Tuesday 23 August 2016

What makes a good poem (or not) - one of those rambling blog posts that ends up miles from where it started.

Today I have been sending out rejections for Lighthouse - it makes me feel a bit like the big, bad wolf. Actually it is worse than that because I suspect he liked being bad. I, on the other hand, feel guilty. Especially when rejecting a poet whose work I like or a poet I know. The editorial meeting this time was a long one - well over three hours. The sifting of the submissions is done before hand so that in the meeting we only discuss the poets who have made it into the maybe folder. We rejected some pretty good poets. I have been thinking as I send out emails about what it is that makes a poem a good poem. What exactly is it that makes a poetry editor sit up and take notice. I think for Lighthouse a poem has to be very strong as there are four, sometimes five, editors to get past. Either we all like a poem or one or more editors has to love it enough to stand up and fight for it. Probably ninety percent or more of what we receive does not fit into this category. I am going to try and quantify what makes a good poem. Of course this is from my own perspective - the other Lighthouse editors may have completely different views.

A good poem should:

  • Not simply be an anecdote or a description  - there are a lot of these kind of poems around. I have a few myself - none of them made it into my book. My mentor took out an anecdotal poem about living in a commune - I liked the poem, it had gone down well at a reading. She said so "so what, it's not telling me anything new." An anecdote is not in itself a bad thing, but the poem needs to be doing something else as well. Esther Morgan once said in a workshop that when you have read a poem "something should have changed, or you should have learnt something." I think this is what Pascal (my mentor) meant - my poem wasn't doing anything other than describing living in a commune. There was no pivotal moment or insight - the thing that makes you remember a poem and go back to it again. Similarly poems that are simply descriptions of something - a place, an art work etc. are rarely doing enough as a poem to make them really interesting and worth coming back to. I sometimes wish when reading this type of poem that the reader had given a little something of themselves to the poem.
  • Not just a list - list poems are interesting. I like them and I sometimes write them, but successful ones are doing something more than simply listing stuff. they are suggesting a back story or making you think about something that is not being overtly stated. A good example of this is "About His Person" by Simon Armitage. The poem lists all the articles found on a dead man (although he never states that anyone is dead), the articles hint at the kind of person he was and the life he lead. List poems can be much more subtle than this too, but they do need that extra something.
  • Be exciting to read - what makes a poem exciting for one person may be different to what does it for another person of course. Some people like rhyme, for some people it's the content. For me it is a mixture of things - the content is important, but so is the use of language - a really good writer can write about the most trivial of things and make it sound exciting. A poem that uses language in exciting ways will make me sit up and take notice. Jen Hadfield was one of the poets who first did this for me - take a look at her poem "XXI The World".
  • Do something different - personally I like poems that come at things aslant. Even the most boring of subjects can be made interesting in the hands of a great writer - "Ironing" by Vicki Feaver does this brilliantly. I also like poems that tackle big topics in new ways - two great examples of this are Amy Newman's "Dear Editor" poems and Toon Tellegen's book Raptors. Raptors is introduced by an unreliable narrator who immediately sets the tone for the rest of the book: "Years ago I invented someone whom I called my father. It was morning, very early, I couldn’t sleep any more, I remember it quite clearly. My father didn’t seem surprised at having suddenly appeared out of nowhere and, in his turn, invented my mother, my brothers and myself." Raptors explores the idea of family dynamics and hierarchies. Tellegen uses the idea of family as a framework and constructs and deconstructs it. He tells us stories, and those stories often conflict with one another. In essence he recreates the complexities of family dynamics and the way that family memories are changed and manipulated, and he does it in a very surreal and exciting way.  Amy Newman's collection Dear Editor also deals with the dynamics of family. Her series of prose poems takes the form of letters to an imaginary literary journal editor - each starts in the same way "Dear Editor, Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript X = Pawn Capture..." Each poem uses the game of chess as jumping off point for describing the dynamics and interactions between the narrator's family members. However, the poems are about more than simply chess and family, there is a lot about religion and the saints in the book and also about language itself. It is a clever and fascinating collection.
  • Not be overly poetic - a poem should definitely avoid the purple prose, it should try and avoid 'poetic' words and abstract nouns (shards, shimmery, solitary, longing etc) and it should avoid as much as possible being flowery and pretty - even if it is about something flowery and pretty. Alice Oswald is a master of this, take a look at her poem Narcissus and you will see what I mean. She only uses one (what I would call) poemy word in the entire poem - glittery, but she gets away with it because the rest of the poem is so surprising. As a journal editor I see a lot of overly poetic writing and it does make my heart sink just a little.
  • Have a strong beginning and ending - one of the things that stood out when reading back over my editorial notes yesterday was how often I had written things like - this would be a much better poem with the first/last or first and last stanzas. It is so tempting as a writer to want to spell everything out for your reader in case they don't get it. One of the things I am always telling my students is that they should trust their readers more. George Szirtes once said to me in a tutorial: "jump right into the poem, and step off lightly at the end." I have never forgotten this - it is great advice. Imagine how boring it would be if every film set up the back story before it started properly - of course they don't do that - they jump right into the action and do a slow reveal and usually we work it out.
  • Not be too obscure - of course there is such a thing as being too obscure. Sometimes this comes from over-editing - the writer takes out so much that the original meaning or story is lost. Sometimes writers write something that sounds nice and poetic but falls apart when you try and unpick what the writer is actually trying to say. A lot of writers start off writing this kind of poetry because it approximates what they think poetry should sound like. There is nothing more exciting as a teacher that when a budding poet moves beyond this phase and starts writing in new and more interesting ways. This happens much quicker if the student is reading widely. Reading shows them all the different possibilities and ways of using language. There is conversely deliberately obscure poetry. My son calls this beardy poetry (no offence intended to men who wear beards). What he means is intellectual and academic poetry, which does not do much more than showing off that it is intellectual and academic - the kind of poetry that shouts "look at me, I am so clever and well read." This kind of poetry doesn't really care if you don't get it - it assumes that you must be too stupid or uneducated. Some people like this kind of poetry - I am afraid it turns me off. Don't get me wrong I do like intellectual and clever poetry - but for me it needs to be doing something more. Poetry has to speak to the reader, I think, and that is what makes us go back to it. That doesn't mean it always has to be personal - but a poem that reflects something of the human condition is generally more memorable.
  • Not simply tell a story - though of course there are many great narrative poems - for example Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot." What I am talking about is poems that feel like a story that has been broken up to look like a poem. One trick as a writer is to ask yourself why you are writing it as a poem and not a story. If you feel like you have to cram every tiny detail into the poem, then perhaps a short story would be a better medium. Similarly if you feel the need to tell a complicated back story. The trick is that less is more. Skip the big build up and jump right in. Traditionally narrative poetry had strict meter and form. These days pretty much anything goes. Keep it simplish and aim to grab your readers attention. The narrative will still have a beginning, middle and end but it may allude to wider concerns, and it may not tell us everything. I like to think of a good story poem as being like an art house film, it is immensely satisfying but leaves some questions unanswered. It will also create a very particular mood or feeling that draws the reader in. Two good examples of this are: "At Roane Head" by Robin Robertson and "The Tyre" by Simon Armitage.
  • Feel true - that doesn't mean they have to be true. I have a sequence of prose poems in my collection that people often think are true - they aren't. I think of a poem as a tiny work of fiction. That doesn't mean that it can't be about something real but one of the most common problems in poetry workshops is people getting hung up on not changing things or leaving things out because the poem is about something real. If you are writing about real events and are attached to the back story and all the details then perhaps you should consider writing it as part of a memoir. I have sometimes written about events and then changed details because they felt better for the poem. Similarly you can use real concrete details as basis for or to flesh out fictional works. For instance in my prose poems I have used concrete details from my own childhood to make the story feel more real and believable. For me what matters is the truth of the poem not the actual truth. I love a poem if it sweeps me up and makes me believe in it. It could be a mythological story or a poem about going to the shops with your grandmother, whatever, just make me believe it. It has to resonate with the reader. I have read countless poems about real (and sometimes sad and dramatic events) that haven't achieved this. Even Sharon Olds - probably America's most famous and current confessional poet has said in interviews that not everything in her poems is true.
  • Not take itself too seriously but not try to be funny - If you had asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I was a 'serious writer'. However, I have come to see that much of my poetry has a dark humour in it. It is not in every poem, and I don't usually set out to write something humorous - if it happens it happens. Poetry that doesn't do it for me is poetry is that tries too hard to be funny, that works at it, or has a clever punchline - those poems are rarely memorable. Similarly poems that take themselves too seriously and are overburdened with portentous description and abstract nouns. You are not Edgar Allan Poe, and he might not have been so big if he was writing today. There is a lot of humour in everyday life and I like poems that reflect this without whacking me in the face with it. Poets that can take a serious subject matter and inject a little humour into it but retain its seriousness. A great example of this is the poem "Somewhat Unravelled" by Jo Shapcott from her award winning collection Of Mutability.
This blog post has grown way bigger than I intended so I am going to stop now. This, of course, is purely my own opinion on what makes good poetry - and because humans are fickle, my opinions might be different next week or next month. It is as much a meditation on poetry for myself as anything else, but if it helps anyone to think about what they are submitting to journals and why, that would be an added bonus. I haven't touched here on ways people submit or whether submitters have actually read the journal to see if their work fits with it. That's a whole other post.