by Kitty Jospé
I am sometimes asked as poetry moderator what makes a poem “good”, which is as slippery a question as what makes a good piece of music or art. What is it we look for in a poem that goes beyond a subject that interests us, or a style we particularly enjoy? Each week, as I start my selection for discussion at poetry oasis, I seek the timelessness of universals balanced with particulars that skillfully address being human. Even if a poem is challenging, with no immediate sense of satisfaction to some readers, after discussion there is often a sense of having engaged in a process of discovery. What makes us say “eureka” and why does this matter?
For poetry, Robert Frost explains that ”A poem begins in delight…and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” A good poem will “run a course of lucky events” and in my book, will have a “sound of sense”. It is not merely a collection of words gathered in stanzas, or a personal diary of feelings, but the craft elements chosen will support a sense that by reading it, you are participating in what French writer André Breton calls “choice to live”. His little poem, ”Plutôt la vie” translated as “Choose Life” has an end-rhyme a-b-b-a followed by two unrhymed rhymes which call life the “colors of God, and a virgin passport given to us”. There is no one formula, one size fits all, nor is there any “solution” proposed. The actual French, “fard” refers to blush to sculpt cheeks, or eye shadow to accentuate the eyes—the “make-up” of God which embellishes what is:
Plutôt la vie comme fond de dédain
A cette tête suffisamment belle
Comme l’antidote de cette perfection qu’elle
appelle et qu’elle craint
La vie le fard de Dieu
La vie comme un passeport vierge
All of the arts have the possibility to “surprise us alive”, draw us to pay attention in ways we otherwise might not. It might be a certain choreography, a painting, sculpture, a symphony, novel or poem. I choose poems for the advantage of the spoken art akin to music. As poet Tom Lux says, “The human voice can sing a vowel to break your heart. It trills a string of banal words, but your blood jumps, regardless.”
Sharing poetry in a group has an added advantage. Alone, we are like one of the six blind men feeling the elephant (before each sharing a “Eureka” moment.)
It’s a spear (tusk)
It’s a fan (ear)
It’s a wall (side)
It’s a rope (tail
It’s a tree (leg)
It’s a snake (trunk)
Of course, understanding “elephant” is far more than that. Where does the subjective self come in? How can we uncover a different way of seeing and sense of discovery? I love the Indian artists who create composite animals where all sorts of different animals and shapes create one large elephant. M.C. Escher also does this with composite interlocking shapes, tessellations and transformations.
In 2015, poet David Orr wrote a book on Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, citing the title and continuing with “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong”. If you look at the rhyme scheme, (a-b-a-a-b), the enjambments (lines whose meanings spill over to the next line or stanza), the placement of the pronoun “I”, you too will come to understand, the complexity of the poem. This is not a poem about individualism or the courage to follow the “road less traveled” in Robert Peck style… But to note that a self, chooses… There will always be a “sigh” wondering how that choice determines the “hence”. In stanza 2: both roads are equally traveled…(claim/same) and a comma enjambs the line to stanza 3 (equally lay; day, way) neither trodden black; AND I DOUBTED I SHOULD EVER COME BACK. It’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.
As a bilingual linguist and former French teacher, I am sensitive to the mood of bright and dark vowels, the textures of consonants. Let us look at how they work in this translation of Taha Muhammad Ali:
behind the night of words
behind the clouds of hearing,
across the dark of sight,
and beyond the dusk of music
that’s hidden and revealed.
But where is it concealed?
And how could I possibly know
when I am barely able,
by the light of day,
to find my pencil?
Note the hard occlusive “c” in clouds, across, dusk, music, concealed, could… And the soft “c” in concealed and pencil.
I am fond of this quotation by Marcel Proust: “By art alone we are able to get outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe, which for him is not ours.” This is because good art is rich in its ambiguity, and layers of possibility which we only can start to appreciate by slowing down to observe it in detail.
What title perks up interest? How does it connect a reader to the final word? In the same manner, what words create an irresistible “mouth feel” as you say them? How do small details help you access the big picture? Art is one of our mirrors to help us to take on one of the large responsibilities as a human being: according to Dylan Thomas it is “to know and feel, as much as one can, all that is moving around and within oneself.”
Do you ever turn in circles? David Anselm [link] chases the problem of how it “matters that something matters” to conclude that the universe as a whole is a single mattering in which all particular matterings are integrated as coherently and comprehensively as possible. A thing really matters to the degree to which it can be coherently and comprehensively integrated into this mattering.
Some call the perception of this, “the aha moment” or eureka. There is no synonym, for the Greek heúrēka, meaning “I have found (it)”, attributed to Archimedes. However, these words provide synonyms for the feeling it inspires:
delight, great pleasure, jubilation, triumph, exultation, rejoicing, happiness, gladness, glee,exhilaration, exuberance, elation, euphoria, bliss, ecstasy, rapture.
I invite you to try an experiment of reading a familiar poem, like Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Read it out loud, and let the rhythms embrace you. Look at the end rhymes on lines 1,2,4 in each stanza and how know, though, snow is broken by “here” which introduces the 1,2,4 rhymes of queer, near, year; broken by “lake” which in stanza 3 echoes in shake, mistake, flake and “sweep” ends the poem with deep, keep and twice-repeated “sleep”. Is the horse really a stand-in for conscience of obligation? How does the regular iambic tetrameter effect the continuing journey the words in the title say has stopped for a moment . Perhaps a quiet Eureka. A softening of an idea to allow an emotion that approaches joy…
Poetry is not an easy art, and too in contemporary America, it often has a reputation of being out of reach of the common man, or conversely, Hallmarkishly trite. I love that poetry can disguise itself in multiple ways: spoken word and rap; sign language; theatre; magical world of play for children; mockery of the adult world. It can wear a lyric dress, adopt any many of persona and perspectives. It exists not to be “solved” but rather to expand the possibilities of understanding ourselves and others with better empathy.
Kitty Jospé is a linguist and the author of four books of poetry. She holds an MA in French Literature and MFA in creative writing. Her poems have appeared in the journals Nimrod and Grasslimbs. Kitty is the moderator of the poetry group, ‘Poetry Oasis’, open to the public and held in the Arts and Literature Division at the Rochester Public Library.