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.



Anonymous said...

I only seem to enjoy old poets like Kipling, and I have a personal obsession with Robert E Howard, which seems pretty much unshared by everyone.

Modern poetry, which removes all the technical difficulties, I see as the equivalent of modern art, that it takes a mental effort to teach ourselves that it is good, at which point anything is good and nothing really is special, which leads to the average man no longer caring about it altogether. So they switch to caring about rap (e.g. Eminem's "Stan") where technical skill remains.

Would be nice someday to see a movement which focuses on bringing back and encouraging people to share formal poetry - an equivalent of the Art Renewal Academy. My attempt to create the sort of content I like is here (

Bruce B. said...

Kipling is also my favorite and about the only poetry I read. I would imagine he isn’t considered a great or even serious poet. I enjoyed Howard’s stories but didn’t know he wrote poetry.

Bruce Charlton said...

My selection of Kipling is introduced by TS Eliot; and George Orwell was also a supporter - so while Kipling is not core canonical, he has prestigious advocates.

Here is Orwell reviewing the collection I have

Orwell calls Kipling a good bad poet! - but it is clear that he likes and values the work.

Anonymous said...

@Bruce Charlton

On the same site is Orwell's keen dissection of Salvador Dali and his, our, times:

"But why his aberrations should be the particular ones they were, and why it should be so easy to ‘sell’ such horrors as rotting corpses to a sophisticated public — those are questions for the psychologist and the sociological critic."

JP Straley said...

Bruce Charlton:

I've jsut discovered your blog, and it's pretty good reading. Thanks for all you efforts.

I'm responding to this particular post because I am (among many other things) a poet in the old school.

Check out "" I think you'll like it.

JP Straley

Hrothgar said...

Kipling was a very able verse storyteller, particularly in a pseudo-popular (certainly populIST) ballad-style idiom, and perhaps more significantly in the long run, one of the best didactic poets writing in English. In other types of poetry he was not generally anything special, so I think his reputation will always depend largely on how much didactic and popular narrative verse are valued; currently the critics and the literary establishment to which they belong tend to affect disdain for these genres, but they have historically been quite important, and may become so again if poetry itself rises from the ashes in the English-speaking world and becomes popular once more.

If it does, what the critics and establishment think will become largely irrelevant unless it concurs with the opinion of the better sort of general reader, as was always the case when poetry still mattered and had significant cultural impact. I think a taste for Kipling - a very able, but limited poet - more than anything indicates the type of poetry one is drawn to than the actual quality of his verse. I don't often like it myself, but have the greatest respect for his ability, which was of a high order when he was writing to his strengths - that he can now be called a "bad" or "minor" poet signifies more than anything that the type of poetry in which he excelled is out of fashion among those doing the calling. His vulgarity certainly deserves criticism, but it's funny how vulgarity becomes a brave and noble statement which pushes the boundaries of art when, and only when, it is displayed by an artist who the modernist and post-modernist brigade have approved.

"Good bad poet", (with due respect for Orwell's usually considerable insight which is otherwise amply on display in the review) really does not make one iota of sense except in a world where all poetic types are equal, but some more equal than others. What he probably means is that he does not think the poetry in which he excelled was the most prestigious type of poetry - therefore he was good, BUT at writing a bad (because inferior) type of poetry.

Speaking for myself, I value all the poets named, but none unconditionally - since none was equally good at everything they attempted due to being mere human beings, though undoubted geniuses. Chaucer for instance I tend to like most as a humourist, and secondarily as a vivid storyteller, but he seldom has much real depth (all these qualities are typically obscured to modern readers who spend too much of their time struggling with the language to really focus on what he is actually saying). Milton, on the other hand, who I value very highly overall, is only seriously good when being wholly serious - his attempts at lighter verse, such as the utterly trite "Hobson" poems, would be an embarassment to a great poet, if it were really the case that in order to be considered "Great" they had to write to a universally high standard. I don't much care for the supposedly charming "Comus" either; it seems altogether too strained and artificial for my taste.

I can't help wondering, Bruce, if you care to answer, which Milton sonnet you actually liked? My money would be on the one addressed to his late wife: "Methought I saw my late espoused saint", which I have always felt to be the most lyrical and straightforwardly personal of his shorter poems, not to mention one of the most poignant. The only other that really resembles it much in tone is his Latin elegy Epitaphium Damonis, also about a bereavement of great personal significance - which of course hardly anyone can read any more.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hrothgar -- Thanks for the comment.

The Milton poem I think wonderful is the one about his blindness.

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present 5
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best 10
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

Hrothgar said...

I agree that the poem is excellent. For some reason I didn't think of this one, despite it being perhaps my own favourite (at least of the sonnets). I hope this is not, or not only, because it seems like a convenient excuse for the story of my life so far...

The beginning of the third book of Paradise Lost, on the same theme of his blindness but with a different focus (how rather than inhibiting his talent, it enables him to fulfil it to a greater extent than he otherwise might have hoped for) makes particularly interesting reading if considered alongside this poem. It certainly supports his earlier argument for patience in facing his suffering, enchanced by the fact that these 50 or so lines are themselves among the finest in the whole long work. If he had achieved the same standard throughout, it might have been something like not just a great, but a transcendently great poem - but as it is, a fairly large proportion does not really go far beyond workmanlike versifying.