What Makes Good Poetry? (According to 10+ Experts)

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When it comes to writing poetry, what makes a good poem? Is it the structure? The content? The way it sounds when read aloud?

According to experts, good poetry consists of the following:

Murielle Mobengo

Murielle Mobengo

Editor-in-Chief and Founder, Revue {R}évolution | Author, “The Poetical Manifesto

While poetry is fashionable today and finds resonance in a lot of word-enthusiasts, poetry is its own genre and has its own rules, which are timeless.

Having your own definition of a flower is possible, but it does not change what a flower intrinsically is. So, here are the five main aspects of good, even great, and memorable poetry.

Good poetry aims for subtlety

The word “poetry” comes from Ancient Greek “poiesis,” fabrication, creation, production. These words are so familiar to us that we’ve forgotten what they actually mean.

Creation is the act of bringing something into being; a powerful deed that reveals a reality our senses were not able to perceive beforehand. So, poetry intends to reveal subtle aspects of life, nature, and ourselves. Poetry is a process of refinement, from the invisible to the visible and vice versa.

Related: Why Is Poetry Important?

“Intent” is what poets, writers, and artists call “the muse.” Muses are causes for creation and energies of creation.

From ancient Norse, Hindu, and Roman-Greek to Afro-Egyptian traditions, our mythologies brim with the muses. They represent lofty ideas like:

  • Beauty
  • Truth
  • Existence
  • Time
  • Death
  • Etc.

Related: 10 Best Books on Understanding Death and Dying

Muses embody existential principles which deepen perception and elevate the craft.

Great poetry is about what you cannot fathom yet, things that are larger than life and, somehow, inspire you. So if you come across a poem packed with familiar references and mundane narration, you may be reading prose disguised as poetry.

Good poetry inquires about life and conjures awe. Great poetry leads to wonder.

Good poetry is magnetic

Good poems are magnetic precisely because of their intention. Before writing a poem, poets need to question their motives as they will dominate the atmosphere of the poem and act as a pull over the readers’ attention, so they keep reading.

Each time our editorial team receives a poem, the first seconds of reading are decisive. The ones we keep reading always have strong potency and act on multiple levels simultaneously:

  • The soul
  • The intellect
  • The emotion (i.e., the body)

What we humans call “the soul” is an aspect of our psychological life that is not tangible, yet pulsing with memory, sensations, and life; self-aware and intuitive; conscious of its own potency without apparent reasoning.

Good poetry seeks contact with that elusive self. Great poetry is that elusive self-speaking.

Good poetry masters emotion

This aspect of poetry is perhaps the most mistaken among poets of this era. While the emotional release is part of the poetic experience, it is neither the poetic experience itself nor the source of poetry.

Think about the first criterion, creation. Whether poetic or not, creation is the act of bringing something into existence.

In the case of poetry (or art, which functions very much the same), what is brought into existence is meaning, or an experience so meaningful, so pulsing with life that it has to be expressed.

Now consider the birth of a child. Happy parents experience the joy of holding their newborn, a being brought into the world and born out of love. Did love cause their baby to be born? No. The laws of progeny did, while the emotion called “love” was released.

If love were responsible for the birth of the newborn, children would cease to exist when parents divorce (a poetic writing prompt in itself).

Because laws of progeny are not bound by emotion (which is flippant and unstable), they guarantee life, stability, and persistence through time.

This example also works with poetry or anything seeking expression through a creator. Specific laws rule creation. One of them-maybe the most important for creatives— is to dominate what is unstable, flippant, and relative.

Masters of the past, whether poets, artists, philosophers, or mythologists, practiced this. They knew the law of poetry, which is why their work persists and keeps inspiring us long after they are gone. The process of mastering emotion is called transcendence.

For poets, transcendence is the law.

Good poetry strives to understand and control emotions. Great poetry sings their surrender.

Good poetry has music in it

Because poetry communicates wisdom or timeless existential knowledge, it must be memorable to pass on. Here, rhyming comes into play.

Think about your favorite song. It certainly has verses, stanzas, and a powerful chorus. Humming its melody and singing its lyrics is easy and delightful, isn’t it?

The reason why you are able to remember this song so easily is harmony. Harmony, or in musician term, “harmonics,” is the law sustaining music and happens with the willful repetition of a musical pattern.

Harmonics/harmony is also what causes us to dance, shimmy or sway to the sound of a melody. In a song or classical composition, harmony is backed by musical instruments.

In a poem, meter and/or repetition express harmony. This makes a skillful poet one of the coolest artists there is; someone who creates music without any instrument.

Good poetry causes you to dance somehow. Great poetry creates music without any instruments.

Good poetry masters language

Too many poems are released into the world with poor writing skills, from typos to incorrect grammar to awkward sentences.

Poets are a particular genre of writers. They channel what’s subtle in existence.

So, to be a poet means to have fully integrated the uses of mundane language from the inside out:

  • The elements of grammar
  • Orthography
  • Logic

Only once they’ve mastered the usage of common language can poets tweak speech to create new phrases or for fun. Tweaking semantics without language mastery results in inharmonious and forgettable poetry.

Also, language is how we express our perception of life, the outlet of a rich, full, unique, and examined life. Language reflects intelligence, what we know not only about the world but also about ourselves.

Good poetry inquires about what it means to be human. Great poetry reflects a deeper knowledge of our shared universal soul.

Adam Cole

Adam Cole

Songwriter and Poet | Director, Willow Music

The answer depends on the audience more than the poem

I am a songwriter and a poet with a number of albums and books available. I’ve studied poetry and songwriting most of my life, and I’ve given a lot of thought to this question.

Initially, the answer depends on the audience more than the poem.

Some people really like “Hallmark” poetry, the kinds of verses that sound like something on a greeting card. They find them poignant, timely, and evocative. For them, this is “good poetry,” and anything overly complicated, wordy or abstract is a waste of time.

Some people really hate “Hallmark” poetry because they find it trite. They prefer poetry with depth, craft, and sophistication.

Is one group right and the other wrong? No, not really. And there are other groups that fall in the middle:

  • People who like classic poetry.
  • People who like rhyming poetry.
  • People who like children’s poetry.
  • People who like confessional poetry.
  • People who like painful poetry.
  • People who like spoken word.

Effective poetry

Because the question of “good” is so subjective, I’d suggest a better term: Effective poetry. So what is effective?

In my opinion, it’s effective if it reaches and excites its audience. That’s not quite enough, though, because sometimes people who don’t like “Hallmark” poetry, who are not in that audience, will still cry if the greeting card verse happens to hit home for them.

What made that poem effective?

Ultimately, a poem is effective if what it expresses could not be expressed more effectively in another medium. I’d never try to write this essay on poetry as a poem.

A brief essay would be much clearer, and a poem about it would most likely be amusing at best and miss a lot of important points.

If you read a poem and think it would be better if it were a short story, a novel, a movie, a drawing, a play, or a piece of music, then it’s probably not as good as it could be.

Sometimes a poet can use their craft to improve a poem so that it stands on its own. Sometimes the poem is inherently flawed and would be better as another type of thing.

The best poems use the medium of poetry (brevity, irregular structure, pattern) to express more succinctly and sometimes with more subtlety an idea that a story, a novel, or a play would drown.

These are great poems, and we study them for their effectiveness as well as keep them in our hearts. Even the very best poets only wrote a few great ones, and that’s enough to give pause to anyone who writes.

Shu-Hsien Ho

Shu-Hsien Ho

Writing Coach and Poet | Co-Founder, Beyond the Box Learning

It speaks from a poet’s heart to an audience’s heart

For me, great poems speak from a poet’s heart to my heart.

  • They reach across time and space into my own season.
  • They dare to speak the truth when no one else will.
  • They carry emotion and humor.
  • They awe or haunt us with their vivid images.
  • They breathe life into history and allow us to see how the thread of the past is directly tied to our present.
  • They wake us up.
  • They celebrate the beauty and wonder in our world.
  • They share a unique point of view and connect us to the rest of humanity.
  • They can save us from the precipice of isolation and despair.

What I find thrilling is that poetry is returning to a wider audience.

Over the last three decades, rap, poetry slams, and novels-in-verse have captured the attention of young people because they are created by and for everyday people.

It speaks to our real-life struggles with the themes of:

  • Racial injustice
  • Family
  • Identity
  • Love
  • Loss

In particular, I draw inspiration from the honest, lyrical voices of Joy Harjo, Mary Oliver, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Kwame Alexander, Marilyn Hilton, Jason Reynolds, and Amanda Gorman, who have all made this form of expression easier to access and understand.

We can debate about what makes good poetry, but in the end, as writers and poets, it’s essential to experiment with ideas, to play, to turn everything upside down, and to flip convention.

We must seek new ways of creating and expressing ourselves.

We must find our unique voices and our own language for sharing our encounters with this confusing, chaotic, yet wonderful world.

“What makes good poetry?”

this question
pesters, pokes
the Peter Pan
in me

I want
bad poems
instead

Let me
break the rules
let loose
fly into
the wind
the forest
the thunder

race past
the edge
wobble across
the bridge
feel the roar
the rush
of rapids

risk a tumble
the break
of bone
and heart

take a wrong turn
to seek
the other
side

No,
don’t give me
a good poem

instead,

I shall climb
a crooked tree

barefoot
tomboy
breathing
pungent grass,
coffee earth,
and briny, frothy sea

Shu-Hsien Ho

Janet Ruth Heller, Ph.D.

Janet Ruth Heller

Poet, Literary Critic, College Professor, Essayist, Playwright, and Fiction Writer

Good poetry needs original ideas

A good poem has original ideas. It presents the author’s unique perspective about

  • Problems
  • Relationships
  • Experiences
  • Nature
  • Politics
  • Jobs
  • Etc.

For example, Langston Hughes‘ poem “Harlem” conveys the frustrations of Black people in the United States and predicts that the long suppression of their dreams will result in some type of explosion.

Similarly, Adrienne Rich‘s poem “Diving into the Wreck” explores the problem of sexism in women’s lives and history.

Rich insists that women have to understand and confront a society that excludes them.

Good poetry has specific and striking images

Vague poems are not effective because they do not engage readers.

But a poem with specific and striking images gets readers involved and stimulates their minds and the five senses.

For example, Adrienne Rich‘s poem “Diving into the Wreck” uses images of deep sea diving to emphasize how difficult it is to explore prejudice against women ingrained in a culture that most people think is appropriate.

Langston Hughes begins “Harlem” by asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He answers this rhetorical question by using metaphors and similes: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry liked this image so much that she used it in the title of her play about a black family moving into a white neighborhood.

Good poetry has a careful structure

An effective poem has a careful structure.

Traditional forms include:

  • Sonnet (fourteen lines)
  • The quatrain (a four-line stanza often used in ballads)
  • Haiku (very short poems with seventeen or fewer syllables)
  • Etc.

However, even if a poem avoids traditional forms, it needs a coherent scaffold.

For example, in “I Hear American Singing,” Walt Whitman lists working-class people with different occupations and the kind of song that each person sings. Whitman uses parallel clauses to give his poem structure.

Good poetry does not have to rhyme

Most people think that poetry has to rhyme. However, many excellent authors use free verse, which usually does not rhyme or have a simple rhythmic pattern.

Walt Whitman and Adrienne Rich focused on writing free verse poems.

Rhyme is like the frosting on the cake: a writer can choose to add rhyme, but an unfrosted cake, like angel food, also tastes good. The Psalms in the Bible do not rhyme, but they are wonderful poems.

The poem should be a piece of yourself

I’ve always felt that writing poetry requires one to have a very deep introspection.

In other words, you have to have a deep understanding of who you are and what you are about. That may seem simple, but it’s more cumbersome than it appears, as self-evaluation is always a burden.

I say this because, in order to write good poetry, it’s not just about constructing words within a certain rhythmic or iambic structure. What should come out is a piece of yourself.

When the reader digests your work, they should be able to get a sense of who you are as an authentic individual. That’s what draws in your audience, for readers have a knack for discerning when a piece is contrived with legit raw emotion.

For example, Edgar Allen Poe was known for his rather dark and brooding type of poetry.

One of the reasons he was so successful in that style was that one could sense that he was legitimately him.

Poe lived a very difficult life, often poor, destitute, and lonely—his only comfort often being the pen and the drink. It’s why one can almost feel melancholy when one experiences his works.

As for me, I could never write in that style. My stanzas are much more simple, comedic, and jovial. That’s just who I am as a person, and this comes out in my works.

It’s not just the style are funny quips that have attracted the audience I have, though those have certainly helped. It’s that I write in a manner that reflects my genuine and distinctive persona.

Related to this is the fact that a poet should always write to please themself first. These are your works; writing them should be for your enjoyment and catharsis, no one else’s.

This will help truly unleash what I mentioned earlier—the true divulgence of yourself as a unique artist.

Sofia Silveira

Sofia Silveira

Writer and Translator | Tutor, GoStudent

A great poem conveys ideas through sensation

A great poem is a combination of ethereal, magical, elements and easily relatable real-life stories, mixing together to convey ideas through sensation.

Counterintuitively, the worst thing a poem can be isn’t unpleasant or even difficult for the reader to bear; it actually is the boring poem — the poem that provokes nothing — that we must avoid at all costs.

Different from prose, poems are grounded by the sound and the rhythm provided by the words to invoke sensation.

A good poem cleverly uses punctuation, the meaning of the words, and the rhythm of them together to place the reader in the middle of the action.

If you are discussing oceans, for example, elect one aspect of what it feels like to be at sea and try to recreate that sensation with words. I firmly believe that, as humans, our feelings shape the way we experience the world much more than we care to admit.

It is the poet’s job to use language as a bridge between the reader and their own emotions, in the meantime, connecting them to new ideas, vocabulary, and stories that deserve to be explored through verse.

Poetry is not the art of rhyming to convey how clever you are
Poetry is not a parade of pretty-sounding words,
Nor a mere intellectual exercise, that will soon be broken down and replicated by the next A.I

Poetry is the creation of an explosion; and the poet a careful alchemist
Combining sensations, creating ideas from sound
Bringing to the surface what before was unconscious
– barely audible –
background

Creating a poem is an impossible exercise
Being a poet is embracing the never-ending search for the right words
That will describe what cannot be described
Words that will bring to an unknown someone the poet’s most intimate gift,
Disguising with words
A soul, adrift,
Using only language
To create a bridge
Between those who read
And the one who chooses
To sit by the keyboard
And bleed

Sofia Silveira

Natalia Lazarus

Natalia Lazarus

Actress and Director | CEO and Founder, Lazarus On Stage | Author, “My Love Affair: Thorns and Roses

Good poetry comes from authentic human emotion

Good poetry, I feel, comes from authentic human emotion. It is when I unearth the deepest, darkest, purest, and most truthful expressions of how I feel and how I view the world.

That’s when poetry, for me, connects beyond the written word.

It goes deep down into the secrets, to those ill feelings we just kind of learn to live with and don’t always express. Those seem always to push forward first.

Poetry becomes important when we allow our inner voice to come forth in a creative, palpable, emotional manner that others can connect to. It is the bare essence of the human condition. It is a universal language, a drumbeat that connects us.

When I allow verses just to flow and trust the voice that is roaring to get out, it enables the poetry to be raw, primal, at purest. Good poetry is not necessarily concerned with structure, form, or societal pleasantries.

You will find, in my own poetry, repetition plays an important role in my creative process.

Repetition of words and phrases provides:

  • A grounding point.
  • A place to return to.
  • A place to drive home the core meaning or message of my thoughts.

The grounding line, the inner monologue, reminds me of where I am going and what the poem is about.

Rhythm, poise, tempo, and the words themselves are “the thing.”

Good poetry expresses different topics that are close to our heart, that have affected us, that have meaning to us, that we advocate and question — as through our voices, we connect with others, learn, grow, and heal on the same human condition—creating:

As a poet, my role in creating good poetry is in the ability to carry to the forefront issues that we can truly advocate, and speak our point of view on in the hopes that it is embraced, understood, felt, acknowledged, and absorbed by the readers’ hearts, and moved into action or compassion in an effort to not feel so alone.

Myrlande E. Sauveur

Myrlande Sauveur

Author and Personal Development Coach, Gracefull Extensions

It should have a clear beginning, middle, and end

Poetry is language meant to be spoken in the most tender of whispers and the softest tongues, never to be disturbed by apathy or indifference.

Good poetry is ruthless, bloody even. It touches on the wounds we thought we buried a long time ago. It crawls into the places that we don’t want to see.

Quality poetry is line after line of beauty, anguish, glory, and strife. Worthy poetry is a reality that reaches far above circumstance. It’s structured well and staggered in such a way that you find yourself taking pauses or reading deliberate run-on sentences without realizing it.

It doesn’t rely on adjectives for flavor; instead, its words are the spices that make your food taste much better. It stirs up emotions you didn’t even know you had and makes you see the world in a completely new light.

A well-written poem should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. It should be placed smoothly and have an overall rhythm that is pleasing to the ear.

Additionally, good poetry must have a meaningful message that can be interpreted in many different ways. All of these factors make poetry one of the unique forms of art available today.

It’s good to focus on life events that you’ve experienced and those that you hope to experience in the future. This will help you to write about things that are meaningful to you and make your poetry more personal.

Amanda Terman

Amanda Terman

Voice Actor and Writer

Students start with pattern and structure

When kids learn about poetry in school, they are first introduced to the playfulness of poetic language and eventually move on to the forms and techniques exhibited by our greatest practitioners.

“Good poetry,” like any art, is subjective according to the whims of individual readers.

Still, as students analyze famous works that inspired endless imitation, it’s no wonder that many believe poetry is only considered “great” when it uses certain conventions.

But actually, truly great poetry wrenches us away from routine.

Pros explore novel perspectives

Great poetry leverages language’s limitless potential to highlight moments of heightened emotion, unexamined minutia, universal tragedies, or just bemusing nonsense. What might otherwise go overlooked or unshared gets a public placard.

Often this process does include some combination of known techniques, but they are used to share a novel perspective.

Or it may be accomplished with a new method or frameworks like an unexpected rhyme scheme, off-kilter meter, or clever formatting.

Poetry disrupts the cognitive algorithms that comprise daily life

Although the word combinations that comprise great poems are new, the topics need not be.

We spend so much of our days seeing, saying, and feeling the same things. And yet there are so many feelings that we struggle to express with words.

Great poetry pauses the cognitive algorithms that power daily life, so we can finally convert those solitary somatic sensations into communally experienced language; at its greatest, it taps into what we least expect, using language to inspire, provoke, or connect.

Bernadette Geyer

Bernadette Geyer

Writer and Translator

A good poem brings a new perspective

The poems that have stayed with me the longest have been ones in which the poet has brought an entirely new perspective to a particular topic.

For example, Wisława Szymborska‘s poem, “Discovery,” melds science with the concept of belief to offer a crushing meditation on the idea that there exists a scientist whose discovery was so terrible that he destroyed all evidence of it before it could be brought to light in the world.

Or the poems of Louise Glück in her book “The Wild Iris,” which speak in the voice of various plants and flowers, providing deeper insights into the world.

And the poem “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert provides readers with the reasons why life should be celebrated, even in the face of the horrors that happen around us.

I gain immense pleasure from reading these poems and find something new to appreciate every time I reread them.

A good poem never leads the reader

I find it very difficult to read poems that have been written specifically to tug at the reader’s emotions. Good poems never tell the reader what they should think or how they should feel.

Instead, a good poem tells a story or relates a series of thoughts or images and allows the reader to pull these together to draw their own conclusions.

Once a poem is written and sent out into the world, the poet has no control over how readers will interpret it. That’s the beauty of a good poem. It allows each reader to bring their histories and experiences with them into the reading and then lets them take from the poem what they need.

AJ Silberman-Moffitt

AJ Silberman-Moffitt

Senior Editor, Tandem

As a writer, I know that writing is subjective. What I like might differ from what others like — it could be the genre of the piece or the tone in which it was written.

Whatever the reason, some people will like some pieces of poetry, and others might not. Though I don’t frequently write poetry, as an editor, I can recognize when something has merit.

So what makes good poetry?

It’s heartfelt and genuine

A lot of good poetry is based on people’s experiences. If you want to write poetry, try writing about something that happened to you. Because you are close to the subject, you might be able to write more in-depth about it.

It’s unique

What’s great about poetry is that it doesn’t have to rhyme to be a poem. There are so many different types of poetry that people can enjoy — some utilize iambic pentameter, there are those who write free verse, and others write haikus or other types.

The important part to remember is that regardless of the type of poetry that you write, your poem should be unique.

Don’t copy what someone else did, but write something new and refreshing.

It’s a complete story

Though thought-provoking pieces with no discernable end can also be enjoyable, some good poetry tells a story. The reader can understand the message because it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.

It’s a painting for your mind

If poetry can paint a picture for the reader, this is a sign of a good poem. Being able to visualize the details that are described is one aspect that makes poetry so enjoyable.

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