What makes a good poem ? What makes you read beyond the first line ?
A few things stand out.
Brevity, for a start. By and large the long-form narrative poem is dead ( Reading “Paradise Lost” ? Maybe you should get out a bit more.) Poetry is shrinking and the haiku is king.
Balance. A good poem is a deeply felt, personal response to experience. On the other hand, it must strike a universal chord with the reader. It must make the reader empathise, or at least respond to the ideas on the page.
It’s a difficult balance to strike.
A good poem is accessible. If it’s Eliot’s “ The Waste Land “( with added notes !) then I’m not interested. Pretention and self obsession are real turn-offs. But it mustn’t be trite, or cliche-ridden either. There’s nothing more depressing than feel-good poetry.
Another difficult balancing act.
How does the poem relate to other poems ?
Now I’d never thought of this until I read “Couples “ by Michael Stewart ( pub: Valley Press £6.00.) This is a short collection of 24 poems, placed in twelve pairs that face each other across the page. The two halves of each couple are complementary – “ Cam” and “ Shaft”, “ Hook” and “ Clasp.” It’s a brilliant idea and it works well- your feelings about one poem are filtered through your feelings for the other.
Some of the pairings are quite formal- “Him” and “Her” explore differing attitudes to sex. For Him
‘He only felt loved
after sex sex for him
was his lover giving herself to him..”
And for Her:
“she would only have
sex if she felt loved
when he came to her”
Balanced, clever and formal- but watch out for the sting in the tail, which I won’t ruin for you.
Michael Stewart is really sharp with relevant detail- a week’s menus, favourite films, the imprint of a lover’s lipstick on a tissue- it all adds up to an intricate account of the things that keep people together, whether they are “standing next to each other/ two sheep in a field” or “two moving parts/rubbing together/until they stick.”
This collection ticks all the boxes I set out at the beginning – it’s concise, accessible, and resonant.
And I loved it.
You can buy “ Couples” here: