The Hard Edges of a Poem

Several persons have asked me to describe in general terms what I think constitutes good poetry.  I always reply that it would be idle to discuss poetry in the abstract, since one can always find a good poem that escapes any preconceived strictures.  There’s a huge amount of poetry available, and not all of it is reducible to some common blueprint.

What I can do is describe the principles that guide me in the writing of my own poems.  Whether these principles are useful to other writers is for them to decide.  But I do think that my individual poetic practice can be a salutary corrective to a lot of what is wrong with the contemporary poetic mindset.  A great deal of what ails poetry today can be encapsulated in three words: flabbiness, softness, imprecision.

If the current poetic scene could be metaphorically imagined as a body-building advertisement, most poets would be the “Before” photograph: the fat, wheezing, skin-sagging schmuck who looks like a ripe pear, and who can’t touch his toes.  The verse of such poets is out of shape.  It lacks the hard edges that one sees in a well-toned physique.

Poems need hard edges.  They ought to be as recognizably sleek and sharp as a bayonet.  They can’t be vague or gaseous or tentative.  Poems—if they are worth doing at all—must be clear and unmistakable.  Let me outline what those hard edges are for me.

The first hard edge is meter.  A good poem’s meter is crisp, unambiguous, and not larded with half-assed substitutions.  Of course some substitutions are necessary at times.  But if your verse has so many of them that the reader has trouble recognizing your meter, then perhaps you are in the wrong field of creative endeavor.

The second hard edge is grammar and syntax.  Your poem must be coherent and intelligible.  If you begin with a noun subject, it ought to govern a finite verb.  The use of participles should be rigorous, so that every participle connects with a specific referent.  The syntax has to be such that, if someone wanted to diagram your sentences, it could be done.  If all this is too restrictive for you, you’re not really writing poetry.  You’re just spouting oracular phrases.  Find another line of work.

The third hard edge is vocabulary.  Use whatever words you please, but use all words in their prescribed dictionary sense.  The habit of using made-up words, or using standard words in some solipsistic private sense of your own, is a sign of incompetence.  You’re not Adam in the Garden of Eden, giving names to the animals.  You are the inheritor of a vast literary and historical tradition known as the English language.  If you’re uncomfortable with that, go study Esperanto and stop bothering the rest of us.

The fourth hard edge is fearlessness.  You must not have the slightest qualm or hesitation about saying whatever you want to say.  The worst kind of censorship is self-censorship, the sort of squeamish timorousness that makes you fatally irresolute when writing a poem.  Don’t be afraid of anyone or anything—just write the best damned poem you can.  Remember that you can’t be prosecuted for composing a poem, at least not in this country.

The fifth hard edge is wit.  You have to have a strong sense of verbal playfulness, mischief, and the sheer devilish fun of using language as a weapon.  The deadliest thing in a poet is staid middle-class earnestness and propriety.  If you don’t take pleasure in puncturing the balloons of other people’s pomposity and illusion, you’re just not cut out for this job.

The sixth hard edge is insouciance.  You must be blithely indifferent to the reactions of readers to your poems.  Under no circumstances should you tailor a poem to suit the tastes and preferences of a potential group of readers.  Your poem is answerable only to yourself, God, and your internalized aesthetic criteria.

These hard edges, in my opinion, are what make for a good poem.  I’ll grant that such guidelines are not for everyone.  I can imagine a number of ethereal female poets for whom a list like this is

cold, harsh, and drill-instructorish in the extreme.  Their poetry will be of a totally different sort.  Not worse or better—just different.

Nevertheless, that is what I think constitutes good poetry, in general terms.  I hope I have satisfied the inquirers.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.