Friday, September 22, 2006

Notes - Re: Can Poetry be Judged by Objective Criteria?

John Hollander writes in Rhyme’s Reason: “Poetry is a matter of trope; and verse, of scheme or design. But the blueprints of verse can be used to build things made of the literal or non-poetic material –…which is why most verse is not poetry.” Certainly certain conditions must be met for verse (whether "formal" or "free") to be defined as poetry. It cannot be enough to simply put words in an array for them to be considered poetry.

If there is a set of criteria/elements (diction, syntax, line & half-meaning, trope & thought, rhetoric & speech, rhythm & combination etc...) which is necessary to define poetry as such, might there not be a similar guideline to determine whether that poetry is “good” or “bad”. Poetry (like all art) should resonate with the reader/consumer. It should as Robert Frost put it,"… begin with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words."

Thus, it should move the reader – take them on a journey to some form of enlightenment (all the while entertaining them). If a poem does not engage us or (at its completion) has us saying- “So what?”, it has failed us. Does this make the poem “non-viable” or “bad”? Perhaps for us, as reader, but maybe not for others. If it works for more readers than it doesn’t for others; does that make it a good poem? That it is functional for at least one reader - may be a necessary condition for “viable” poetry; but not a sufficient one in my estimation for “good” poetry.

If for a moment we might imagine a circle as representing a poetic mindset, might it not be logical to assume that two circles might intersect when it comes to poetic aesthetics. Perhaps two like-minded individuals ( from the same school of poetic thought?) might be more likely to enjoy certain aspects of a poem. The overlap of these two circles might be greater than that of two readers from different aesthetics. However, by the very definition of poetry even two diverse poetic viewpoints must intersect at some point. There are certain expectations (however basic) on the part of the reader - vis a vis the pome, that must be met. Therefore, a “skillful” poem might then be one that readers from as many varied perspectives as possible can most agree upon as having some intrinsic value. Inevitably, is this not what makes a poem as viable today as somewhere down the road?


paspartoeschilde said...

Dear Nick,

Can Leon Spilliaert be defined as a poet? He only used water and pigments as writers do ...
Best regards
Antwerp, Belgium

Nick said...


I don't see why not. According to some if you scribble on a page and say it's poetry then it's poetry.

Robert said...

Fascinating theory. Not quite sure if I agree with the venn-diagram approach to ranking poems (reminds me a bit too much of hte scene in "Dead Poets Society" where they tear out the pages of some PhD's theory that you can graph poems on a 2D axis of skill and importance). But interesting none the less. Personally, I think it's more universal and less democratic than all that:

Love the Collins quote as well, btw.

M. Shahin said...

This was a very thought provoking post. You ask a lot of good questions throughout, and I enjoyed reading it.

I would really like to know what defines good poetry? Could it be from how it engages the reader? That might be a way to define something as good poetry.

But like Collin said there is no bad poetry because people have different tastes.

But this obviously does not reflect in the publishing world. Not every poem is published so I wonder by what criteria they judge a whether a poem is poetry or not.

Anyway thanks for the thougtful read and diagram.

Nick said...


These are just some notes that I jotted down as a response to all the recent brouhaha. This is not a ranking system per se as it does not use any objective criteria to rank poetry. Actually, the whole premise is very subjective in principle.

It is in the agglomeration of many varied poetic mindsets and the crystallization of their ideas about the poem which make it as objective a process as is possible. By the way, I've never seen "Dead Poet's Society" but you've piqued my curiosity. Actually the idea came from a theory that was bandied about in an "Anthropology of Cognition" course I took as an undergraduate. That Venn diagram was used to depict how we socially construct reality. I thought that it might be relevant here.

As difficult as it may be for you to believe Robert, I do hold a university degree - albeit it is not an MFA. So I guess it makes whatever I have to say on poetics null and void!

Nick said...


"But like Collin said there is no bad poetry because people have different tastes."

That's like saying well there is no "reality" because everybody's reality is different. -- There is a set of shared expectations that we have when approaching any poem in that it will follow certain specific pre-determined patterns. This allows us to cognitively recognize it as such. Furthermore, we all read poetry to be moved or affected in some form or another. If a poem does not move/affect us - it has failed us.

Just my $.02!

Collin said...

So if you're not moved, it's a bad poem? What if it moves someone else...or doesn't follow the "pre-determined" path? Does that make it good? I've conjectured this on other sites. I still don't think we've come up with a successful yardstick to measure what is good and bad poetry.

By the way, I do tend to live in a different reality. ;-)

Nick said...


So if you're not moved, it's a bad poem?

I do not believe in giving poems a "good" or "bad" label. Rather - a poem that doesn't move a reader is not working for that particular reader. It does not preclude the possibility that it might work for another.
I.e.: With my own poems - when a particular poem does not work for the majority of the readers (say on an on-line workshop for example), then I certainly will re-examine the poem and question it's viability. More than likely I will re-edit it to make it a more functional poem.

Here's your response to a poem -"My Father's Hand" - which I posted on September 13th: "I voted yes. Overall, the poem does little for me and is "overwritten" but there are some phrases and lines that work and could become an even better poem."

This poem didn't work for you or many of the other readers who read it here or at a private workshop. Collectively you deemed it a failure as it did not work or engage you. It forced me to put the poem on hold until I can solve its non-functionality.

Re: What if it moves someone else...or doesn't follow the "pre-determined" path? Does that make it good?

Fine then it moves someone else and it works for them. I'm all for that. But if it doesn't work for most then either we accept that fact or we study on how to improve
its credibility. I'm for the latter choice.

Re: By the way, I do tend to live in a different reality. ;-)

Sometimes I feel that we all live in separate realities that only intersect in specific social contexts and are governed by specific natural and social laws. But what do I know. I've had a horrendous day and it's late. Later.... :-)