What Makes a Great Poem Great: Introduction

In an interview Jack Underwood did with Maurice Riordan and The Poetry Society, he said that there were probably only about ten really good poems.  He went on to say that there are a hundred or a thousand good ones, but the really good ones are hard to find.

I admit that I have much more confidence in recognising a great song than I do in recognising a great poem, but that’s only because my musical journey has been much longer and more immersive than my relatively short poetry journey.  I’ve listened to thousands of good songs and thousands of bad songs over the years and in doing so, the difference between good and bad becomes plain as day, and the difference between good and great becomes just as obvious.  Similarly, in recognising the difference between good and bad poetry, the reader becomes more confident not just in his or her taste, but also in not having to justify that taste.

A good ear for poetry leads to a state of what can only be described as a blissful knowing when it comes to being able to recognise a good poem when you see one.  When this happens, the reader is happy, relaxed and comfortably reclined in their opinion.  I often ask my confident musical ear to mentor my slightly less confident poetry ear.  If that ear could talk, it would tell my poetry ear to do what you do when you listen to music: just relax and let it wash over you, because like a song, nothing about a poem matters apart from the spirit of that poem.

Elizabeth Bishop – you’ll hear about her soon - got it right when she said: “If after I read a poem the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so I'm sure it's a good one—and the same goes for paintings. ”  A great poem is, at its very heart, a charitable offering.  It is beyond explanation  - it is simply bigger than the sum of its parts.  You love it because it moves you in some way.  And so, over the course of the next ten days, I’ll publish the ten poems I’ve enjoyed the most on the poetry journey so far. 


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