Karla Huston is the new Wisconsin poet laureate for 2017 – 2018. She is vice president of The Mill board and a Mill teacher with a class, Wearing The Mask, starting March 1.
If you have to ask, suggests Rainer Maria Rilke in his “Letters to a Young Poet,” if you have to ask, then you’re perhaps writing for the wrong reason. He says: “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”
Still, we want to know, and here’s a confession: I ask myself this all the time. We all do. So what makes one poem good and another (dare I say it?) not good?
What makes a poem a good poem? Resonance? Skill with language? The ability to transcend, get readers past the yawning “so what?” stage, give readers a reason to keep reading?
I want a poem to make me think, to make me view something in a different way, a way I’ve never considered. I want a poem to make me wish I’d written it. It’s all of those things and more. Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
How does a writer get to such a point, make readers feel as if the tops of their heads were taken off? How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice. Fail, fail. “Ever tried. Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail. Fail better,” so says Samuel Beckett.
When I first started writing, Appleton’s Ellen Kort, first Poet Laureate of Wisconsin, told me to “not be afraid to write badly.” It’s true. Writing badly is how we learn. No one learned to land the perfect jump shot without practice. No one learned to play guitar like Eric Clapton or B.B. King without practice. Lots. Of. Practice. Lots of failed attempts. No one writes a good poem (or a good anything) without writing a lot of bad ones.
So how do you know if your poems are any good? If you must ask… . Read. Find some poetry journals. There are plenty online from which to choose. Or better yet, subscribe a journal or three. Read the poems. Read them like writer. That’s a different sensibility than reading as a reader. Consider these poems? Do yours match up? Do yours ring with the same authenticity? Do your poems sing and echo with language, music?
Mostly, after writing poems for 20+ years, I write to please me first—maybe because I know what makes a poem a good poem for me. Perhaps the most important thing to me is resonance, the ability to transcend my own experience, to let others see what I see. I’m aware of sound and sensibility. I’m familiar with all the rudiments in the poet’s tool kit: rhythm, and sometimes rhyme, sound: assonance, consonance—words that echo and chime, harmonize with other words. I try to make my words play well together. I’m also aware of what is going on in modern poetry. Today’s poetry has more to do with personal experience than metaphysical concepts. “No ideas but in things,” says the physician poet from Paterson, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams.
As a writer, reader and reviewer of poetry, I am also aware of taste. Not everyone likes escargot or Taco Tuesday or Friday fish fries. Not everyone is going to like the poems I write. Not everything I read resonates with me. Still I respect the skill with which a poem may be written. I hope readers respect my effort to take them somewhere in my poems.
I also remind myself, as a teacher in the art and craft of writing poetry, that a poet’s heart is the most tender of hearts, which in turn reminds me of this quote from “The Cloths of Heaven” by William Butler Yeats:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.