How To Tell a Good Poem From a Bad One

By Wally Metts

The way I can tell a good poem from a bad one is: I want to read it again.

I may not understand it, of course, but I read it again because I want to read it again. Something in the poem calls me to repeat the experience, something other than the fact that I don’t understand it.

This may be true for several reasons, but one of them is craftsmanship. The poet has many tools available, and it is obvious he or she has used them well. And while there are technical names for these tools — we’ve been writing and studying poems for a very long time — you don’t have to be able to name them to appreciate them.

The repetition or appropriateness of sounds gives us pleasure. The images capture us — fresh, imaginative and familiar. Or startling. The line breaks add texture and substance. (Someone observed that the difference between poetry and prose is that the poet gets to decide where the line ends, rather than the typesetter.) The words seem exactly right, creating rhythms that resonate. All these things comes together and we know someone has been intentional and skillful in the use of them.

This alone can make us want to read it again, and when we have that impulse we should read it again, out loud, perhaps to a friend. Poetry is an oral tradition, and also a social one. Its rhythms connect us to our past and to each other.

But a poet who has created this has likely also connected with us; we have not just had a sensory experience, but an emotional one. We respond to the poem with a feeling of anger, tenderness, compassion, frustration — the list of possibilities goes on and on. I may feel the poet’s joy, or her despair. I am saddened, emboldened, challenged, amazed, disgusted, delighted.

And in that moment I am there, in the poem, with the poet. Whatever moved him moved me. This connection may be very small, almost imperceptible. Or it may, as Dickinson said, blow the top off my head. But there is a line or an image in which I recognize myself, standing alone, witnessing some evil which must be redressed or some delight to be recovered. Looking at the last orange leaf hanging on the maple, struggling in the wind, or gazing at a red wheelbarrow, upon which so much depends, I linger for a moment.

If so, this is a good poem.

It might even be a great poem, the kind of poem which points toward transcendence, revealing but not satisfying our need for something greater, deeper and richer. Sometimes a poem can tap this ceaseless longing, overwhelming us with desire.

The Scriptures say we have “eternity in our hearts.” As Os Guinness says, we are all prodigals, in a far country: “There is always a homesickness that no other home can satisfy, a desire no other satisfaction can fulfill, a yearning that that can be assuaged nowhere else, and a restlessness that finds no other rest in any other stopping place.”

A great poem does not bring us home, of course. It does not connect us to God, who must be approached on His own terms. But great art can remind us that there is more. And better. And good. We want that.

And we will want to read such a poem again.

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