The Elements of Poetry

Some general ideas we need to consider when we read and write poems:

Form. Line and shape and punctuation are the parameters of a poem. Has this poem found its parameters? Is the poem in a traditional verse form? Free verse? Why?

Sound. What sounds does the poem make and how does it make them? Does it pay proper attention to the rhythms of language? Are there poetic devices such as alliteration/consonance, anaphora/repetition, rhyme, etc.? What affect do they have on the poem’s meaning?

Image. What does the poem help us see? What about the other physical senses? Are those things concrete or abstract? Satisfying or not? Are the metaphors fresh, unique, pertinent?

Language. Does this poem have good words in it? Does the juxtaposition of words create energy and meaning? (That is to say, there’s a difference between “orange juice” and “blood orange,” even though they both contain citric acid and originally come from trees.)

Voice. Does this poem come from an idiosyncratic (original, unique) perspective? All good writing does. Is that idiosyncrasy successfully communicated to the broadest audience possible?

Intention. The essential question all readers must ask of what they read—why did I read this? What is it trying to communicate to me? Here are some extended thoughts on that, starting with something the poet Dean Young wrote in his book, The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction:

People use language for two reasons: to be understood and not to be understood.

So, okay. For the sake of argument, let’s grant Young’s point and say there are two kinds of poems: Poems that “Make Sense” Reasonable Poems — poems that are meant to be understood rationally — and Poems that “Don’t Make Sense” Unreasonable Poems — poems that aren’t really meant to be understood, at least not in a conventional way. Let’s say, too, that there are good poets who write Reasonable Poems just as there are good poets who write Unreasonable Poems — and some poets write in both styles, sometimes in the same poem (more or less, what critic Stephen Burt has called The New Thing). So let’s also say that it’s important to keep in mind that these classifications are just generalizations. We need to agree, too, that both kinds are difficult to do well, just as both kinds are easy to screw up. Lastly but very importantly, both kinds have long, venerated, and multicultural histories. One’s not better than the other. Just different.

A “REASONABLE” POEM — Domestic Work, 1937” by Natasha Trethewey. What you’ll probably notice about this poem is that it proceeds pretty logically. There’s a narrative and characters (though not all “Reasonable Poems” tell a story). You feel grounded in a situation. The language is controlled and clear (and beautiful). The rhythms are fairly regular. And at the end, you could probably come up with a fairly clear synopsis of what the poem is about. There are likely going to be different interpretations, but most readers are going to be in the same general vicinity when it comes to talking about the poem’s content and themes. A lot of “Reasonable Poems” are as interested in a reader’s thoughts as a reader’s emotions; sometimes more interested in thoughts/ideas, actually. This sort of poem has a kinship to photography. Also personal essays.

AN “UNREASONABLE” POEM — The Circle and the Circle’s Argument” by Tomaž Šalamun. This poem proceeds very differently from Trethewey’s. It leaps from image to image, sound to sound, and you’re never quite sure what to expect in the next line. The language is every bit as beautiful as that in the Trethewey poem, but it’s a different kind of beauty. It’s a more abstracted kind of beauty. Its rhythms are more irregular. There are patterns to the sounds, but the poem doesn’t seem quite as interested in maintaining control. Could you say what the poem is “about” in a sentence? Uh. Well. Maybe not. This sort of poem is very much more interested in emotion, in intuition, in sound — in using words to get at things words can’t quite fully express. It has a kinship to improvisational music or abstract expressionism in visual art.

It’s very likely that you’re going to feel drawn to one or the other kind of poem. You might not be all the way in one camp, but you probably lean this way or that. That’s okay. It’s useful, though, for poets to at least understand the impulse behind both kinds of poem.

And let’s also reiterate: truly great poems very often combine features of both.¹


¹ More from Young regarding the yin-yang relationship between “making sense”/”being reasonable” and not: “These are the two forces that form must come to terms with. The imaginative tendency to include everything, through disjunction and wildness, allows all to enter a poem, versus the concentrating gravities of formal control, of will and limits. We must work to lose control when control has become too limiting, just as we must assert more vigorously the presence of choice to counter a too great loss of control. The making of poems is in constant tack between these two poles and there will always be poems that fail in this zigzag sail.”