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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

On good and bad and just plain gossipy poetry

Not unrelated to my previous blogs about poverty, I find myself teaching poetry. More disquieting still, I find myself marking poetry.

How do you assign a mark to a poem?

Many speak of sickness and heartbreak and childhood trauma. “I find your break-up with your boyfriend merits 48%. Next!” is not an appropriate response.

I wish I could say I’ve mastered the art of tender, kindly-meant criticism, but I haven’t. (Neither have my friends: when they call my latest book “interesting” I know it’s their way of saying it’s a dud.) It’s easier in a workshop situation where the idea is to nudge each poem towards its best expression.

But this is not the season for nudging. October is upon us, and in October students get their long-awaited marks.

Don’t get me wrong – I have no shortage of criteria. I know exactly why a poem works, why it brings out little spontaneous cries or intakes of breath from its audience.

A good poem surprises, satisfies, illuminates. Some poems are good because of their stripped-down, straight-to-the-heart simplicity; others succeed because they create an arena in which the reader is invited to ponder their mystery. We are drawn to economy of phrasing, to wordplay, to hidden stories inside poems, to carefully chosen or crafted images of realia that go way beyond their own concrete boundaries to suggest the ineffable.

I like small poems with big messages; I love the cohesion brought about by certain types of patterning – a sustained set of imagery, an ending that returns to the beginning with a wry comment, an extended metaphor, a sound sequence. And I love it when I see a word on the page that is a million times better than any other word could be in that precise place.

As to bad poems, I feel I know them just as well. The first thing that bad poetry does is to search for rhyme at all costs. The need for the rhyme dictates not just the word but the word order. You would need the jaws of life to extract the poem’s spirit by the time the rhyme-and-run poet is finished. Deadly rhyme is usually accompanied by a sing-song, thumpetty-thump rhythm.

Bad poems do not leave any space for the reader to wonder or speculate. Instead, they tell you what they are about. Thus abstract nouns like “peace”, “justice” and “beauty” predominate. (Bad poets aim regrettably high.) Butterflies, honey and dreams are tossed about into the mix because they are more “poetical” than “Shoprite Checkers” or “spirit gum”.

The writer finds the word or phrase closest to hand – usually a cliché – and uses it. Why invent an image when you can find them readymade? We’ve heard “hard as a rock”, “solid as a mountain” and “a blanket of snow” so often that the phrases slide slickly over our minds, leaving no trace of the poem.

Which is just as well, since bad poetry is frequently written for the purpose of ornament or flourish: the poet taking care to keep anything real or true right out of the poem. Bad poems are vainglorious. (That’s something I’d never say aloud.)

Knowing these and other hallmarks of bad poetry (wordiness, obfuscation, ear-sores) doesn’t make the task of marking poetry easier. Great clumps of poetry fall between the obvious markers of “good” and “bad”. There are the good bad poems and the bad good poems. (Should these fall into the 50%-65% range?) Partly, too, many great poems break the rules.

But more than anything, I dislike marking poetry because my assessment inevitably seems like a comment on the writer’s personality. The mark you get for a poem is not the equivalent of the mark you get for answering a question like: “What is the capital of Egypt?”

Unlike the answer “Cairo”, the mark you get for a poem will, probably, be accompanied by an adjective like “bland” or “exciting” or “haunted” or “enigmatic” or “obscure”: words you might well be tempted to apply to yourself. I know this to my cost because recently a fellow poet, in conversation, referred to my poetry as “gossipy”. (About 48% — what do you think “gossipy” gets?)


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    October 16th, 2007 @09:15 #

    The rating for "gossipy poetry" would undoubtedly vary from group to group, depending on its appeal to that group. I reckon preferences for specific literary genres would be a strong indicator in this regard.
    Perhaps we can test this. Here's poem I wrote. Give it a mark out of 10 and tell us the last three books you read.


    On heartly sings
    Great blow luck stares
    Washed mane bolt flings
    Bust shoal land flares

    Frayed wake folds kiss
    Black stain railed cliff
    In shore chaste hiss
    Wind wood blade stiff

    Off languidly
    Base cold slain rock
    Short sand wake sea
    Unfettered flock

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    October 16th, 2007 @11:37 #

    Finuala, this is a wonderfully succinct summary of the characteristics of good and bad poetry. It could be used as an answer sheet for all writing graders.

    Can you recommend any books on teaching and facilitating creative writing? Which, if any, do you use?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Finuala</a>
    October 17th, 2007 @09:18 #

    Dear Richard

    This poem seems to have been generated by a machine or someone who wasn’t there at the time. Even as a weather report of conditions at Cape Point, it fails.

    Let me know if you would like to submit a second draft.


  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Finuala</a>
    October 17th, 2007 @09:36 #

    Dear Louis

    I've spent years looking for good reference books on teaching creative writing and have even bought one or two which lie gathering dust. Many of them contain lovely ideas, but I always end up developing my own material to suit the particular class (no villanelles). I tend to work at different ways of breaking through writer's block, which frequently involves setting a topic or outlining a technique. I make my students read contemporary poems too, to show what's possible. We also spend lots of time reading their work and talking about it (I make multiple copies for class discussion). You can't become a writer till you've found a sympathetic reader, so I try to keep my irascible side under control, though she will out (see above).

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    October 17th, 2007 @10:55 #

    Thanks, Finuala - it seems then that the key lies in an empathetic engagement with the work and there should be no formulae to follow. Hard work for the teacher, particularly when, I suppose, some work deserves more attention than other.

    Many people I know scoff knowingly - and unreflectively - at the idea of teaching creative writing. But it seems to me that no creative writing teacher sets out to teach people how to write, but to facilitate that specific process of concentration and self-critique. And even to offer a therapeutic relationship that will help the writer recognise their own blocks and complexes around creative and emotive expression.

    I often think about creative writing courses. I have never been on one; all my schooling has come from reading, but I am conscious of how unformulated my approach to writing is. It's instinctive and visceral and I wonder whether it could be improved by giving more formal thought to the techniques and processes I employ.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    October 17th, 2007 @11:07 #


    Thank god poetry is not
    my core business
    and that no rhino
    can match my hide
    where gentle hands may make
    festering wounds
    that bring forth
    more poetic pus.

    You forgot to mention
    which three books
    you last read.


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