel the words on your tongue. Listen with ears, head, and heart.

 

I welcome your comments – whether you agree or disagree. What makes a good poem, and how do we go about achieving one?

Thank you, Kathryn

 

References:

Hirshfield, Jane. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Hoagland, Tony with Kay Cosgrove. The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Sarah, Robyn. Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry. Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2007.

Also see: Book review: Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (by Jane Hirshfield)

Review of A Breeze You Whisper in In A Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry

Whispers and Flames in Kathryn MacDonald. A review of some poems by Kathryn MacDonald in A Breeze You Whisper (Poetry) (2011) Hidden Brook Press. Canada – p. 131-134

Surprises are wonderful, especially when they involve a review of your book in a collection with poets such as Milton Acorn, Margaret Atwood, and Al Purdy among others. I’ve received the publication notice by email and the book is on its way. More about the collection to come. In the meantime, here is a bit of blatant self-promotion of my collection, A Breeze You Whisper.

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First, from the press release:

In a Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry is an insightful collection of essays and reviews, written from the poetic heart of Professor Olivé. The authors covered in this astute critical study are treated with heart felt respect:

Milton Acorn, Merle Amodeo, Margaret Atwood, Katharine Beeman, Allan Briesmaster, Patrick Connors, James Deahl, Antony Di Nardo, J. Graham Ducker, Kate Marshall Flaherty, Katherine L. Gordon, Kimberley Grove, Richard M. Grove, Don Gutteridge, Lala Heine-Koehn, Keith Inman, Bruce Kauffman, Donna Langevin, John B. Lee, Norma West Linder, Kathryn MacDonald, Lisa Makarchuk, Bruce Meyer, Colin Morton, Marvin Orbach, Deborah Panko, Al Purdy, Sarah Richardson, Linda Rogers, Glen Sorestad, Anna Yin.

The review:

“Whispers and Flames”

My nights are good ones. Besides friends, family, sharing and joy, poetry books flood my bed and my mind before I go to sleep. It is a wealth found nowhere else. Last night it was not The Voice of the Land, or the People´s Poet. Last night it was a whisper in my ears, a dance of words and flames before my eyes: Kathryn MacDonald.

If I had to choose one word for her poetry, I´d say “sensuality.” It overflows the book´s margins shipping fruit and fire that crackles in its pages as I hold my breath caught in the delicacy of her phrases or gaspingly sigh marveled at their attractiveness.

I went through some of her poems. “A Breeze You Whisper” entwines, with simplicity and smoothness, two major themes at the core of poetry: nature and love. Neither the book´s title nor the poem´s has a comma, but its single stanza includes it in the first two lines (“A breeze, you whisper. A bird, you soar and hover”). These pauses are dictated, and intended, by the poet as a mindful pointer of serene procession towards something – provoking, soul-diving, engaging – prompted by the nature-sent, photo-like proposal.

The “You” mentioned in the poem is sensitively attached to nature; but in a quiet association – as if paving the lovers´ way to intimacy – that is set free, no punctuation in lines three and four, to yield the lover to her: “… into the nest hidden within my tossing limbs.” It is a pas de deux from contextual meanings (lines one and two) to figurative meanings (end of line two through three and four). “The nest” strikes a euphemistic chord, which empowers the sentence with sky´s-the-limit interpretations by the reader.

“Blueberry Picking” is play with meanings in cross-contextual insinuations only to be perceived by the mind. Fruit – flavor, colour and look – is the main star in a poem that creates allegories of berry-blue sensuality. The reader climbs – rung by rung – down the poem from “Lake of the Woods, round and placid like the heavy rocks from which the prickly bushes seemed to grow” to “… the sweet berries with my tongue.” Mind-blowing juggling with “I fondled the sweet berries with my tongue” as a prelude to a suggestive “mood.” Situations and characters´ status dribble sensually. The coda modifies the tempo of the poem, its atmosphere.

Kathryn can´t and won´t give up her incursions to nature in “One Woman” for describing/comparing: “Your laughter… geyser filling me with love” or “Exuberant you… deep in life´s river…” She uses metaphors to depict setbacks too: … “welcoming flotsam tossed up in turmoil…,” and optimism again: “glowing like sunrise.” The three lines before the last one (“a surprise hug manifesting joy and rampant passion”) lead to the poem´s essence: “all wrapped up in one woman.” Uncomplicated words, deftly chosen, concise: expressive love and admiration.

“Avatar”  is a proverbial narration of the creative act, its tumultuous process preceding the ultimate phase of artistic conception until the time “to brush across canvas.” It starts explaining somehow the artist-poet strings and the urges/feelings rifling through them, binding them, nurturing them: “her soul tremoring through fingertips / her tears creating rainbows of release.” The image “rainbows of release” confers both painting-related chromatic breadth and cathartic burst to the stanza and the poem.

Stanza two is the vertex pulling in the cosmos and maelstrom of art (“She turns through her nights / courting images / and exaggerations / that revolve / like the moon / through her / seasons and / from the pinnacle of her / rotation / she spirals / like / the dream shattering”), which culminates in “the dream shattering.” This shattering is laden with meanings beyond the notion of shatter that we have, a shattering that creates. Stanza three is the ultimate stage, the artist´s “big bang.” It lays down “across canvas” all of the furnace´s burning embers of the artistic produce.

Read these lines from the poem “Pleasure”: “Your fingers touch the buttons pushing them through each hole creating a V in my white nightgown.” Notably, the poem is homage to the person who has given the poet transcendent moments of pleasure, her companion, her lover: “You pleasure me and more.” The repetition of “and more” as a stylistic device is a key for readers to open divergent doors into their comprehension of the poem: a sensuality bordering eroticism, which is competently molded by the poet. We also feel the defining balance found in the rare gift of companionship, understood as closeness of two beings: the unfailing, necessary presence (“Have done so for half my life and more”).

Finally, “Winter Storm” poses a question to the reader: Why this title? I can only guess. This poem is an erotically wrought piece sublimely elaborated on by the poet. She kneads structure and the way stanzas are set on the page, which contributes to the poem´s mood and atmosphere. It tells of a lover´s subterfuge to win back a woman´s favors (“while he tugs at her memory”). A mind-poking, “blackmailish” foreplay that screens graphic memories: “when motion was joy when their bodies easily skimmed white powder”). The woman “marks distance with care measuring her path” while “he tugs” and she gives “slowly” in.

There is no doubt she has been re-conquered. Now I could explain the title gathering from here and there words, details, under and overtones, and tessitura. One clue is “now she inches slowly downward feeling sleet on her forehead…” Sleet says it all, watery snow, and the fact that it is on her forehead is a sign, for me, of mental “weakening.” A storm is approaching her winter, a storm that spells anticipation, desire, straightforward, concrete come-ons: “She sees his blue eyes his hand reach feels it cup her small breast.” She seems to be awakening from her wintery slumber, defrosted by “his blue eyes.” While the first poem commented here in my review was a breeze and a whisper; this is a latently raging storm of words and love-making. I melted.

Six poems and lots of sparkles in whispers and flames is what I surmised from this tender, sensual author. I am glad her book came to me. Thank you, Kathryn.

 

Miguel Ángel Olivé Iglesias is an Associate Professor at the University of Holguín, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, Major in English, and a Master’s Degree in Pedagogical Sciences. He is also Head of the English Language Discipline and a member of the Canadian Studies Department of the Holguín University in Cuba. Miguel Olivé is also a member of the Mexican Association of Language and Literature Professors, VP of the William Shakespeare Studies Center. Professor Olivé is Editor-in-chief of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance (CCLA) magazine The Ambassador, also Assistant Editor of The Envoy newsletter, and CCLA President in Cuba.

Professor Olivé has been teaching for over thirty years and writing reviews, poems and stories in Spanish and in English. He has written and published numerous academic papers in Cuba, Mexico, Spain and Canada.

Hidden Brook Press is about to publish his first solo full-length book of poems, in English and Spanish, Forge of Words (2019). SandCrab books will also publish These Voices Beating in our Hearts: Poems from the Valley (Spanish-English) in ebook format, of which he is Editor, but also features poems of his together with other eleven Holguín poets. His themes are about women, people, life, family, love, nature, and human values.

Available from your local bookseller or online: In A Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry

For more about A Breeze You Whisper, please go to this blog: Three poems: excerpts from A Breeze You Whisper, to purchase visit your local bookseller or online: A Breeze You Whisper (in Canada: A Breeze You Whisper).