Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Reader's Question: What makes for good poetry?

Question: "In your recent post on poetry you wrote the line: "Whether something that has regular rhythm, rhymes or alliteration is any good is another matter - most of it isn't. " What, then, in your estimation, makes for good poetry?"

Answer: Regular rhythm, rhymes or alliteration (I think that covers it!) is what defines something as poetry - but whether or not it is good poetry is a different matter.

What makes poetry good is not something than can be defined objectively - just as goodness itself cannot. The way poetry is taught or appreciated is very much dependent upon the readers response - so teaching is a matter of selecting and assembling some good examples, and then asking the aspirant to concentrate on them.

So, anthologies - whether of poems, or poets - are the basis of learning 'what is good poetry?'.

But who says what is good? There is no short answer, nor is there an arbiter. But as a generalization the best poems are those that a lot of people enjoy a lot - over a long period of time.

There is no reason why everyone should agree on everything - but the tradition will only survive if there is some significant overlap. So every English poetry appreciator does not have to think that every one of the list of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth are the four major poets in the language - but if someone did not rate any of these as top-notch, then he has probably stepped outside the tradition.

(I personally do not respond strongly to Milton, except for one sonnet.)

The same thing could be achieved if poets were anonymous,. My favourite anthology is Palgrave's Golden Treasury - you could imagine that it (or something similar, some other collection whether written or learned) might serve as a basis for a poetic tradition, even all the poem's individual authors were unknown or lost - as was probably often the case in Bardic traditions.

Of course, an individual who does not respond to the canonical tradition may still enjoy poetry intensely at a personal level - but that level is individual and there is not much possibility of communication.