A Theory of Poetics

I am fully aware that by posting this, it will make me look even more defensive than I already looked. That’s fine. Please try to take this at face value.

My posts and conversation generated by those posts has caused me to think about what makes for good poetry. The American Idol experience seems to be most comparable. When those terrible singers go on there, and the judges say that they never should be singing, the ones for whom pop stardom is their most closely held dream are devastated. They say something completely ridiculous like, “they don’t know what they’re talking about; I know I’m good,” when they clearly are not.

Is poetry related to American Idol in some way? I started here by saying that some or many of the musicians/artists I like would likely have little chance of being approved by Paula, Randy, and Simon (Dylan, one of my favorites, being a prime example). Those judges are looking for someone who has both the looks and the vocal cords to be a pop star. Yeah, they give lip service to the “rock” guys, but you know they’re never going to be–and maybe they shouldn’t be–the American Idol.

There are objective criteria that most people, unless they are truly tone-deaf, can use to evaluate whether a person is a good singer. They may not be able to tell whether they themselves are good, but they know whether someone else is good. In my mind, however, the criteria for evaluating poetry are much closer to the criteria for evaluating whether something is beautiful or not. We’re all aware that in different cultures and at different points in history, what makes for, say, a beautiful woman has been quite different.

Although poetry is, in some sense, an extremely personal thing, that does not mean that there are not objective criteria for evaluating poetry. My criteria are these: I don’t like poetry filled with cliches, or that come off as contrived or artificial. I don’t like bad rhymes imposed on lines simply because there has to be a rhyme there. I don’t like overly emotional, googly-eyed love poetry. I don’t like sickly sweet, saccharine poetry. Are those “official” criteria? How the heck should I know? I have no literature or creative writing majors. I read poetry and I know when I read something I like and when I read something I don’t. I try to write something I would like to read (I read something I wrote years ago, and I realize I’ve failed more often than not). I like rhythm and movement. I like picture, mood, and emotion (only in poetry!) more than completely decipherable meaning. I read stuff I’ve written and I don’t necessarily know why each word is there, other than it helps create the mood in which I wrote it.

Can we separate our personal likes and dislikes from supposedly objective criteria? I’m not convinced that it’s possible in something like poetry. I read stuff that the “experts” say is good, and it doesn’t make me feel anything. I don’t “get anything” from it. On the other hand, if enough people say something is good or bad, I know I should give it another chance.

If you don’t get anything from something I write, that’s fine. Read something that gives you what you want. That can be taken to an extreme, to the point where you never read anything that might stretch your horizon, but it’s not bad in itself.

Another example: I like Flannery O’Connor and Andre Dubus. I consider them good writers. I like Bob Dylan–listening to him now, in fact. I think he’s a good songwriter and his experimentation with words moves me (even though sometimes I have no idea what he’s singing about). Other people have no use for any of those. What does that say about the quality of their work? Of course, none of this is to say that I’m an objectively good poet. Apparently, more than one person thinks not! (Take a hint, you idiot!)

Balaam’s Ass is averaging about 105 visits a day. There’s got to be someone who has a background in literature or poetry “officially.” I’m interested in your observations on a theory of poetics. Even if you have no official background, by what criteria do you judge whether any particular form of creative writing is “good”? Perhaps Pastor Gruhn will come back and give us his criteria.



10 thoughts on “A Theory of Poetics

  1. Why am I an idiot, and what is the hint I am supposed to take? Am I correct in understanding you think I’m criticizing you in some way?

    I didn’t mean to criticise you. I called your posts “bad poetry posts” b/c you put them up so apoligeticly and (at the time) aparently so open to criticism. I admired that: It was very bold, courageous, to bare your soul to every freak and his uncle that is on this thing we call the Internet.

    In that spirit, I thought I would do the same. And I daresay my poetry IS worse than yours!

  2. Tim, the beauty of poetry as in every art form is in the eye of the viewer. Period.

    If you read it, and you like it, then it is good. However…, It may not be technically of the best in it’s field.

    American Idol is about entertainment, not about musicianship or artistry. It is about what people most prefer to view or listen to, rather than who is actually the technical best singer.

    It’s like the difference between Britney Spears and a concert violinist, or between any limerick and Robert Frost.

    I think your question about your poetry is in regard to whether or not it is entertaining, or masterful, or simply not really poetry just yet.

    So, two observatons from my point:

    First, I really didn’t get the point to the poems. I think you have two or three poetry themes mixed together.

    Second, I’ve enjoyed the discussions about your poetry more than the poetry itself.

    Third, I can provide no constructive criticism that will help you be a better poet. However, I can assist if you every decide to try your hand at playing the violin.

  3. Actually, other than the last three lines of the most recent poem, I had very specific themes in mind, though if you work too hard at trying to make each word fit, you might have trouble.


  4. Not from my perspective. In the last one you speak of death, confession, and searching for something greater. Maybe even a hint of depression or frustration involved.

    So, are you trying to write a poem, a prayer, or a personal confession?

    I suspect you are well trained and experienced with prayers and confessions, but not so much with poetry. This isn’t a bad thing, gotta start somewhere with new endeavors, and why you’re asking us to critique your poem.

  5. Tim,

    While I claim no mastery or great knowledge to the world of poetry, I do like to meddle with words and play around with it a bit. I am currently in the middle of a lengthy poetry unit with my 6th grade Language Arts classes where I am teaching them various forms and many of the poetic elements. A great and simple resource book is “Poem Making” by Myra Cohn Livingston. She basically defines what makes a poem a poem. (Note that it is an easy read as it is written for young authors to use-but still very helpful).

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