Writing poetry can be intimidating, especially if you aim to write good or even great poetry. After reading it, a good poem is something you might remember, but a great poem can make you feel the emotions it wants to share. But for the most part, famous poets did not write poetry so that the world would think they could write good poems. They simply wrote about what moved them, made them think, or inspired them.
This article will help you determine what separates a run-of-the-mill poem from a good one. Whether you are planning on writing poetry, want to find good poetry to read, or want to know what makes good poetry, this article will serve as a guideline to what most, if not all, great poems have in common.
A Good Poem is an Art Form
Writing poetry, whether it is contemporary poetry, free verse, or haiku, is an art form. Due to this fact, you can never please everyone, and, like all art, poetry has a level of intimacy to it that makes it easier to love your own poetry than someone else’s. Every poem that exists is a good poem on some level because it is art. It is a different process for a writer than something that can be graded on fact and accuracy, like when you write prose.
When people decide to read poetry, they often do so to be seen, understood, or feel something. That is what good poetry does. Reading a remarkable poem aloud can emotionally move you, even the one you wrote. Your voice may waver, get stronger, smaller, or change altogether due to how it affects you and makes you feel.
Anyone is Capable of Writing Good Poetry
You do not have to be famous to write a good poem. Unpublished poets write truly beautiful poems using the best words they can to describe the world around them, their feelings, and how they understand things. Reading poetry is an experience that you are supposed to feel. It can make you sad, laugh, entertain you, make you angry, or question things. Any poem that makes you feel something is a good poem.
1. Pay Attention to Word Choice
To really understand poetry, you need to understand the importance of word choice. You do not want to use cheap words to describe big moments or feelings. You want to use words that will tell the reader exactly what you feel. Do not say “sad” when you can say “in despair.” Do not say “angry” when you can say “enraged.”
Word choice is important because you are not telling a whole story like you would when writing a novel, an essay, or a short story. You have a limited amount of words to convey a thought, feeling, or idea, and your goal is to make the reader see and feel what you see and feel. Descriptive language and the right word choice will immediately put you on the right track in writing poetry that would be deemed “good” to the reader.
How Can You Say it Better?
When thinking about creating vivid images in the reader’s mind and making the poem good, write what comes to mind and then ask yourself the question: How can I say it better? Do you have a weak line or string of words? Can you better describe the setting? Could you add more feeling to your words? Did you choose the appropriate words to convey the correct emotion and idea?
Do not confuse this advice with trying to up the intellectual quality of your poetry. Some of the great poets from our childhood did not use big or complicated words. They simply used the right words to get the message across. For example, Shel Silverstein, the beloved writer of A Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Falling Up, used simple language so that it would appeal to children.
Relying more on rhyme schemes so that kids would overlook the fact that they were reading poetry, he was a good poet because he understood that the right words were the simple words for his audience. Sometimes you can say a lot with small words. Children understood that, and so did Silverstein.
2. Go for a Strong Emotional Reaction
Most people remember the things that made them react emotionally. We can name the movie that makes us cry. We can name the song that makes us feel great when experiencing a slump at work or going through a break-up. Readers feel a similar connection to poems that create a reaction of intense emotion.
Few people remember the poems they were forced to read in school when they learned about things like iambic pentameter and how many syllables are in a haiku. A good poem is less about the structure and more about how it made you feel.
When writing poetry, as a poet, your job is to translate feelings or thoughts onto a page in the same way that a novelist would, but in fewer words and in a poet’s unique voice.
When you stop writing, you want to feel relief. Relief that you got the feelings out of yourself and onto a page. The poet that leaves a piece of themselves on the page has a better chance of connecting to the reader. So get ugly. Get real. Get hopeful and happy and silly. Put it all down on the page when you are writing, and do not think of the many poetry rules you have to follow.
Unlike prose, you can have unfinished sentences. You can have nonsense words. You can scream onto a page and resonate with someone. Let go of your inhibitions and go for the gut punch, so to speak. Move the reader emotionally, and you will have a good piece of poetry.
3. Literary Devices
The use of literary devices can help to elevate your poems and your writing in general, as long as it is done sparingly enough not to seem lazy. The use of similes and metaphors is a great way to tell a story within your writing that the reader can perfectly understand because it has been written in ways that they can relate to and are familiar with.
We see this all of the time in prose. A book written by nearly any author uses these tools to help the audience “see” what he or she has created. However, in prose, these stories are written with things like ample amounts of dialogue, backstories, character descriptions, and sometimes even illustrations. There is also more space and room for writers to get the scenes and feelings across to the audience.
Avoid overusing things like metaphors and similes, but do not shy away from them. If the metaphor or simile is something that you would really say, then go for it. If you are putting into your poem just to add content or words to it, then it loses its validity, and the reader sees it as lazy. There is a balance to strive for, but it can really make the poem come alive in its best form.
In some of her latest articles, Poet Victoria Hunter has stated that imagery and symbolism are much more important than the use of dialogue and actual storytelling in poetry. We can learn about the human condition in both forms. Still, when writers of poetry give us a true sense of imagery and imagination with their ideas, they create a world for the reader rather than a scenario or scene.
4. Cut Out Unnecessary Words and Lines
Your poem does not have to rhyme, and it does not have to be about your life. Also, it does not have to be about a world crisis. You can write a poem about anything, and it can speak to the audience. However, the sign of a good poet is one who can bring something to life with fewer words.
We have all seen those poems that read like novels. They go on for pages, including everything from dialogue to backstory to the plot. The imagination plays a tiny part because the poem tells you everything you need to know.
Going through your poem after it has been written and taking out the bits that do not need to be there can help your poem go from a novel in the form of a poem to a great set of ideas that you can see in your mind. They jump off the page at you and make you think or feel something without telling you exactly what you are supposed to see and feel.
5. Look at Your Work with Fresh Eyes
Poets often write when they have a strong sense of duty to their emotions. They need a way to vent their feelings. They feel very strongly about some sort of issue, etc. The idea is that most writers of poetry look at this art form as a way to feel better. Poetry, for many poets, is a form of therapy. When poets experience strong emotions and write a poem about those emotions, they are often too attached to it at first to look at it without bias.
Like any piece of writing, it is often best to step away from the finished work for a while until you have had the time to separate yourself from what you have written. After a suitable amount of time has passed, and the poet no longer feels as though the poem is a direct extension of him or herself and his or her feelings, go back and read what you have written. This is when the editing phase can begin.
6. Rhythm Matters
You can have all sorts of symbolism in your poetry, full of meaning and imagery, but none of it will matter if the person reading it cannot read it well.
With all of the hard work you put into the poem, the meanings, lines, and imagery, you can have a solid idea of what you want your audience to feel. However, if you do not establish a rhythm to your work, then the lines do not read properly, the moment is ruined, and the meaning is lost.
Think of writing poetry like writing music. When you hear a song, you hear a melody and a rhythm that you can follow to get the meaning behind the piece of music. If the singer did not follow the melody, most of the listeners would be lost, and even though the words may make sense, the lack of rhythm threw everything off-kilter.
For example, think of the melody and music changes in the wildly popular song Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. That song will likely live on forever due to its melody changes, instrumental changes, and lyrics. Now imagine that it was set to the tune of Mary Had a Little Lamb. The song immediately becomes less impactful.
You need to think of how you want the poem to sound when read. Think of how the audience will read it. Setting a pace and cadence for how your work is supposed to be read will help you in many ways. Most importantly, it will resonate better with the audience. Secondly, it will help the audience remember your poem.
One such example exists in Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky. This poem is literally full of made-up words. Let us look at just the first stanza of his poem:
‘ Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
There is almost no reason to remember anything about this poem at face value. There are eleven nonsense words in those four lines, and there are only 23 words in the entire first stanza. However, the poem’s cadence is sing-songy and therefore is more memorable and appealing to the reader. The Cheshire Cat actually sang this poem in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. It was treated as a song rather than a poem—cadence matters.
7. Try Your Work Out in Different Forms
Experiment with your poetry to see what other forms you can do with your written words. Sometimes just changing up the cadence and rhyme scheme of a poem can elevate it to a level that takes it from okay to unforgettable. Try it as a haiku if you can take enough words out and still get the meaning across. This is a simple yet powerful form of poetry that is centuries-old and a die-hard favorite of poetry fans.
Mixing up your poem’s form will tell you several things about your work. If it does not work well in other forms, then the original form was perfect for the feeling, tone, content, and cadence. On the other hand, if you were able to put your poem into a different form and give it a different rhyme scheme and cadence, and it came out better or different in a way that you like, maybe it is something you can adapt to elevate your poem’s greatness.
Do not be too static in your chosen form. Be willing to knock down walls and expand your skillset by trying out other forms of poetry.
8. Take Risks
Poetry is one of the few forms of written work in which you can get creative and weird and end up with a masterpiece on your hands. You have the freedom to say all sorts of things, anything, really. Therefore, sometimes you should.
Create new words or phrases, and compare things that no one would think to compare. Draw a parallel between things that do not make sense, and then make it make sense. Start sad and then change mood and tone with no warning. Stop a line in the middle of a sentence. End the poem in the middle of a sentence and leave the audience wondering how it is supposed to end. Ask a question at the beginning, and then never answer it.
Taking calculated risks is part of the beautiful freedom offered in writing poetry, and some of the very best poems did just that. The poet went for it and went his or her own way.
What Makes Good Poetry: Read More to Write Better
If you truly wish to be a better writer, or if you wish to write poetry that is remembered, well-received, and considered “good,” the very best advice may be to read more poetry. Think of the type of poetry that appeals to you most and read as much of it as you can.
Adversely, read the sorts of poetry you have no interest in writing. This will give you an idea of what is out there, and you can gain some valuable knowledge and skills and be an overall more well-rounded reader by doing so. The best writers of poetry and prose are avid readers. Never assume that just because you write poems means you should not also read them. Doing so will shorten your horizons and cripple you as a creator and artist.