What makes a poem rise above the ordinary?
Award-winning poets weigh in
Published: March 31, 2006
|Poetry is often viewed by writers as the most difficult genre. Part of the reason rests on the challenge to craft a work composed in lines rather than paragraphs. With poetry, it is much easier to hear words that collide like bumper cars, or phrases that miss the mark, leaving a reader wondering exactly what is supposed to be happening--or worse, bored.|
"The ordinary poems," says Claudia Grinnell, "are poems that slide through you like elevator music." Grinnell, an English professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and winner of numerous awards, theorizes the best poems remain with the reader. There must be "something that resonates. It can be quite irritating."
Though poets often divide form into free verse vs. formal verse, Richard Wilbur Prize-winner Alfred Nicol believes good poems have many common characteristics. A poem, Nicol explains, "should be well-crafted without calling attention to its craft. A great many poets have abandoned craft altogether." And Nicol doesn't differentiate when it comes to different forms. "A free-verse poem," he notes, "by an accomplished poet like Erica Funkhauser is alert in every syllable to the order its own set of rules demand of it. A sonnet ought to be every bit a sonnet too. But it should also be a human utterance of some urgency, one that sounds as though it needed to be said just that way and not some other way."
David Wright, an award-winning poet who teaches at Wheaton College, believes that a poem must engage in "several poetic conversations at once." He explains, "Sometimes a poem will successfully converse with an event at its core. Other times it will be in a vivid dialogue with form, or imagery, or other poets, or with history, culture, community." Wright says it's invigorating when a poem spins around in several of these spheres simultaneously.
Carl Horner, widely published poet and novelist, and director of creative writing at Flagler College, wants a poem to aspire to passion and intensity. "Evoke feeling in somebody else," he advises. "Pull a reader into a poetic experience. Pull a reader into participation. Pull at a reader's compassion, memory, imagination, sense of identification. Evoke catharsis--make a reader suffer or worry or cry or sing or cheer out loud."
But a poem isn't aimed completely at a reader. The poet is a key partner in the journey poetry asks us to take, and the journey must be unique enough to hopefully be memorable. Horner recalls a quote from Robert Frost's introduction to his Collected Poems (1939), and the theory still applies to today's poetics. Frost addressed poetic vision as process that is "more felt than seen ... a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader."
Poetry is a genre that hopes to make the ordinary extraordinary in terms of both word choice and emotion. No one wants to see form fit a sonnet like an antique corset, or free verse trimmed to a bone that leaves nothing for picking. A poem depends on the best choice for every single word in each line. A poet should ask herself, "Why would someone want to remember this?"
Bestselling poet Billy Collins, in a recent exclusive interview for The Writer, offers advice that any poet should take to heart. "It is completely arrogant to assume that someone else is interested in something you saw and had a feeling about."
It's the poet's job to make the poem worthwhile, both for himself and for the reader.