Jen’s Complete Guide to Reading, Writing, and Evaluating Poetry*
*that no one under any circumstances should ever take seriously, ever
I read a lot of poetry. In any given day, I’d suppose on average I read around 500 poems, or at least the first couple of lines — most of it on Tumblr. Given the complex equations devised by geniuses to calculate this sort of thing, I’d wager my doing this pretty much every day without fail for well over a year means I am an expert, with apologies to those of you who think fancy degrees grant you such expertise. It is probably the case that you are right and I am wrong, but in the event that you’re not, I feel it important to press on sharing my surely ill-gained knowledge and expertise with the world.
You could spend hours of your life reading poetry — hours you could spend watching the same cat GIF over and over, watching infomercials on television with the sound off, watching paint dry, or doing other important things with your eyes — and still not gain the insight this post will reveal … and yet I am giving it to you all, right here, for freesies. (I just made that word up.)
Why? Because I can. Because I care about you, and I want the very best for you in life, and I believe that “very best” can best be gained by reading posts I write on Tumblr. Oh … you were asking why I made a word up. Same answer.
Let’s move on.
The poem. The first thing you notice about a poem is its title — if it has one. Poems don’t need titles, and some of them don’t have one ‘cause they’re rebels like that. Don’t discount a poem simply because it doesn’t have a title. Just side-eye it, like this:
Untitled poems like that. Poets who write untitled poems do it to alienate their readers, who might want to tell them “Hey Poet! I really liked [that poem],” but they won’t know what to call it (as indicated by the brackets), or how to evoke it in such a way that the poet will know to which poem they refer, so they’re floundering from the outset, all “Hey Poet! I really liked that poem you wrote that was about coffee but not really about coffee but you mentioned coffee and also orchids?” Making socially awkward people even more awkward is something most poets enjoy very much.
If the poem does have a title, it can give you some insight into how “good” the poem is. (“Good” is a term of art; no worries, we’ll cover that later.) The best titles will tell you something about what the poem is about, while at the same time telling you absolutely nothing at all. Sometimes, after reading the poem, you’ll feel as though the poem and the title are not related in any way whatsoever. This is a very good title, because it makes you think about that poem far longer than you would have otherwise.
And now we’re on to the poem itself. Poems should do one of three things: (1) show you something you’re interested to see; (2) tell you something you’re interested to hear; or (3) make you feel something. Some poems can do some combination of those things or even all of the above (those tend to be longer), but a “good” poem will do at least one of those things. (See, I told you we’d get to it.) Ideally, every line of the poem will do one of those things by itself, but you can’t really expect that from every poem. You know how no matter how great a movie is, there’s always a scene or two where you can safely take a bathroom break and not really miss anything? Poems are the same way, except you could take the poem with you to the bathroom and read it there if you wanted, so that’s not really a great analogy. But for lack of a better one, it’s alright if there are a few throwaway lines. Every great poem has a few throwaway lines — if they didn’t, you’d have no way of differentiating the really great lines, the ones a thousand hipsters have ragged tattoos of.
If at any point whilst reading a poem, you realize you don’t feel anything new at all (provided you’re not on drugs that would cause that to’ve happened), and/or you are no longer interested in anything the poet is trying to tell and/or show you, you should probably just stop reading right there and move on. As it has not met any of the three requirements of a “good” poem, it is not worth reading. For you. It might be amazing for someone else, but it doesn’t work for you. On your way, then, and don’t fault the poor poet for not reaching you — even the best poems will only appeal to a slight sliver of people, and that’s alright. If a poet attempted to write a poem that appealed to everyone, it actually wouldn’t appeal to anyone at all, because it wouldn’t make any sense.
Follow these succinct guidelines and you’ll be reading, writing, and evaluating poetry like a pro … sometime. Possibly.
Text © 2013 by Jennifer R.R. Mueller.