The Great Poet

What makes a poet great?

It’s 10:30am on a Tuesday and class is about to begin. Two poets are just taking their seats while three others near the door chat about the weather. On each desk is a copy of the same three poems, scribbled on in varying hues of ink and shapes of handwriting. Workshop is open to the poets.

So we’ve all produced some amazing poetry, despite the fact that we spend what sometimes feels like forever critiquing every detail of each poem. There are some basic guidelines to poetry that we have learned to stick to in order that we might keep from writing anything less than stellar–avoid cliches, keep the adverb count down, etc.–but what’s the secret formula? It seems easy enough to point to a poem and label it, “needs work” (cough–bad–cough), but how do we distinguish the good from the great? A friend of mine recently read aloud a poem to me, and he writes poetry himself, so I had assumed this poem was his own work. When he finished, I was all ready to critique the poem and suggest some specific edits. Turns out, the poem was written by some famous Such and Such, and who was I to judge this famous Such and Such poet when I am merely a lowly college student? Certainly we could send our work to every publication out there and get a few uplifting replies, but who’s to say today’s poems we’re workshopping can’t be the next “The Road Not Taken”?

3 Replies to “The Great Poet”

  1. Hey Pam,
    I actually think about this all the time. Sometimes when I’m reading published poetry I go into workshop mode–well, there should be a line break here, the white space is ineffective, the title doesn’t work at all–and then I realize this is published, this is DONE. I tell myself I’m not allowed to do that because someone has already decided it works the way it is.
    Maybe this is just a matter of what works for what person. No one responds the same to how poetry is written. Why can’t we question published authors? We should be able to say, “hey, I don’t like this” or “I think this poet could have done this better.”
    Just because you’re a college student doesn’t mean your opinion on a poem doesn’t matter. And just because Such and Such is famous doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made to his/her work.
    This was a really hard post to reply to, I hope my response helps!

  2. Pam (and Arianna),

    I THINK ABOUT THIS ALL THE TIME, TOO. There’s such a hierarchy when it comes to “who is published” and “who is renowned,” etc. etc., and this hierarchy really silences a lot of people, myself included. I don’t know that there is a “way,” or some sort of universal formula to distinguish a great poem from a good poem, and I certainly don’t think that this hierarchy of who is allowed to determine this should be given too much agency when reading poetry as undergrads who are pretty much at the bottom of the food chain. (We’ve seen/ continue to see how hierarchies in literature are inherently violent and dangerous in that they often work to silence minorities and only give voice to those “in power.” I’m not trying to compare undergrads to silenced minorities, though, just pointing out that hierarchies suck.) This isn’t to say that I know just as well as a seasoned poet who has decades more experience, not to mention has pretty much mastered craft, taken daring risks and learned from failures, etc. Because of course in that sense, an experienced, published, renowned poet, absolutely knows more than me, and (maybe) should be given more of a voice. However, a poem that is considered great by many of these “famous Such and Such”s, might be a poem I hate. It might even be a poem that I look at and can’t figure out why anyone would say it is good (though I think this situation would be more rare). Poetry is pretty subjective. I’ve read some poems in our workshop that I much prefer to “The Road not Taken.”

    Okay, pause. As I’m getting further into this comment, I’m thinking of one million more things to say and how complex of an issue this really is and how I still haven’t even worked it out in my own head, so I’ll try to simplify and be brief. Unpause.

    The point is, as Arianna stated, our opinions absolutely do matter. If my non-poetry friends read a poem of mine and have any sort of reaction, that is really helpful in revision. It comes down to, at least for me I think, being able to back up why they had that reaction. Why do you think this poem is great? Why not? Why do you think it needs work? Why isn’t X working? I think that renowned poets and experienced readers and writers of poetry are often better able to answer these questions, and that is what gives them more credibility. I know I’m constantly struggling with “why.” Did this answer any of the questions in your post, or just give you more food for thought? Either way, sorry about my rambling, and thanks for the great post!

  3. This is a great discussion, you three; I hope more people join in.

    There’s (at least) two separate issues here: the question of “why” something gets to be “great” is, in (large) part, contextual – the way “The Road Not Taken” has been used by exam boards and films and so on gives it a sheen that another poem might also deserve (even another poem of Frost’s – it’s not his best poem) but, through chance, not have gotten.

    But then there’s the issue of why we critique at all, and that’s where I want to push back at Pam’s equation, however playful, of “needs work” to “(bad)”. We’re critiquing in order to discover what poetry might be. Composition theorist Peter Elbow identifies three types of grading – ranking, evaluating, liking – and that speaks to our multiple desires here: we want to rank each other’s poems alongside the greats, we want to evaluate them on their and others’ terms, and we really want to, and often do, like them, purely. But we’re NOT grading: we’re trying to understood both the poem and how the poem works. That’s where discovery seems important here – both the poem and the poet are in process, and our discoveries help them, often in ways that are surprising and tangential to what we say. There’s no such process for “The Road Not Taken”; there’s plenty of ways to workshop and revise that poem, but neither poet nor poem wants it – so why spend our time doing it?

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