What Makes a Good Poem?


So is that the deal? Poems are to be judged not only on their own merit, but in relation to other stuff as well? Personally, I’ve never seen a poem as lovely as my wife’s spaghetti and meatballs, but I think that somehow misses the point.

So what does make a poem good?

I really don’t know, but I probably should. I was an English major. I was even editor of the campus “literary” magazine, if you could call it that. I could give you copious examples of bad poetry, but if you ask me what makes a poem good, I’m on shaky ground.

In all fairness, I should qualify my “editor” credential; I suspect I was selected because of my height — I’m 6’ 3”. I read a study one time that showed the correlation between physical stature and rank. It turns out that an inordinate number of CEOs are over six feet tall. Apparently, that extra height conveys authority and instills confidence. The choice for editor of our magazine came down to me and Gidget Cohen. Need I say more.

As you can see, I’m dancing around the question. Actually, at one point I thought I knew what makes a poem good: I had discovered Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins. Pinsky’s Samurai Song struck a deep emotional chord even though I still don’t fully understand it. And Collins made me laugh out loud and appreciate the beauty of simple everyday life. Sort of the Seinfeld of poets. Plus, they were both Poet Laureates of the United States — they had to write good poetry, right? Well, so I thought until I met Ed.

Ed was a rather earnest fellow in his mid-twenties. I was talking to him in a bar in Brooklyn one night, and he told me that he had been editor of a poetry magazine for a couple of years. He asked me if I had any favorite poets. “Well, you know, I really like Billy Collins,” I volunteered, feeling quite full of myself for being able to cite a poet any younger than Wordsworth.

Ed shot me a bemused look and took a long sip from his craft beer. It was as if he had asked me what kind of art I liked and I had said, “Well, you know, I really like paintings of dogs playing poker.”

On the defense but somewhat shaken, I shot back, “And I like T.S. Eliot too … you know, ‘Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky.’”

Ed cut me off and headed for the restroom — just as well because I was about to pull out Dr. Seuss.

So back to the point: Was Ed right and was I wrong? Well, is Bach better than the Beatles? Is tennis better than handball? Ultimately, it comes down to a visceral thing. Forget about rhyme, meter, and alliteration, if it’s good for you, it’s a good poem.

I recently saw a posting on Reddit showing a billboard for a Sonic restaurant. It was captioned Best Poem Ever:

Roses are red
So is ketchup.
Have a corndog.

I’ll admit, it’s easy, especially for a distinguished former editor such as myself, to dismiss this simple poem. But one person, one undoubtedly extremely hungry person, was moved to declare it the finest poem he’d ever read. And who am I to argue.

Take that, Ed.

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