How do you know when a poem is good? Or when a poem is bad? In these relativistic times many would argue there is no such distinction, there is only what you like. This is not unrelated to the consumerist measure of worth by volume of sales, though worth here is interchangeable with success. If you have a million followers for your online poetry you are more successful, and therefore better, than a poet who sells a hundred copies of a book. This is a very powerful argument in capitalist-consumerist culture where many are alert to what is ‘trending’ and, not wishing to be left out, embrace the trend, thus strengthening and confirming it. Value in this context tends to be ephemeral—consumers are surfers anxious to catch the next big wave. Then the next one. Then the one after that.
Such people might claim to be serious about poetry but in reality they are not. They do not read widely and are mostly ignorant about the poetry of the past.
Consequently, they have no perspective on the verse they do read. Being well read won’t turn anyone into a good poet but it is a precondition; I cannot think of any major poet who created him- or herself ab ovo.
A particular source of bad poetry today is the mistaken belief that poetry is a form of self-expression. The poet has an experience which is significant and memorable to him- or herself and seizes upon it as the basis for a poem, the assumption being that a vivid experience expressed in verse (usually free verse) will be of equal interest to the reader. T.S. Eliot famously warned against this a hundred years ago in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’—adding mischievously, ‘But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.’
The Australian poet Les Murray used to say that the poet needs to know everything. Nobody can know everything, of course, and he most certainly did not mean the poet should stuff his poems with arcane knowledge. What he meant was that the poet must be on the alert, an absorber of sensations, an eavesdropper, as it were, on the world, because he or she can never predict what will be the tiny seed that produces a poem. The big things in one’s life are rarely the direct inspiration or subject of a good poem but mediocre poets too often fail to understand this, writing about events in their lives which are of no interest to anyone but themselves. In their minds they have transmuted the lead of experience into the gold of poetry, but the words on the page remain lead.
Poetry is in fact a form of fiction and the truth it contains is independent of the poet’s personal truth. Once it is there on the page, a poem should be a surprise to the poet, something he or she could never have thought of with the conscious mind. This bears on another aspect of bad verse, the would-be poet’s failure to understand that the genesis of a poem is not the product of consciousness; it emerges from the mind’s deeps and is not in the poet’s control. This is why, when a poet sits down to write, he or she does not know what will emerge. The creation of a poem is a kind of attentive listening; it cannot be forced, and is likely to appear unexpectedly. It may begin as a single line, or an image, which must be written down immediately otherwise the moment is lost. Bad poetry is a product of the conscious mind, it is willed into being, images fitted together like Lego bricks, but no matter how ingenious they are—or the poet thinks they are—they will not have within them the glow that makes them mysterious, alive, and exactly right.
In a good poem there is an electromagnetic force which binds the words in a unique and indissoluble way:
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Change one word here, and Wordsworth’s great poem falls apart. You realise this when you try to translate a poem from another language. The forcefield of the original cannot be replicated, and although the apparent meaning of a poem may be there, the deeper, rhythmic meaning almost always eludes the translator. The rare instance in which a translation succeeds, proves the rule. It is what people mean when they say poetry is untranslatable.
Much bad poetry derives from the fact that the poet has nothing to say, by which I mean that he or she is unable to access the deeper fathoms of the mind in which poems are gestated. Apart from personal experience, the temptation then is to write in support of a cause. The environmental crisis is the cause of the moment which has prompted a vast outpouring of ‘eco-poetry’—along with its academic support system ‘eco-criticism’. The cause is good, but most of the poetry is bad because it is willed into existence. This may be popular with eco-activists who, for the most part, are not interested in poetry but who naively believe that poetry can be harnessed to the cause. If a poem supports the cause, it is a good poem. The distinction is rarely made between verse which may be written in this way, and poetry which in and of itself supports nothing. A poem simply is; it is an artefact; but one which pulsates and unfolds wherever it engages with a reader’s mind.
The question today is how to access the good poetry that is being written; how to find it in the vast scrubland of bad verse. Because we live with a paradox: there are more people writing poetry than ever before, thanks to the phenomenon of ‘creative writing’, while there are fewer and fewer readers. Organisers of poetry readings often insert an ‘open mic’ element into their programme because it is the best way of ensuring an audience. At many readings it is a good bet that a majority will consist of poets waiting for their five minutes at the microphone.
With the poetry of the past it is different. Time is the filter, with a general agreement as to the greatness of, say, Keats’s odes, because successive generations have responded to them. Keats’s contemporary, Barry Cornwall, was immensely popular in his day, far more so than Keats, but Cornwall’s verse is forgotten and is unlikely ever to be revived. John Gower’s Confessio Amantis once rivalled Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but the shine of Gower’s lengthy poem is tarnished, it is barely readable now, while The Canterbury Tales brims over with inexhaustible life.
Tastes change, of course, and some poets will be popular in one generation and neglected in the next. John Donne had to be ‘rediscovered’ in the twentieth century; Milton and Pope are little read at the moment and perhaps the same is true of poets like Browning. Nonetheless, they have been read and validated across generations and are there to be revived and enjoyed again, which is not true of the scribblers excoriated in The Dunciad.
Another feature of bad poetry is that it is imitative. When they set out, most poets imitate, but this is part of a learning process, the sorting out of their relationship to the poetry of the past and the poetry of their contemporaries. It is a process of discovery of what can and cannot be done; the poet reaching out for and refining a distinctive voice. ‘The effect of masterpieces on me,’ wrote Gerard Manly Hopkins, ‘is to make me admire—and do otherwise.’ The mediocre poet never achieves a voice but is content to adopt the style of his contemporaries or of the immediate past. Look at any Victorian anthology with its multiple imitations of Wordsworth, or anthologies of contemporary poetry with their commitment to weak free verse and the first person ‘I’.
Still, the question remains, how do you know when a poem is good? And here indeed there is a problem because poetry is itself protean in form, from the thickly clotted alliterative and assonantal poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins to the reduced simplicity of the early poems of William Carlos Williams. It may well be that the admirer of Manly Hopkins may see nothing at all in the seeming prosaicness of Williams, while another reader will think the opposite. Personal preference inevitably guides one’s response. It is reasonable to say, however, that sufficient numbers of readers have affirmed, and reaffirmed, the value of Williams and Manly Hopkins so that their poetry lives on among the generations. Individual taste may guide you in one direction or another, just as in visiting a great art museum you may be drawn to a particular gallery without your choice invalidating the worth of those you choose not visit.
Lastly, the question of good and bad has to be considered within the broader context of poetry’s position in Anglophone culture today. As far back as Classical Greece, poetry was awarded the highest status among the arts, a tradition continued through the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, well into the nineteenth century. This, however, is no longer the case and it is interesting to speculate as to the reasons. I think there are at least three.
One is—or may be—the rise of science in the Victorian period whose discoveries penetrated culture generally and changed forever how we look at the world, elevating the rational, analytical faculty of the mind which is very different from the absorptive, fusional faculty that produces poetry.
Second is the advent of Modernism. Modernism is a slippery concept, or so it seems to me. William Carlos Williams, for example, is often considered a Modernist whose poetry is open and welcoming, but the poetry of what might be called the classical Modernists, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, is not. It was a bomb flung on the village life of Georgian verse, and its revolutionary aesthetic made poetry seem daunting and fearsomely obscure to many readers. It marked the end of the general reader of poetry for whom buying and reading books of poems was a natural part of reading life. Instead, poetry was captured by academia, with academics forging careers out of explicating The Waste Land and The Cantos to generations of students. Ordinary readers increasingly felt left out. I have frequently been told, ‘Oh, poetry’s not for me’, it being too difficult, too obscure. The result is that readers have got out of the habit of reading poetry. In consequence, they do not know how to approach it. Poetry’s pre-eminence has been overturned and it survives in a ghetto.
This relates to my third reason for poetry’s decline in status—we live in an age of prose. This in itself takes two forms, one being the life-annihilating prose of government reports, grant applications, academic papers, advertising, corporate logos, which are the antithesis of good prose, let alone poetry, while at the literary end of the scale, pre-eminence has been awarded to the novel.
Our world is prosy and prosaic, with poetry invisible to the majority. There is, though, one interesting exception which is that a surprising number of people turn to verse as a means of coping with grief, either by writing it themselves, or by recalling from some distant schoolroom lesson, a poem which says what they cannot say. This is sometimes a good poem, though more often it is bad verse in an outmoded form. Could it, though, be the untilled ground out of which, given the right circumstances, poetry might emerge to flower in society once again?