Poems that move

Valerie Bloom - 22 May 2006

It is hard to give a definition of poetry, as evidenced by the debate during John Mole's residency on the Archive, but it might be easier to pinpoint good poetry if we had an idea of what we expect from a good poem.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde was the first poem which reduced me to tears, but close behind was Thomas Hood's Sally Simpkins Lament. In the latter case they were tears of laughter and I am unable to read it with a straight face. Neither is on the Archive unfortunately, but they can be found on the web. I tend to rate a poem by the degree to which it moves me. What about you? Do you want to be shown a side of the subject you've never seen before? Do you expect a strong rhythm or do you want to be moved to tears or laughter? Have you ever read/heard a poem which changed your thinking? What exactly do you want from a poem?


For me, a poem should hit you where it hurts. I wrote here once before about A MINUTES SILENCE by Paul Farley, and the reason is it gets me right in the gut. Another one is Simon Armitage THE SHOUT, whcih is on this website, so you can hear it in his authentic yorkshire accent just as he intended it!

I think I would distrust anyone who claimed to have a single, comprehensive definition of poetry. A definition, after all is by its nature exclusive and must offer to say what poetry is not. You pose a much more interesting question when you ask what we expect from a good poem.

First, I suggest that a good poem should say something which cannot be said better in prose. This quality of getting the idea across to the reader is essential in a good poem. It may be a poignant human story (Up the Noran Water by Violet Jacobs), a stirring evocation of a scene (The Charge of The Light Brigade), a chilling insight into appallinjg cruelty ( My Last Ducchess) or a witty gem which makes the reader laugh out loud (just about anything by Wendy Cope)but in each case the craft of the poet - the use of form, rhyme and metre is very much secondary to the essenc of what is being said. This is true even if part of what the poet is saying is only the sound of the words themselves is beautiful(Cargoes by John Masefield).Perhaps a useful though crude test of 'A Good Poem'is that, having read it, we want to read it again. This applies whether the poem appeals to our emotions, our intellects or merely our ears.

I like the suggestion that a poem should say something can't be said better in prose. It's a fault in the way we study poetry in school, always asking What does it mean? Surely if we could answer that we wouldn't need the poem anymore!! I dont think poetry should be studied this way, we should just have it to read and appreciate but not to analyze it.

Thank you all. Some good food for thought there. John, like Kit, I like thoughts on what a good poem should do. Kit, I agree that too often poetry is used as a comprehension exercise and the chance to experience the poem is lost. I remember being surprised by a set of students' notes accompanying one of my poems. They set out categorically what I meant by certain lines. Until then I had no idea that was what I'd intended. Poems will always speak different things to different people.

Today I clikced on a poem on the students page called The Meaning Of Existence, it's by a poet called Les Murray who I've never heard of before. I didn't understand it but there was something I liked about it. Because there was something I liked I was drawn back to it and to read it again. The second time I read the poem, I understood it a bit better. As I said in my earlier contribution to this discussion, I think you can appreciate a poem better if you are not required to analyze it, and I don't think you have to know what the poet meant to enjoy the poem.

I'm glad you've discovered Les Murry, Kit. He's a poet I've long admired. It's interesting to contrast The Meaning of Existence with another poem of his on the Archive - The Last Hellos. I am intrigued by the way different poets treat the subject of death, especially of a relative. Compare for example, The Last Hellos , with Elaine Feinstein's Dad, (also on the Archive) Linton Kwesi Johnson's Reggae Fi Dada and Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

Thanks for the signpost to Les Murray, a poet of whom I had never even heard. The poem about the death -- or rather the dying -- of his father does echo the Feinstein one to a degree although hers is muich more retrospective. She looks at her memories of her father while Murray looks at the man himself. I particularly liked the reference to the father playing host to his 'mouirners' even before his death, and then the extended image of his old pre-deceased friends attending his funeral. How much of the distinction between the two poets is the atheism/nihilism of one and the conversion of the other?

I will search out both poets in future. Thanks again for the introductions.

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Glossary term


A lyric poem, usually addressing a particular person or thing.

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