It’s double-question Friday for CoAnQuMo!
Question #7: What is your favorite poem right now?
Oh, such a tough question! I have so many go-to poems on my bookshelf that give me inspiration, illumination, solace, and that solid satiated feeling. If I must choose the poem that is speaking me to the most right now, I suppose it would have to be Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous.”
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
In my life right now I am lingering in that last paragraph, and especially that last line: “but because it never forgot what it could do.” This message is very fitting for me right now as I sift through all that I am and all that I can do or choose to do in this world. I don’t want to forget my purpose(s) and I want to feel empowered in my ability to “just be,” too.
Question #8: What makes a poem “good”?
Goodness, this is a hard question for me to answer without writing a long essay! There are so many different styles and voices in poetry that preference and taste does enter into this equation of “good.” What is a “good” to one, might fall flat (or be repelling) to another.
Here are some interesting voices on the subject:
“What makes a good poem? Brevity, terseness, spareness, viewing something new for the very first time, creating an image like no one has ever been blown away by before in their entire life.” ~Lee Bennett Hopkins. Pass the Poetry, Please
“Love and care for elemental details, for chosen words and their simple arrangement on the page… and a way of ending that leaves a new resonance or a lit spark in the reader or listener’s mind—that’s part of it.” ~Naomi Shihab Nye, Come with Me: Poems for a Journey.
“My answer to your question comes in part from a poem of mine called “What Is A Poem?”
Throwing a colored shadow.
A word that doubles back on itself, not once but twice.
The exact crunch of carrots.
A prayer that sounds like a curse until it is said again.
Crows punctuating a field of snow.
~Jane Yolen, Take Joy: A Book for Writers
“Prose = words in their best order; Poetry = the best words in their best order”—Coleridge said it, and I believe it. Poetry IS about words—their precision, texture, beauty (and ugliness). Prose is about words, too, but not in the same way. Prose is about the bigger picture. The canvas is bigger and so are the brushstrokes. A good poem, whether narrated by a character or by the poet her/himself, uses words wonderfully, and it uses them to capture specific moments in a fresh way, a way that makes the reader exclaim with delight, “Yes, that’s it! That’s right!” ~ Marilyn Singer, Footprints on the Roof: Poems About the Earth
I guess I could answer the “good poem” question this way: when I was in Berkeley this October for the Western Literature Association Conference, I read my poems during a creative writing panel. After reading, I was asked why I choose poetry as my form of choice — why not fiction, for example?
My answer was this: I am drawn to brevity, to saying the most pungent, powerful thing in the fewest words possible. I like to make every single word count. I like to play with words, juxtapositions, climb into metaphors, leap across stanzas, and tumble out of line breaks.
And what makes it “good” has to do with experience and craft for sure, but also heart and soul. I tend to write autobiographical narrative poetry. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Some love lyrical landscapes, obscure/experimental poetry, or poems in traditional forms like sonnets and villanelles. There’s a type of poetry out there for everyone, I believe.
Here are some good questions to ask yourself after you have read a poem to assess how YOU like the poem:
How do I feel in my body?
What intellectually challenged or stimulated me?
Where in the poem did I feel my heart resonating, whether in sadness, delight, poignancy, or pain? When did I resonate?
What just sounded interesting to me, even if I didn’t quite understand it?
What drew me in? What repelled me? (And why?)
When felt new and fresh to me, like a new way of seeing?
What part of the poem caused me to take a deep breath (if it did at all)?
What distracted me and why?
Do I have a desire to read this poem again (or over and over)?
with dress shoes and pulleys,