What do I look for in poetry?
Periodically I’m asked what I look for in poetry. In the poems that excite me, all the elements I talk about below work together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. So these elements are meant only as a starting place. Hopefully they will suggest some useful things to think about when revising a poem.
Probably not surprisingly, the first thing that strikes me in poetry is the language. Is the language fresh and vivid? Or does the language feel like something I’ve read before?
There is of course the issue of clichés: Did she turn “with a smile and a wink”? Did the idea “strike like a bolt of lightning?” I do see cliché language sometimes sneak into even otherwise-well-written poems. So do a read-through when revising, looking specifically for any clichés that might have crept into your poem. However, in general, I don’t see a lot of work filled with obvious clichés. A more prevalent problem is language that one doesn’t necessarily see on lists of clichés, but which still isn’t new and vivid.
One place this shows up is in adjective-noun pairings. For example, if you wanted to describe an old, unsteady fence, what word comes to mind? For me, the phrase “rickety fence” comes quickly to mind--it’s an adjective-noun pairing I’ve seen many times, and therefore it is immediately available when I look to describe that image of an old, unsteady fence. However, as a reader, the phrase does nothing for me. I’ve seen it too many times, so it doesn’t pull me into a vivid experience of a specific scene—I just read familiar words and move on. There’s nothing wrong with the adjective “rickety” or the noun “fence,” but together they create a tired, already-been-done description.
The problem also surfaces in subject-verb pairings. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase “the sun rises,” but there’s nothing exciting in the language. And if too many of the subjects do the first verb that comes to mind--“the sun rises,” “the baby cries,” “the fever breaks,” “the dog barks”--it saps the energy from the language. (And yes, “saps the energy” is itself the type of language that can undermine a poem.)
This isn’t to say there’s never a place for barking dogs in poetry. Sometimes the dog barks and that’s the best way to say it. However, when you have finished your first draft, and you’re in the revision process, I would recommend going through your nouns and your verbs, and also looking at your adjective and noun pairs; your subject and verb pairs; your verb and adverb pairs; etc.--check which of your word choices create a vivid experience of precisely the scene you want to pull your reader into, and which of your choices were the result of falling back on familiar language.
This section overlaps with the last section--familiar language and familiar images often go together. However, I did want to raise it as a separate issue, even if in practice the distinction can be blurred.
Say we want to evoke a bleak cityscape at night. Is our cityscape suddenly populated with an old lady scurrying home from the corner bodega, clutching the cat food that’s all she can afford to eat until the next social security check arrives; a jazz musician in the subway station, wailing mournfully on his saxophone, case open for change but still only containing the dollar bill he put in himself; roving bands of tall, muscled African-American teens, who would have once been noble princes in a faraway land, but who now terrorize the decaying neighborhood.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with noting that cities contain elderly on fixed incomes, street musicians and gangs. However, when I needed an example, those images came to mind awfully quickly; I’ve seen all of them many times before--in novels and short stories, in poetry, in movies, on TV.
So say you want to set a poem in that bleak cityscape. When you have the first draft down, and are revising, think about the images you chose. Are the images precise, fresh, compelling? Or are some of your images obvious ones, the ones anyone who’s watched TV crime shows and seen Hollywood movies might come up with? If some of your images do seem generic, like things you have already seen or read, push further for more specific images. What else do you see in the bodega the old woman goes to? What’s next to the bodega? What’s two storefronts down? What’s in the jazz musician’s back pocket? What are the gang members wearing? Tommy Hilfiger? Maybe look just a bit further--that's still not quite fresh. And what do the people who aren’t street musicians or gang members look like? What are those people doing right now?
Effective Line Breaks
The only formal distinction between a free verse poem and a prose poem are the line breaks. Yet I sometimes see poems where the line breaks don’t seem to do anything the syntax of the sentence doesn’t already do.
Readers will pause at commas,
and stop at periods.
They’ll even hesitate when a phrase ends
before continuing on to the next.
If the line breaks don’t do anything more than echo the pauses and stops already inherent in the sentences, I often find myself wondering what’s the point of writing a poem instead of prose.
So, when it comes time to revise, give some thought to your line breaks. Sure, some breaks will come together with the ends of phrases and sentences, and re-enforce those stopping points.. But also think about how your line breaks can offer a counterpoint to your syntax, creating a tension between the rhythm of your sentences and the rhythm of your lines.
Compelling Subject Matter
There’s usually a convenient operating assumption in writing workshops that what’s important is technique and execution, and that the subject matter itself shouldn’t be questioned. And that’s probably a necessary assumption in workshops, to keep people offering feedback from getting sidetracked into long rants about their personal likes and dislikes.
However, when I’m reading submissions for Noneuclidean Café, I do bring my own personal likes and dislikes in terms of subject matter, and, more importantly, I try my best to act as a proxy for the likes and dislikes of the publication’s readers. And some subject matter does seem more interesting to me, and more likely to be of interest to our readers.
For instance, since poets spend a lot of time writing poems, most of us at some point or another write some poems about the act of writing poems. While I am sometimes persuaded by a given poem about writing poetry, I see a lot of them, and it’s therefore a tough sell. And since I don’t think my readers want to read multiple poems about writing poetry in a given issue, if I already have poems about writing poems lined up for whatever issues I’m currently reading for, it becomes an impossible sell.
I certainly publish poems about love, relationships, break-ups, and the whole range of things that can happen between two people in love or lust. These are fundamental human experiences, and a source of much great poetry. However, I never find myself thinking: Wow, a poem about a relationship gone bad; I sure don’t see many of those.
I don’t like to be preached at, and I assume my readers don’t like to be preached at either. Therefore, didactic poetry is a very, very, very tough sell. And this is regardless of whether I agree with the position taken. For example, personally I strongly support the recognition of same sex marriage, and the granting of all the rights to same sex spouses that heterosexual partners have. However, I'm not going to buy a poem whose sole purpose is to state that position. Poems need to be more than position papers.
So, what sort of subject matter gets me excited? While I don’t like didactic poetry, I do like poetry that has a social and/or political dimension--take on the big issues, just don’t do it in a preachy way. I’d love to see more poetry about work--work is a major component of most of our weeks, and yet I don’t see a lot of poetry about work coming in. I like narrative poetry. I like poetry that looks outward for subject matter, to our society, to other societies, to the created and natural world around us.
Of course, you have to let your muse take you where it will when it comes to your subject matter. Writing the poetry you need to write, about the subject matter you need to grapple with, is far more important than whether or not the material jazzes a given editor, than whether or not it’s a fit for a given publication. So please don’t take this section as suggesting you should write about certain things, and not about others. If you take anything away from this section, I’d rather you took just the opposite--an invitation to look beyond the topics that first come to mind when you think about poetry, and cast your net into areas you’d never before considered might be the stuff of poetry.
On Meter and Rhyme
Personally, I like poetry that uses meter and/or a formal rhyme scheme. And I do find the use of meter and rhyme brings with it some specific challenges. However, I think I’m going to leave this topic for a future post, specifically on those challenges.