What is a poem? What makes a poem a good poem? Mark Flanagan, a contemporary poet and savvy free-lance writer, provides an excellent and concise definition: “Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define.” I like this because it makes two points that I have long held to be true of poetry. First, it defies formal description. A poem may have rhyme, and it may not. A poem cannot be simply defined by a set of parameters relating to its form. Thus, it becomes difficult to qualitatively assign value to different kinds of poems. The second point is even more important. Flanagan is careful to stress that poetry has a primary intent that reaches into the emotional perceptions of our consciousness. Robert Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” This takes into consideration both the fundamental building blocks of poems (words) as well as the “fuel” (emotions) that one might say ignites and allows those words to burn. In writing a poem, we seek to find in the language a kind of expression that is filled with energy. We don’t look to language as a tool, necessarily, but rather work to uncover the beauty, awe, wit, paradox, understanding, beauty… (the list goes on), that already resides in the form and structure of our language.
I like to think of poetry as a collection of words, each with their own potential energy. We seek to group the words in such a way that will increase that energy, like rolling a huge ball up a hill. The higher it goes, the farther it will roll down. Poetry finds a language that is hidden in the vernacular of our imagination. It will have a certain sound (especially when read by the author, with the author’s full intent) that will sound like poetry. As prosaic as this appears, it becomes clearer if one listens to enough poetry recited out loud (podcasts of poets can be widely found on the web, not only by contemporary poets, but also past recordings of great 20th century poets like Auden, Frost, Plath, Bishop, and Dylan Thomas, to name just a few). It is in the hearing of poems read aloud that I have come to appreciate in a special way this dynamic force of building energy in great poetry.
In this connection, Robert Bly, one of our leading contemporary poets (as well as an acclaimed translator, essayist and editor), has much to say concerning what he calls the “heat” often found in great poetry. In his introduction to David Lehman’s, The Best American Poetry, 1999, Bly explains how easy it is to realize when you’re reading a truly wonderful poem full of heat. “We can tell when a poem has arrived by a certain feeling in the gut, as if a dismaying thought had slipped past our defenses. We feel that something has been taken seriously enough that it has hurt the poet.” A poem which he cites as one example, and one that I agree is packed with potential energy that gets unleashed at the end, is a little masterpiece by Ruth Stone entitled, “A Moment,”
Across the highway a heron stands
in the flooded field. It stands
as if lost in thought, on one leg, careless,
as if the field belongs to herons.
The air is clear and quiet.
Snowmelt on this second fair day.
Mother and daughter,
we sit in the parking lot
with doughnuts and coffee.
We are silent.
For a moment the wall between us
opens to the universe,
And you go on saying
you do not want to repeat my life.
Notice the tremendous and almost simultaneous convergence at the end of the poem of both cognitive recognition and emotional energy. At once you understand that the gulf of separation between the mother and the daughter is paramount, and your emotional pump, if you will, has been well primed in the intense sensations of beauty and simplicity that are found in the scene described before the last leveling couplet. Before you even understand all there is to understand here, you get a jolt, one that gets locked into your brain and your emotions. A jolt you likely won’t forget for some time. That’s a great poem. Further, and importantly, one is not struck here with the details of form, line breaks, rhyme schemes (even though there are none). One doesn’t have time to consider if the poem resembled prose or had a classical “poetry skin.” And this is not say that rhyming or metered poetry cannot have just as much heat. Let’s be clear on this point! What makes this poem wonderful is what it has to say and how it was said. You feel it.
But don’t always go looking for a bolt of lightening or a knock over the head that dumps you off your chair. Heat can affect different people in different ways. It can be subtle. It can be funny. Take Billy Collins, one of America’s most acclaimed living poet’s (and poet laureate) who is known for his profound levity and an uncanny perception of the foibles of everyday life. One example of heat in Collins’ poetry from a lighter side, is seen his poem, “Consolation,” in which he goes to great pains to describe how relieved he is to NOT be taking a holiday in Italy, but left to meander around his own neighborhood. The poem begins,
How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.
The heat is building up here, but not nearly boiling yet. Collins is laying the groundwork for a powerful, if not lighthearted ending, that sticks in the brain and evokes a response. He uses four more brilliant stanzas to fully hammer home the personal benefits found domestically, as contrasted with the headaches of an overseas junket where he might be found, for example, “slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice.” Finally, the poem ends in a magnificent explosion of heat:
And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car
as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.
I don’t know about you, but I’m nodding my head, grinning and thinking of all the times I’ve felt exactly this way, thanking my lucky stars that my car is taking me home for a hot shower and not to the mall (or anywhere else on the planet).
Elizabeth Bishop’s monumental poem, “In the Waiting-room, takes place in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. What appears to be an orphaned child is leafing through a copy of National Geographic and finding all those graphic pictures of natives in the bush, etc. (who can’t identify with that?) as her “foolish aunt” is being worked on in the next room. The poem is a complex commentary on the discovery of self and early delineations of language and discovery. Remarkably, the act of waiting is nimbly converted into a rite-of-passage experience as well as a startling discovery of her identity. The poem packs this kind of heat like a six shooter:
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I – we - were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
I cannot end this short essay on what makes a poem a good poem, without giving you one of my own favorite poems that illustrates this idea of generating heat. It's Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” which, in my estimation, starts off hot and continues to build steam all the way through.
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man,
You, with your fresh thoughts
Care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name
Sorrow's springs are the same:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
That is potential energy mounting in each word, collecting heat with each new line- the heat of a grieving Margaret who mourns for the leaves falling off the trees in her beloved town of Goldengrove- heat building as she is warned that as she grows older, much more “sights colder” will befall… that she “will yet weep and know why.” All this amidst a beautifully strung series of white-hot words that draw you in to the final climax- reaching its atomic detonation in last fateful line, “It is Margaret you mourn for.” This is the kind of heat that I aim for in writing poetry, and only rarely achieve. I believe it is a hallmark of great poetry and a quality that we would all do well in trying to achieve, if only to catch a little of that kind of warmth in our words.