What Makes a “Good” Poem?
by Kitty Jospé
Does it make your heart skip a beat? Perk up your ears? How does sound work with sense to intrigue you? When I like a poem, I enjoy first, the way it fills the space on the page, and how it sounds when spoken. Usually there is some craft element that inserts itself without calling dramatic attention and and a pleasing interchange as visual and aural patterns combine.
The next step might be to research the poet and poem. Thanks to the Poem-a-Day series https://poets.org/poem-a-day created by the American Academy of Poets, some preliminary information follows the daily poem. Often, that in itself will prompt me to dig further.
One of my favorite words is Sprezzatura often translated as “studied carelessness”. Of course, to achieve this, whether playing an instrument, painting, writing a poem, much careful practicing is required and in poetry, a fine-tuned attention to craft. The key to the success of rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, I believe is the disguise, so that it appears that it is the poem is doing the work, with its own hidden agenda. What invites the reader to engage with a poem? What makes you feel it matters to “figure it out” may indeed be subjective, balancing the common ground of universals with particulars. Often a poem allows us to hold contradictory impressions, which is also part of
sprezzatura and the literary device, paradox. where the juxtaposition of a set of seemingly contradictory concepts reveal a hidden and/or unexpected truth.
For the three poems below submitted to the November 2020 issue of Rundelania, each
poem addresses the (universal) human propensity to see what we want to see, in both the physical cue our eyes provide us, as well as the insight of our understanding. These poems are part of Sum:1 , a collection of 64 poems which address the nature of identity, playing on the homonymic someone. The sum of us? All, as one. The book will be published by FootHills later this fall.
The first poem, inspired by a view of Chimney Bluffs in nearby Sodus, NY, plays with the alliterative effects of s, w, the final t that should be pronounced with a crisp cut of the tongue against the roof of the mouth in pelt, assault; wind-bitten… the repeated h of howl, hit, haunt with a hint in what. The five couplets, create one sentence, broken into four breaths. The visual line above the peaks in the photograph is explained as a tree branch-megaphone, but with a sense of violence…
Although the poem was written before the pandemic, before the demonstrations, before [BLM— Black Lives Matter], the final question could apply not just to the cliffs eroding away, but the danger to a democracy that encourages dignified discussion. Perhaps readers will find that the spaces embrace an ominous silence of the shadow. The ending couplet does not provide prediction: it can be read as both positive as well as negative response to what “brave new world” will exist when the current one continues to change.
The second poem, using an hour-glass shape, to imitate the photo, plays visually with time. Perhaps the poem could work without the epigraph, but there is a strength in the cameraderie calling on another poet’s words and work. A poem in itself is also a “forever”.
The final poem is an ekphrastic response, using a Golden Shovel technique invented by Terrance Hayes, inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool – 7 at the Golden Shovel, where “We”
is the end word on each line. The title of the art work (and poem) provides the end words of each stanza… but never quite in the same order. What is real then? Even the words refuse to keep order. The final word, belonging, is not part of the “golden shovel” (you were never really here) as if to emphasize, that “being” depends on “belonging”. This is fundamental to each human being. Belonging is not part of the title, and yet, both art and the poem address another fundamental question: Who am I? If you don’t see me, do I exist?
The invitation of poetry to notice, wonder, is never-ending. It allows the reader to go beyond “liking” or “not liking” something by observing how the words are presented. This process allows for a deeper and more satisfying understanding. If you are interested in discussing poems this way, the Poetry Oasis discussion group meets each Wednesday at noon via zoom.
Contact the library for more information.
About the author: Kitty Jospé founded O Pen at the Pittsford Library in February 2008, and Poetry Oasis at Rundel Library in 2013. In both groups, she selects “good” poems weekly, which are read aloud and discussed. She continues to offer a zoom session since the pandemic forced a shut down. Docent at the Memorial Art Gallery since 1999, offering workshops at Writers and Books and active on the poetry scene since 2006, she is known for her lively manner and great enthusiasm for art and word. Her work appears in numerous publications, anthologies and in 6 books.
 an Italian word that first appears in Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them”. Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprezzatura
Kitty Jospé loves facilitating poetry appreciation and collaborations with word, art and music. After years of teaching French, she turned to English, and received her MFA in creative writing in 2009.