Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Is my poem good?"

In workshops and classrooms, at conferences and the coffeehouse, writers ask me, "Is my poem good?"

Hate to say it, but the reader is the only one who can answer you, and each one is different. Even as a reader, I might say, "This poem stirs my heart, tickles my brain, makes me laugh, punches me in the gut." But does that make it good? Possibly.

"But good enough?" the poet presses me. Relax for a minute. Throw your beret on the coffee table. Let's talk. What most of us want to know is:
  • Does my work inspire someone besides me? 
  • Do I have talent?
  • Is my work publishable?
  • Will a press ever publish my book?
  • Can I get accepted into an MFA program with these poems?
 Again, tough to answer. One way to find out is to submit your work and see what happens. Apply to the program and see what happens. Put together a collection and submit to small presses and contests. Your work will either float, so to speak, or it won't. Even if it doesn't, your poems might be good. Rejected, but good.

So I can't tell you if your poem is good. BUT, I can offer you a Poem Score Card. This is a self-appraisal, which means that you can lie to yourself, but be honest. See how your poem scores.
  • Images (0-5 points)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem includes concrete words that refer to objects, phrases that engage the reader's senses, figures of speech, active verbs, and specific nouns.
  • Voice (0-5 points)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem uses unusual word combinations, fresh turns of phrase, flavorful wording; it posits a specific world view, conveys a personality, and creates a character that the reader wants to hear from.
  • Sound (0-5)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem repeats consonants, repeats vowels, varies short and long phrases musically, avoids clumsy rhymes, pulses with an underlying beat or beat pattern, uses harsh letters (such as T and K) to convey harshness, uses soft letters (such as S and M) to convey softness, uses repetition of words or phrases.
  • Form (0-5)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem's lines break at interesting places. The white space is used deliberately. Stanzas cohere or follow a plan, and their lengths harmonize. Line lengths follow a pattern or vary intentionally.
  • Substance (0-5)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem offers a new insight, shares a unique perspective, explores a human truth in a fresh way, teaches about a little-known part of the world or human activity, or conveys a hard-earned lesson.
Still want to know if your poem is good? See if you can take The Poem Vow.

Repeat after me:
I, (your name), do solemnly affirm that I have used my imagination, my wisdom, my ingenuity, and my best writing skills to make this poem bloom fully. I further affirm that I have considered every line, every word, every figure of speech, and that I have given it everything it needs to go out into the world. I now release it to live the best life it can.
If you can take the Poem Vow, then don't pull out your hair trying to decide if the poem is good. Work hard on it, then send it out. Wave your handkerchief to it at the Post Office, if you must, but set it free.