Robert Eastwood - What makes a good poem

Following is an essay from bay area poet Robert Eastwood on what makes a good poem. I believe this was given as a speech ...

Most of you have entered poems for the contest, and soon––after you've put up with me for a while––we will hear the winners among the many hopeful entrants. A fair question to ask is, what standards have been used to judge my poems? The contest was to identify the good poems, the best poems, from various categories, and then to choose the grand prize poem. And we all participate, entering into the popular illusion that this can be objectively accomplished.

I'd like to explore this behavior of ours, what we implicitly agree to, and the question, what makes a good poem.First I'd like to share a little story.

A year or two after I retired from teaching high school English I received a letter from a student––the brother of a student I'd apparently had when I taught 10th grade English. It went like this...

Dear Mr. Eastwood,

I am a junior at Clayton Valley High. You had my brother, Carl, in one of your classes once. He thinks you're okay. I know you've retired and all, but I've got a problem.

I have been assigned to write a paper on what makes a good poem. I tried to go on-line about it, but all I get is crap. Will you please write me all about it and how you do it, and could you please reply by e-mail as I have kind of let this paper slip and it is due real soon, like I mean REAL SOON.

Sincerely, Brad

Now, I must confess I've been laggard in responding to Brad's request––I mean real laggard, like seven years laggard––but consider this talk a summation of an earnest period of thinking on the matter, and a long overdue reply.

First of all, in the nest of illusions before us, nobody really knows what a poem is, and anybody who tells you definitively, what a poem is, must be a professor and not a poet. Anybody who has actually tried to write a poem knows that anything you can say about a poem, what you should or should not do, the whole prescriptive endeavor––and that includes my talk today––is going to be disproved. As the poet Tony Hoagland says, anything that works is what works. It makes you wonder why we participate in the illusion of certainty surrounding the judging of merit in poems.
The word "poem" comes via French from the Latin and Greek: a thing made or created. Now that leaves a lot of room for interpretation, particularly as to merit.
Like most anything made by a human being, a poem is the embodiment of the life and culture of its time. It involves the poet's biography and bibliography, and also the world in which the poet lives.

Robert Frost insisted that "the way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written." He's implying, it seems to me, the need for familiarity with the past, but also that we build upon the past, not replicate it. Standards we hold against the poem are equally evolutionary. Indeed, David Alpaugh says that poetry redefines itself by periodic revolutions that adjust its parameters to accommodate shifts in language, culture, and sociology. I dare say the poems of William Blake or John Donne would be rejected for publication by most editors today.

Stephen Dobyns, in his book Best Words, Best Order, says, and I quote, "What we read is always filtered through what we've read, where we are in history, culture, and psychology, various ideologies, and our card-house of opinions." The writer, in other words, is writing the poem through his or her opinions, and through every poem he or she has ever read. To continue with Dobyns, "We call a work original when it surprises these opinions and expands our preconceptions of the limits of the form." I will get back to this central quality of surprise, and show its importance.

I agree with the poet Diane Wakoski when she says, "no two poets writing today can get together on their definitions of what constitutes a good poem." All I can do today is share my thoughts and those of others and hope you won't completely reject them.

Although the poet David Ignatow insisted there is no objective criterion for the judgment of poetry, especially free-verse, I believe what comes closest is a Scoring Rubric. (Remember that rubrics are used by scorers of writing tests, such as English teachers or testing bureaus, to judge the merit of a piece of writing. Scoring one to five on each element of the rubric provides a quasi-objective measure.) The rubric could contain fresh use and technical proficiency in:

1) compression,
2) rhythm,
3) lineation,
4) imagery, and
5) figurative language.

Each of these elements can be recognized as being present or absent in a poem, and on a scale of 1 to 5, given a value for the freshness and technical proficiency. Thus, by summation of each of these scores, a numeric value may be given the poem.

But this process still leaves room for a lot of subjective interpretation. Additionally, because poetry combines two different sensory modes (words and sounds, the union of sound and meaning) judging the aesthetic merit of a poem requires judging 1) the literary element, 2) the musical element, and 3) the harmonious integration of sense and sound. In recent years there has been some interesting research done on how music works, notably at the research labs at Stanford, and lead by Daniel J. Levitin, the author of The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. The bridge to poetry, particularly through song lyrics, which incorporate and integrate sense with aural phenomena, aiding recollection and memorization, is in the process of being delved. It's fair to say there's no popular understanding of the workings of this integration––how it propels a poem, though we all recognize it exists.

I want again to call upon David Alpaugh, who has an interesting perspective on judging the elements of a good poem––a process he prefers to call "the satisfaction of key appetites." The appetites David needs satisfied to feel he's experienced poetry are 1) originality, 2) metaphor, i.e., the thrill of two things occurring at the same time and demanding that his imagination put them together. David says, metaphor is the reason why all great poetry is always about the reader, never the writer. And 3) music––"a sense that the poem is not (like prose) written by phrase, clause, sentence, paragraph, but composed by the line at the syllabic level, providing the thrill of meter, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, etc." Satisfy two of these appetites, he says, and you have read or heard a good poem. Satisfy all three and you've read or heard a great poem.

Other attributes of a good poem are what Tony Hoagland describes in his book, Real sofistikashun, as "Thingitude and Causality."

Thingitude is the material world of poems––that quality, Hoagland says, which locates, coordinates, and subordinates to build up a compound picture of the world. This has a different slant than the Imagist's, and particularly Ezra Pound's tenets: those are, if you recall, (1) that there be direct treatment of the "thing," whether subjective or objective, (2) that no word be used that does not contribute to the presentation, and (3) to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome. As Hoagland describes it, Thingitude is the "seen that occupies the poetic stage." The old saw, show not tell, but a richness in sensibility that has not "obstructed or abstracted the lucidity of seeing." "Or, to put it another way," Hoagland says, "...the dialectics of the poem are represented in the particulars, not the commentary." In Thingitude there's a boundless interest in the world and its anatomy. Unlike the Imagist's insistence upon the sole use of words that contribute to the presentation, this is a verbally acrobatic description that renders the world in concrete detail, rich in content. Thingitude has the advantage of a bottomless resource because it draws upon the depths of the world.

An example of Thingitude Hoagland uses is a portion of a poem by Brenda Hillman, called "Fortress." He points to the lucidity, the particularity, and the comprehension of its looking.

1. Night Watchman

August, the season of mild excess,
and the moon comes out like a rumor;
the night watchman stands on the avenue,

kicking one low black shoe with the other
while people go in and out of the liquor store.

There is a row of bottles behind him like bowling pins,
a cashier smoking beside the jars of olives,
and a tall cardboard man in a tuxedo, holding a martini,

and colorful refrigerated items with halved, sweating fruit;

but the night watchman is sober and short,
his crooked badge has numbers and a floral wreath,

his whole body blocks the doorway
as he hums a greeting at the regulars
who have come out, in desperation, at midnight.

There are ideas in this poem Hoagland points out, that swim below the surface––such as the link between consumerism and despair. But there is no commentary. As William Carlos Williams says, the ideas are in the things themselves, the particulars.

Look at Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "The Fish," a poem I'm sure you're all familiar with, as another example of the use of Thingitude. I'm going to read a major portion of the poem.

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
––the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly––
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
––It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
––if you could call it a lip––
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw....

In this poem, Bishop has restrained the self in deference to her sensibility, in deference to her clear observation, and though she enamels her description with figurative language, we are consumed by the sheer grittiness of detail and "Thingitude."

Causality is at work, according to Hoagland, "when the poetic vision includes not just the luminous and particular present moment, but antecedents and consequences....One way to put it is that the poet's vision becomes less rapturously preoccupied by Being and more mindful of the sequences of Happening, of the ways in which reality is shaped by its histories and its contexts." How the world is linked in time describes Causality, from antecedents, to events to aftermaths. To quote Hoagland, "When things are connected not just by association, but coordinated in sequences of cause and effect, the vision of the world increases in complexity and import."

Thus, if you accept Hoagland's idea, Thingitude and Causality are attributes of a good poem, perhaps one step up the ladder of abstraction in a scoring rubric from the basic components of metaphor, imagery, rhythm, and musical language.

Let's get back to this idea of surprise. I believe a poem is doing its job if it surprises. Elizabeth Bishop considered surprise to be among the central demands to be put upon poetry and art––in other words, the action or work of surprising one into feeling or thinking.

But what is surprise in a poem? How is it produced? What triggers it? Stephen Dobyns describes surprise and what produces it in his essay, "Reader's Life." Surprise is the sudden occurrence of an unanticipated event that creates tension, partly by shaking our faith in our anticipation, and producing uncertainty. All good metaphor incorporates surprise. It's that thrill David Alpaugh speaks of.

Dobyns goes on to say, "A good poem constantly uses surprise. A poem works by setting up various patterns that heighten the reader's anticipation." I would describe these patterns as forms, structures, usages, rhythms and aural effects we are familiar with in our reading and our own writing practice. (That foundation of familiarity we spoke of earlier.) Dobyns says once a pattern has been established, then any variation creates surprise––an unexpected rhyme or half rhyme, an aural echo, line breaks that heighten or diminish the force of words, wit, irony, etc. Unexpectedness can occur in concept, rhetoric, image, syntax or word. Disruption of pattern can occur in rhyme, meter, approach, rhythm, or structure.

Osip Mandelstam wrote: "The capacity for astonishment is the poet's greatest virtue. The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise."

Most if not all the rhetorical elements we find in a good poem, such as metaphor, imagery, wit, irony, humor, depend upon surprise. They function at triggering the response of surprise in us. Surprise, of course, is not willed by the reader––it arrives, lands in our laps. We can sense its approach as we move through the poem, every sense alert. It is the backbone of pleasure in a poem, or the knee-in-the-gut emotional reaction. It operates like Eliot's objective correlative, coming as evoked astonishment from a set of rhetorical elements in the poem. It's what Dickinson described as how she knew what she was reading was took the top of her head off.

As Dobyns says, what the poet most often uses to create tension in a poem is surprise. Tension drives the reader through the poem, makes the reader want to read and anticipate what is going to happen. If the poet has not made the reader want to read, the rest doesn't matter. Tension is the fuel that propels the reader through the landscape the poet has created.

Because the poet is always working against the reader's anticipation, the future has to be made uncertain, and the poet creates this uncertainty through surprise. Surprise is the foremost method of creating tension in poetry.

Tension develops as an anxiety within us as readers––and it can be created by apparently frustrating one or more of the patterns that we have begun to anticipate in the poem.

The poet manipulates the degree of our anticipation by manipulating the flow of information. When Sylvia Plath wrote that a poem "excludes and stuns" she was alluding to the result of the poet's successful manipulation of surprise through poetic devices to create tension.

Surprise sits atop all of the elements we have been attempting to describe as intrinsic in a "good" poem, all the appetites to be satisfied. It draws from all of the qualities we respond to in a good poem, and represents the umbrella impact, the aggregate of goodness.

Now this is important. We have to recognize that the capacity of a poem to deliver pleasing surprise depends on the specific knowledge of the reader, knowledge drawn from both life and, perhaps more importantly, from literature. It's that orientation, that shaping lens mentioned earlier, through which we read and write. What is delightfully surprising to one reader may be simply chaotic to another, and too predictable to a third.

I would like now to share a poem with you that reflects how several of the poetic devices we've been speaking of––namely wit and irony––can create surprise and hence tension in a poem. This is a poem by Tony Hoagland called "Lucky."

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.

Into the big enamel tub
half-filled with water
which I had made just right,
I lowered the childish skeleton
she had become.

Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
her belly and her chest,
the sorry ruin of her flanks
and the frayed gray cloud
between her legs.

Some nights, sitting by her bed
book open in my lap
while I listened to the air
move thickly in and out of her dark lungs,
my mind filled up with praise
as lush as music,

amazed at the symmetry and luck
that would offer me the chance to pay
my heavy debt of punishment and love
with love and punishment.

And once I held her dripping wet
in the uncomfortable air
between the wheelchair and the tub,
until she begged me like a child

to stop,
an act of cruelty which we both understood
was the ancient irresistible rejoicing
of power over weakness.

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to raise the spoon
of pristine, frosty ice cream
to the trusting creature mouth
of your old enemy

because the taste buds at least are not broken
because there is a bond between you
and sweet is sweet in any language.

This poem embodies "unexpectedness" in its ironical transpositions between mother and child, between love and embitterment, between loyalty and alienation. It also exemplifies Thingitude in its stark observation of the real "now."

But what facilitates surprise besides the original and creative use of various poetic devices and strategies? Many significant thinkers recognize that Structure plays a primary role in leading us to surprise. This is not the same as form, such as the sonnet, pantoum, or sestina. Poetic structure is (as described in the book of essays entitled Structure and Surprise, edited by Michael Theune) the pattern of a poem's turning.

As Theune says, "Almost no one regularly thinks or speaks in sestinas or pantoums, but almost everyone regularly engages in structured thinking and speech, and many everyday speech acts enact particular structures, contain effective turns. Anyone who has ever confessed anything about their past in order to then make new resolutions about the future has employed the Retrospective-prospective Structure in their thoughts or speech. Even if one has never heard of the Ironic Structure, its turn from set-up to punch line is not a foreign concept to anyone who has heard or told a joke." Theune describes a number of poetic structures that embody the turn, using some rather awkward nomenclature. There are The Concessional Structure, the Emblem Structure, the Elegy's Structure, the Dialectical Argument Structure, and the Descriptive-meditative Structure (which, incidentally, was what Bishop used in "The Fish"), all having the characteristic of the surprising turn. To use Theune's words, "The notion of poetry as a combination of structure and surprise significantly challenges some longstanding, deeply-ingrained ideas about poetry," and, "Structure offers a whole new way to conceive of poems that is at once paradigm-shifting, highly sophisticated, and readily apparent and available." At minimum, Theune gives us another, more tangible, aspect of surprise in poetry. Structure's primary concern is the art of the turn, and, to the point, this often means making surprising turns. Poet-critic Mary Kinzie says, "The very keystone of logic" is "the art of making transition--the art of inference and connection, the art of modulation and (hence) surprise."

Bottom line, we need to recognize the fact that it takes someone who knows about poetry to recognize and care for good poetry. Our poetry contest culminating today is a form of social contract. We join it willingly, trusting in the knowledge and sensitivities of the judges. Probably most of us will be one another's readers, sometime. In that regard, we must dedicate ourselves to be good readers as well as dedicated writers, to seek out and enjoy surprise wherever we find it.


Bishop, Elizabeth: The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, NY
Dobyns, Stephen: Best Words, Best Order, Essays on Poetry, St. Martin's Griffin, 1997, NY
Hirshfield, Jane: Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise:Three Generative Energies of Poetry, Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures, Bloodaxe Books, 2008, U.K.

Hoagland, Tony: donkey gospel, Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998,Saint Paul, Minnesota
Hoagland, Tony: Real sofistikashun, Essays On Poetry and Craft, Graywolf Press, 2006, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Holcombe, John C.: Imagism: Poetry of Immediate Sensation,, 2007
Levitin, Daniel J.: The World in Six Songs, How The Musical Brain created Human Nature, Dutton, 2008, NY
Levitin, Daniel J.: This is Your Brain on Music, The Science of a Human Obsession, Dutton, 2006, NY
O'Driscoll, Dennis, Ed.: Quote Poet Unquote, Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry, Copper Canyon Press, 2008, Port Townsend, Washington
Theune, Michael, Ed.: Structure & Surprise, Engaging Poetic Turns, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2007, NY