Written by Ami Mattison
Poets at all levels of experience worry about whether or not our poetry sucks. Often, as we contemplate our poetry, we experience gnawing doubts about our abilities as poets and about the quality of our work. However, the question of “how to figure out if your poetry sucks” tends to be a beginner’s question.
Experienced poets, whether we acknowledge it or not, usually know when our poetry sucks. But as a beginner, it’s natural to be confused by what makes a “good” poem.
Distinguishing Good Poetry from Sucky Poetry
There are so many types of poetry in culture—good, bad, and ugly. Through experience, poets come to recognize what’s weak about a poem, what’s clichéd, and what simply isn’t working. But when you’re first starting out, writing a strong, successful poem can seem elusive, mysterious, or maybe even impossible.
Lacking experience, it can be difficult to tell whether or not your poetry is any good.
You know what they say about beauty being in the eye of the beholder? Well, poetry is like that. If you think a poem is beautiful, if it moves you, if it makes you think and seems to speak some truth to you, then that’s a “good” poem.
However, if you’re looking to publish your poems, then you’ll need to develop a sense of what critics and poets agree makes for good poetry.
Luckily for the beginner, there are some simple indicators that distinguish good poetry from weaker versions.
One Sucky Poem and One Not-So-Sucky Poem
As an exercise in determining what makes for a good poem versus a weak poem, take a look at this excerpt of one of my poems:
The light reflects your skin.
I trace where I have been,
find the knots and knead.
Run my fingers through your curls,
twisting and bereaved.
Pulling me into your world,
from your mouth the air I breathe.
You are not alone,
as you walk away.
I am here with you right now,
praying that you will stay.
I’m steady on this ground,
holding on with all my might.
You are not alone,
your fears eclipsing light
Umm…can you guess the title of this uninspired poem? That’s right: “You are not alone.” If you like this poem, then great. But trust me, it’s a real stinker. The premise is terrible, the rhyme is laughable, clichés abound, and some of it is so vague as to be nonsensical.
Now, consider this excerpt from another poem I wrote:
Stories sculpt figures,
construct apartment buildings
plant fields and wield iron, forge
whole countries of strangers
we come to believe we know.
Stories create things.
Poetry takes them apart.
Unstitching the unseemly seam, breaking
open rocks, chiseling crystal composites,
uprooting forest ferns just to smell
the fertile musk of soil and finger
the tangled, threaded flesh.
This poem is entitled “Poetry, say it.” This isn’t the greatest poem, but it is a stronger poem than the first. It manages to use relatively original descriptions, its premise is more interesting, its language is active, and its images are concrete.
Ways to Know If Your Poem Sucks
Now, let’s compare these two excerpts to determine exactly what makes one “bad” and the other one “better”:
- Cliché vs. original description. A cliché is relatively simple to identify. If you’ve heard a phrase used several times in people’s speech and writing, then that’s pretty much a cliché. Can you spot the clichés in the first poem? Here are just a few: “the light reflects,” “holding on with all my might,” and “eclipsing light.” All of those phrases are overused and not particularly interesting. We often use clichés as short cuts to describe our feelings, thoughts, and observations. In the second poem, “Stories sculpt figures/construct apartment buildings” is relatively original and offers two strong images. So always try to develop strong, original lines, phrases, and images.
- Passive voice vs. Active voice. The phrase “You are not alone” is not only unoriginal but passive voice. Also, “you are not” is a negative construction, making the phrase even more passive and ineffective. But notice the language of the second poem. You find verbs such “sculpt,” “construct,” “plant,” “wield,” and “forge.” These are all active descriptions. So, always try to use interesting, action verbs.
- Vague vs. concrete images. Consider the phrase “impossibilities recede.” It’s weak and vague as an image. But compare it to “tangled, threaded flesh,” which is stronger and more concrete. Always try to use strong, descriptive, and concrete images.
- Repetition vs. variations in sentence structures. In the first poem, all the sentence structures are repetitions of a noun and then a verb: “The light reflects,” “I trace,” “You are,” etc. The second poem experiments with this structure, and in the last stanza, it uses gerunds as a way to break up the sentences some. So think about your sentence structures and try some variations.
- Wordiness vs. brevity. This sentence, “I am here with you right now, praying that you will stay” is wordy. Not only could I have used conjunctions—“I’m” and “you’ll”—but “that” is unnecessary. In the second poem, you’ll notice the language is more concise. Words you can often avoid are “that,” “which,” prepositions, and articles. Always try to create concise wording in your poems.
- Unoriginal vs. original rhyme. The first poem uses end rhyme, meaning that the final word of one line rhymes with the final word of another line (i.e. “skin” and “been,” “recede” and “knead”). Also, the rhyme scheme is abab cdcd, efef, etc., meaning every other line rhymes. This rhyme scheme is very common and very easy to compose. However, it’s also unoriginal and uninteresting. Many poets eschew end-rhyme altogether, but that’s not really the point. The point is to find interesting ways to rhyme. Internal rhymes can be interesting and subtle, such as “fields and wield” and “unseemly seam” in the second poem. When first starting out, try to avoid predictable and repetitive end rhymes.
- Too much (or too little) vs. balanced alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in two or more words that are relatively close together. For instance, in the second poem, “crystal composites” is an example of alliteration. So is “forest ferns.” In the first poem, “knots and knead” is another example. Definitely use alliteration, but use it sparingly. For instance, “the rascally rabbit runs” is terrible alliteration for any serious poem.
- Deadening vs. lively line breaks. Line breaks are tricky. A simple rule is to avoid breaking a line after a preposition, an article, a conjunction, or a pronoun. Certainly, like all rules, that one is made to be broken; but if you’re first starting out, try to adhere to it until you get a better sense of line breaks. Each line in a poem should be an interesting image or phrase. When first starting out, some poets break lines according to how they hear a poem. What this means is that instead of “Stories create things.” You might be tempted to break the line like this: “Stories/create/things.” None of those lines are particularly interesting, even if they do suggest some dramatic reading of the sentence. Also, you’ll notice in the first poem that there is no enjambment. Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence or thought beyond a predictable line break. For instance, in the first poem, each line breaks in a predictable way. Consider what happens when I shift the first line to read, “The light reflects your skin. Impossibilities…” That’s a little more interesting. The problem with not using enjambment is that each line starts to sound the same and has a deadening effect on the ear. So, think carefully about line breaks and try a little enjambment.
- Telling vs. showing. Finally, a good poem shows us what’s happening rather than telling us. For a beginner, this might seem a subtle distinction, but it’s not. In the first poem, “as you walk away” is “telling.” Now, if I’d found a metaphor to suggest how the person was walking away, that’d be “showing.” As another example, in the second poem, “Poetry takes things apart” is telling. “Unstitching the unseemly seam” is showing. So, try to be creative and show us what’s happening rather than telling us.
Hopefully, these few characteristics will give you a place to start in improving your poetry.
However, Poetry is a very complex craft that requires lots of practice and experience to master.
If you’re interested in studying poetry, then I recommend a class, which you can find at art centers, universities and colleges, and even online. If you want to do some self-study, then an excellent place to begin is with The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. But the best way to learn how to write poetry that doesn’t suck is to read lots of great poetry. So, check out your public library and read some poetry by well-known, great poets.
Love Your Sucky Poetry
Expressing yourself, enjoying the pleasure that language has to offer, and articulating your own truths are the most significant reasons for writing poetry. So, when you’re first starting out, don’t worry too much about whether or not your poetry sucks. Rather, try to have some fun— experiment with words and play with meanings.
If you write enough poetry, then you’re bound to write sucky poetry occasionally. As this article suggests, every poet does. Bad poetry clears the way for great poetry.
However, if your poetry gives you comfort, if it gives you pleasure, or if it manages to speak the truth of your experience or observations, then it doesn’t suck at all. Rather, it’s an expression of your creativity.
So, try not to judge your poetry too harshly and learn to love it some.
When you love your poetry, you’ll want to make it better. And if you want to make it better, you’ll want to practice, experiment, and play; and by doing so, you’ll gain the necessary experience to improve and maybe write a lot less sucky poetry.