I read poetry (not quite as often as I should), and I read shoddy gossip (more often than I should), but I rarely expect those experiences to intersect. Which is why it was something of a shock when my daily browsing of a tabloid blog turned up an article about a poem written by a celebrity. As you’d expect from a tabloid website, it was pretty cruel- the headline declared the actress’ poem to be “worse than she is”. And while I must confess I didn’t exactly love the poem, I can’t endorse insulting someone’s poem. Or, for that matter, insulting the poet (though which crime is worse depends on how seriously you take poetry). It did get me thinking, though: what is good poetry? Is there an easy way to figure out whether a poem is good or not? I want to say that there isn’t, because poetry is so subjective. But saying that would be taking the easy way out-which is a pretty bad thing to do in a blog post. So I might as well give it a shot.
I rarely use absolutes, but I’m going to use one here: good poetry has to be surprising in some way. It doesn’t have to feel like a slap in the face, though it can. But a good poem has got to stand up and make you take notice of it. It doesn’t have to be loud or boisterous. But if it’s going to be quiet and subdued, it has to be quiet and subdued in a way so distinct that it becomes noticeable. Poetry that lacks surprise is literary elevator music. It can be beautiful, elegant, nice to listen to, but ultimately it’s going to be completely unmemorable. There’s lots of ways to make a poem surprising. It can be an unconventional subject (I’ve recently read poems about severed heads and raw chicken, and you’d better believe that I haven’t forgotten those). It can be a completely conventional subject approached in an interesting way. It can be the use of a single word that seems out of place, or a word that seems unexpected yet not out of place at all.
In the fruit aisle at a supermarket near my hometown, there’s a sign that details the method for determining whether a melon is ripe or not. You first shake it to see if any seeds are rattling around (a bad sign), then smell it to see if it has a pleasantly sweet smell. Checking for surprise in poetry is a lot like that. When we read, our eyes glide smoothly along the page, like a car on the highway. When we encounter something surprising, it’s like a speed bump.
If you can read an entire poem in one smooth ocular motion, without your eyes stopping suddenly in their tracks or looking away from the page for a moment of relief, it’s not surprising. If it’s not surprising, it’s not going to make any sort of mark, and I can’t fathom calling a poem that doesn’t leave some sort of mark-whether it’s an imprint or a bruise-good.
Of course, poetry can be surprising and still be far from good-it’s the easiest thing in the world to write a poem that’s surprising and bad (although it’s actually difficult to write a surprisingly bad poem). All good poetry is surprising, but not all surprising poetry is good. Because of that, this test of mine might not be all that useful-but it’s the best I can come up with. It’s not quite as good as the melon test, though… that’s practically a science.