What Makes a Good Poem?

In 2002, I asked a group of authors, editors, and other book people this question. Here are their responses, along with some of their recommended titles.

A poem is a communication from one soul to another that makes one or both hearts sing.

Walter Mayes. Valerie & Walter’s Best Books For Children: A Lively, Opinionated Guide. Avon, 1998.

What is a good poem?
A good poem is a slip-of-a-thing
that celebrates language, that takes
you on a short journey and touches your heart,
turns on your imagination, or tickles your funny-
bone somewhere along the way.

Nikki Grimes. A Pocketful of Poems. Clarion, 2001. Danitra Brown Leaves Town. HarperCollins, 2002.

A good poem is a blind date with enchantment.
Above all, no matter what its subject matter,
it must possess perfect verbs and no superfluous
words. It must be an antidote to indifference.
The acid test is that you want to read it time and
time again, and not only to yourself. A good poem
begs to be shared with others.

J. Patrick Lewis. Freedom Like Sunlight: Praisesongs for Black Americans. Creative Editions, 2001. A World of Wonders: Geographic Travels in Verse and Rhyme. Penguin Putnam/Dial, 2002.

When I think of a good poem :

Many things come to mind but a few specifically: A good poem makes you feel like you’ve been there before, or want to go. A good poem takes you to the city, to the sea, to the heart of any and all matters; you see it, taste it, belong to it. A good poem is a menagerie of craft; a spinning of sound, word choice, alliteration, rhythm and often rhyme. A good poem is the arrangement of enchantment, or as J. Patrick Lewis says, a blind date with enchantment.

Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Lemonade Sun and Other Summer Poems. Boyds Mills, 1998. When Riddles Come Rumbling: Poems to Ponder. Boyds Mills, 2001.

What makes a good poem? Brevity, terseness, spareness, viewing something new for the very first time, creating an image like no one has ever been blown away by before in their entire life.

Lee Bennett Hopkins. Pass the Poetry, Please, 3rd Edition. HarperCollins, 1998. My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States. Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Love and care for elemental details, for chosen words and their simple arrangement on the page… and a way of ending that leaves a new resonance or a lit spark in the reader or listener’s mind—that’s part of it.

Naomi Shihab Nye. Come with Me: Poems for a Journey. Greenwillow, 2000. 19 Varieties of Gazelle. Greenwillow, 2002.

A good poem creates a world that somehow touches the reader. That world is built of images that come to the reader through vivid sense details and the music of vivacious language.

Paul Janeczko. A Poke in the I. Candlewick, 2001. Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets. Candlewick, 2002.

For me, good poems, ones that I like to read over and over, can bring delight in many ways. Wit, word-play, unexpectedness of word and thought, depth of feeling, word-music, vivid images, the shape of the poem on the page, all bring me joy.

I think poetry should come from the heart of the writer—whether it is light and funny or deeply-felt. Caring—about the subject, the emotion, the act of making the poem—is, I believe, essential.

It seems to me a good poem can rhyme or not rhyme, use similes and metaphors or not, be metrical or free, be as complex as a Shakespeare sonnet or as seemingly simple as a statement by William Carlos Williams. It can be anything the writer wants it to be—as long as it reflects true feeling. And that “feeling” can be just the joy of using words!

Strong, accurate, interesting words, well-placed, make the reader feel the writer’s emotion and intentions. Choosing the right words—for their meaning, their connotations, their sounds, even the look of them, makes a poem memorable. The words become guides to the feelings that lie between the lines. Just-right words make the poem reverberate—and give the reader the joyful shivers!

Patricia Hubbell. Black Earth, Gold Sun. Marshall Cavendish, 2001. City Kids. Marshall Cavendish, 2001.

“Prose = words in their best order; Poetry = the best words in their best order”—Coleridge said it, and I believe it. Poetry IS about words—their precision, texture, beauty (and ugliness). Prose is about words, too, but not in the same way. Prose is about the bigger picture. The canvas is bigger and so are the brushstrokes. A good poem, whether narrated by a character or by the poet her/himself, uses words wonderfully, and it uses them to capture specific moments in a fresh way, a way that makes the reader exclaim with delight, “Yes, that’s it! That’s right!”

A good poem may also ask philosophical questions. In its condensed form, poetry gives these questions an immediacy, a great power to startle and grab the imagination. Poetry is great for asking—and sometimes answering—those questions that come to you just as you’re falling asleep.

Marilyn Singer. Footprints on the Roof: Poems About the Earth. Knopf, 2002. The Company of Crows. Clarion, 2002.

A good poem surprises your senses, shakes you awake, stirs your emotions, and startles your imagination. Each poem is an act of discovery. Poetry helps us widen our vision and our hearts.

Joan Bransfield Graham. Splish Splash. Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Flicker Flash. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

A good poem awakens the senses, allowing me to see, touch, experience something in a powerful way.

A good poem makes the ordinary and familiar seem extraordinary.

Michele Coppola, former editor, Dutton Books

Personally, I’d say a good poem makes me see something in a new way. It’s fresh and eye-opening. And it’s also compact and intense. One of my favorite quotes about poetry is this one from Arnold Adoff: “I really want a poem to sprout roses and spit bullets; this is the ideal combination…” I think it’s partly the compactness of a poem that, if the poet has a strong vision and command of language, will let it both “sprout roses and spit bullets” at the same time. A good poem doesn’t waste words; it uses them sparingly and meaningfully.

Rebecca Davis, editor, Greenwillow/HarperCollins

A poem for children—what makes it good? Perhaps it comes down to an original voice saying something that sounds almost as if we had never heard it before. Rhythm is the skeleton that holds a poem together, so a strong but still interesting rhythm pleases the ear and tongue. Rhyme, if it is not old tired rhyme, can be funny, explosive or just a neat way of completing a thought in a poem for the young.

Rhyme is also great for reading aloud, and some attention needs to be devoted to the sounds of the words themselves. Last, or possibly first, is the thought, idea, that centerpiece around which the poem is built. Maybe I can boil my answer down to sense and song, a helping of each. And always new and therefore a little surprising.

Karla Kuskin. Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams. HarperCollins, 1980. Moon, Have You Met My Mother? HarperCollins, 2003.

A good poem captures a certain moment, or memory, like a “word photograph.” In one quick reading, hardly more than a glance, a poem can give us a reminder of how Uncle Al never learned to use chopsticks, of how it feels to breathe water, like a fish, in a dream, of how a mother uses her hand to shield a baby’s eyes. A good poem is a photograph capturing the most forgettable and the most unforgettable moments in our lives.

Janet S. Wong. Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving. McElderry/S&S, 1999. Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams. McElderry/S&S, 2000.

A poet is a little like a photographer who shoots a subject from an unexpected angle. Even when its subject has been written about many times (how many new subjects are there?), poetry invites you to consider it from a new perspective. The language a good poem uses is similarly fresh, surprising, memorable—a flavor that lingers on the tongue.

Alice Schertle. A Lucky Thing. Harcourt, 1999. I Am The Cat. HarperCollins/Lothrop, 1999.

I think a good poem is like a vitamin. It’s an encapsulation of a feeling, an image, a new relationship. Packed with energy, it might be playful or serious, but a good poem is always nourishing.

Bobbi Katz. We the People. Greenwillow, 2000. A Rumpus of Rhymes: A Book of Noisy Poems. Dutton, 2001.

Answering that question is like cooking calamari: either do it in five seconds or for five hours.

Any short (or even long) answer to what’s a good poem worries me, as it begs other questions: good for whom? good for when? good for what? I love poems to know and say to myself, silly poems to read once and giggle over, poems that touch my soul even if they hover outside my rational understanding. Of course, there are matters of form, meter, rhyme, scansion, but all the mechanics can only enhance and facilitate a thought, a feeling, an expression of being that needs to be articulated.

So, I don’t know any recipe for a good poem, only a taste test: does it touch someone, sometime, somehow? Then, it will be savored by that person and nourish him or her.

Judy O’Malley, editor, Charlesbridge Press.

There are at least a hundred different ways to respond to that question. Like a good poem, it says more in a few words than some novels do in three hundred pages.

But, here’s a thought I had recently about poetry:

A good poem is like medicine. It can be made up of almost anything, but only when its ingredients are put together in the right proportions–neither too much nor too little—can it affect your life.

Taking that medicine analogy even further, just a little dose of good poetry is sometimes all you need to be helped and even healed.

This, of course, ties into some very old ideas. My Abenaki ancestors said that words have power, that a song can be medicine, can restore balance, can bring back joy after sorrow. Words of power make things happen. Good poems touch that sort of power.

Joseph Bruchac. No Borders. Holy Cow! Press, 1999. Above the Line. West End Press, 2003.

By a good poem, I take it that you mean a great poem. Like “Ode to a Nightingale” or “Howl” or etc…

I think a great poem touches through all layers of existence and does it singingly.

Liz Rosenberg. Children of Paradise. University of Pittsburgh, 1994. These Happy Eyes. Mammoth Books, 2001.

A good poem stays with me.

I like the way it hangs out somewhere in the back of my mind coming to the front on occasion to remind me it’s there: “‘You are old, Father William,’ the young man said…”

It leaves me an image: Robert Frost is icy blue and white.

It turns words around, letting me see them from a different angle: e.e. cummings.

Valerie Lewis. Valerie & Walter’s Best Books For Children: A Lively, Opinionated Guide. Avon, 1998.

The most simple way I define what poetry is to children is: A poem is a picture made of words.

Good poems can tell us what we already know in our bones but had never seen or heard or even put into words before. For a poem to be good it needs the element of surprise. That comes to the reader both in content, line break, sound, and voice. You read the opening line, are carried (or jolted) to the last line, and then wonder, how did I get here? There you are standing in this new place but feeling that, yes, you too, belong here.

A good poem is like a simply wrapped package that appears unremarkable at first glance. Until you read it. Then stars glow where there was never light before. Something sparkles. It might be you. It might be the dark. It might be the woman two rows ahead of you on the bus.

Good poetry gives us ourselves as if we’ve never had who we were before. It also gives us each other, shortens the gap between one and another. And good poems give us the world as if for the first time.

A fine poem needs mystery too; it doesn’t say everything. If you were to compare a poem to a simple math equation, say 1 + 1 = 2, then a poem is butterfly + jagged scar = his warm breath on your neck. It’s another way of knowing that makes perfect sense, but not logical, linear, rational sense. It’s the way the heart knows, and the soul, the logic of dreams. It’s how we know when we love or when we are afraid.

Poetry works on us not only through content but through sound. And for a poem to be well written it must remember that element as well. It needs to sound right. There’s not just one right sound, but many, and each poem has its own that needs to be incorporated in order to be a thing of strength and beauty.

Patrice Vecchione. Writing & the Spiritual Life: Finding Your Voice by Looking Within. Contemporary/McGraw-Hill, 2001. Truth & Lies. Holt, 2001.

First, I’ll mention that I consider a poem “good” if it stays with me; a memory of the words, images, feelings, or ideas will nudge me hours or even days later. “Great” poems are ones I somehow know I’ll remember all of my life. For me, this singular magic happens when I sense that the poet wrote deeply and with great care about a strong emotion. Good poems, as well as great poems, vibrate with a passion and energy that can’t be forgotten or ignored.

Kristine O’Connell George. Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems. Clarion, 2001. Little Dog and Duncan. Clarion, 2002.

When I have my editor’s hat on and I’m choosing selections for an anthology, I look for poems with energy but focus, poems with emotional weight, poems that tickle me with their word play and cleverness, poems that delight me in the way that structure and words have meshed, or poems whose content makes my mind tingle. When I’m writing my own poetry, I would love to incorporate all of these at once!

Betsy Franco. You Hear Me? Candlewick Press, 2000. Things I Have to Tell You. Candlewick Press, 2001.

Assuming that all the technical things are done right, I guess the hallmarks of a good poem are a combination of freshness of vision—seeing the world in a new or unusual way, and being able to convey that to the reader—-as well as a fresh and unique use of language.

Beyond that, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, or reader, in this case.

Judy Whipple, former editor, Marshall Cavendish

I want poetry that children can understand, that helps them to see something in a new way.
I like surprise endings that take their breath away or make them say,”Oh, that’s the way it is.”
I like poems that tell stories. I like poems with fascinating word play or words that jingle and bounce or words that ask a riddle.

A good poem for children is a poem children love.

Bee Cullinan, Consulting Editor, Wordsong, poetry imprint of Boyds Mills Press. Easy Poetry Lessons that Dazzle and Delight, with David Harrison. Scholastic, 1999. Literature and the Child, 5th Edition, with Lee Galda. Wadsworth, 2002.

What makes a good poem? A good poet.

X. J. Kennedy. An Introduction to Poetry, 10th edition, with Dana Gioia. Longman 2002. Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh. Little, Brown, 2002.

My answer to your question comes in part from a poem of mine called “What Is A Poem?”

Hard work.
Emotion surprised.
Throwing a colored shadow.
A word that doubles back on itself, not once but twice.
The exact crunch of carrots.
Precise joys.
A prayer that sounds like a curse until it is said again.
Crows punctuating a field of snow.
Hard work.

Jane Yolen. Take Joy: A Book for Writers. Kalmbach/The Writer Press, 2003. Wild Wings. Boyds Mills, 2002.

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