At Segullah, we are always on the lookout for good poetry to publish. So, what exactly is good poetry? I think most of us are better at enjoying it than defining it, but here are three of my favorite attempts, all from the poet, Carl Sandburg:
“Poetry is the opening and closing of a door.”
“Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance.”
“Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.”
(Don’t you love poets? You never can get a straight answer from them.)
Here are a couple of other definitions that, while not as poetic, might be more useful for our purposes:
“Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” –Edgar Allen Poe
This definition tells us a lot. First, poetry is rhythmical. Always. It doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does have to be rhythmical. Poetry is an act of creation. Its aim is beauty. And its medium is language (words).
Here’s one from Laurence Perrine:
“Poetry might be defined as a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language.”
Perrine goes on to say that poetry draws “more fully and more consistently than does ordinary language on a number of language resources [such as] connotation, imagery, metaphor, symbol, paradox, irony, allusion, sound repetition, rhythm, and pattern.”
Poetry, then, uses language poetically–artfully, metaphorically, subtly, beautifully. It communicates, not so much information, but experience. An informational article on winter might say something like: “Winter is one of the four seasons of temperate zones. It is the season with the coldest days and the lowest temperatures” (Wikipedia). A poem about winter, on the other hand, presents us with the experience of winter: When icicles hang by the wall/And Dick the shepherd blows his nail/And Tom bears logs into the hall/And milk comes frozen home in pail/When blood is nipped and ways be foul/Then nightly sings the staring owl/”Tu-whit, tu-who”/A merry note/While greasy Joan doth keel the pot” (William Shakespeare).
But back to the question of what we’re looking for at Segullah. It might be helpful if we start by telling you what we don’t want.
We Don’t Want Sing-Songy Verse
Good poetry has rhythm, but it’s a natural, instinctive rhythm, and it sometimes has rhyme, but, if employed, it’s an artful rhyme. Simplistic sing-songy verse tends to trivialize its subject and patronize its reader.
Here’s an example of sing-songy verse:
Today the birds are singing and
The grass and leaves are green,
And all the gentle earth presents
A bright and sunny scene
(“Pray in May,” James J. Metcalfe)
While this might work well as the text for a children’s song, at Segullah we’re looking for more sophisticated treatments of ideas, images, and/or experiences.
We Don’t Want Sentimental Poetry
Perrine defines sentimentality as “indulgence in emotion for its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants.”
Sentimental poetry aims primarily at evoking an emotional response (often through manipulation or exploitation) rather than at communicating experience honestly and freshly.
Here is an overtly sentimental poem. I wrote this myself one day when I was preparing a lecture on sentimentality for my writing class at BYU and couldn’t find a good enough (or, rather, bad enough) example in any of my books right off hand. I was, of course, purposely trying to be as sentimental and emotionally manipulative as possible.
My life was black and full of tears
Joyless, damp, devoid of light
Then you were born—a star so bright
My laughing, rosy-cheeked Angel.
You grew and filled my heart with joy
You romped and sang and showed me love
You were my gift from heaven above
My laughing, rosy-cheeked Angel.
Then one spring day, I rose at dawn
And skipped to your crib just to gaze at you
But you were still—your cheeks were white . . .
I shook you and cried
Then my cries turned to screams
But I couldn’t awake you,
And now I’m alone.
But each night I pray
For my laughing, rosy-cheeked Angel.
Emotion in poetry is not necessarily bad, but it must be honest, controlled emotion. A good poem is never maudlin or excessively sentimental.
We Don’t Want Rhetorical Poetry
Rhetorical poetry, according to Perrine, “uses a language more glittering and high flown than its substance warrants . . . It is oratorical, over-elegant, artificially eloquent.”
Again, I will personally provide the bad example, drawing from my own cache of poems. The problem is, this one was written in earnest. Of course, I was only sixteen—and just beginning to test my poetic wings. Still . . . *blush*
Oh! Wicked World, entreat me not
For I have seen the better part
And cannot but there at peace reside
Oh! Wicked World, I scorn thy ways
Thy lusts and passions wither cold . . .
(And there it ends. I mean, how could I top “wither cold”?)
We Don’t Want Didactic Poetry
Didactic poetry preaches and moralizes. While good poetry often uplifts and teaches on some level, when “the didactic purpose supersedes the poetic purpose” (Perrine, again), then it ceases to be poetry and becomes a sermon in verse.
Here’s an example:
We are not here to play, –to dream, to drift.
We have hard work to do and loads to lift.
(“Be Strong,” Maltbie D. Babcock)
We want to be inspired when we read poetry, but we don’t want to be preached at.
We Don’t Want Poetry That’s So Obscure That Not Even the Poet Knows What It Means
Here’s an example of an overly obscure poem:
fritinancy of fetid growth
floating, fawning, frustling–
sepulchral phantom of gossamer
piteous blepharon rise
rise! while yet
the muses gloat
I made this one up right here, on the spot (with a little help from my trusty thesaurus), just for you. What does it mean? I haven’t got a clue.
Good poetry should be intelligent, it should require something of the reader, but it should not be so obscure as to be unintelligible. I love what Reginald Shepherd has to say about this: “There is a difference between difficult poetry and obscure poetry. All obscure poetry is difficult, but (contrary to popular opinion) not all difficult poetry is obscure. Obscurity is a lack of clarity; it is a flaw. Difficulty is not a virtue in and of itself, but obscurity is always a defect.” (http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/01/some-thoughts-on-difficulty-in-poetry.html)
Hopefully you now have a pretty clear idea of what we don’t want at Segullah. So, what do we want? We want good poetry, pure and simple–poetry that is thoughtful, intelligent, carefully-crafted, honest, fresh, and artful. Here’s a good example (for a change! whew!). This lovely poem by Darlene Young was published in the Spring 2006 issue of Segullah.
Okay, so now that you know what we’re looking for, get writing, ladies! Call down those Muses! Unleash that inner poet! Open the door! Dance with that shadow! Begin your search for those syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.
* * * *
*You may submit poems to Segullah by following the guidelines outlined here:
*Be sure to watch for our upcoming Patchwork issue of Segullah (Summer 2007) which will feature the winners of our 2006 Poetry contest.