What Makes A Great Poem?

Dave Lewis - Writer
Nov 6, 2018 · 4 min read

What a strange question! OK, maybe not. For what it’s worth, here’s what I think…

I often wonder what constitutes ‘good’ these days. Especially when you read some of the absolute drivel that is passed off as poetry by (mostly) young girls who put the word poet (in brackets) after their names on social media and use words like creative and passionate a lot, without really knowing what either means — argh! Ah well, so much for puberty.

OK, I was lucky. Spoilt you might say. I had no-one to ask so I taught myself. I learnt what was considered good by reading other people’s stuff. And many years ago there was only really Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge in my local library so that’s what I read. I then discovered Dylan Thomas and he opened my mind to the wonderful possibilities of language.

Later, while studying zoology in Cardiff University I used to pop into the Old Arcade (a famous rugby pub) and would often bump into John Thomas; a gay, alcoholic poet, who told me I should read T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. So I did.

Then I met a beautiful English student who used to read me William Blake whilst we drank red wine and listened to her hippy vinyl. Ah, happy days!

As the years passed I spent several of them on a dusty floor in Booths bookshop in Hay-on-Wye (the largest second-hand bookshop in the world) and discovered Russian revolutionaries and the beats.

In fact I still get excited when I encounter a new poet I like and my shelves are starting to resemble those in Hay (weighed down with words and sagging in the middle).

Then I was lucky enough to join one of John Evans’s (Welsh writer and environmentalist) creative writing classes. John taught me loads of stuff but also convinced me I could write a bit.

So, what have I learned about what makes a good poem? Easy. A good poem makes me think, cry or scream. If you don’t go ‘F*@K MAN, WOW!’ afterwards, you’re reading the wrong stuff. A bit like listening to Tom Petty or Lou Reed compared to whatever shite is being peddled by corporate reality TV.

If it doesn’t make you feel something what is the point? If wine didn’t taste nice would you drink it? If curry didn’t tantalise your taste buds would you eat it? If sex doesn’t leave you breathless you’re not doing it right. And love, ah yes, love. What else is there? Oh yeh, poetry.

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OK, now the boring bit, it had to come.

Use rhyme, meter or rules, but better still, learn the rules, then break them in new and interesting ways.

Read, read and read some more.

As Ezra Pound told Hemingway, cut out the adjectives. In other words don’t use too many. One great line or phrase, or even a fab word is better than a page of verbal diarrhoea. Seamus Heaney wrote the word ‘clack’ to describe oysters on a plate. When I read that I hit the roof — perfect!

Don’t waffle.

Stop trying to be Tennyson. He was great but we’re living in the world of Twitter, the Chinese raping Africa of its ivory and gold, that orange idiot and his mushroom-shaped, tiny knob, the plastic pollution that is killing life in our oceans and Russians poisoning us while Internet hackers cause the next stock market crash before the inevitable nuclear war (just kidding about that last bit). Write for now.

Don’t use old clichés / tired metaphors unless they are being ripped apart, taken the piss out of or used for some artistic effect other than what they were originally written for…

Get personal. OK, maybe not too personal, but at least show the reader you care.

Whilst rhyme is often seen as out-dated it can still be great if used well but don’t forget to fill your poems with colour, music or smell. Get with the rhythm baby!

When you’ve finished, read it aloud. If it doesn’t sound right or flow then it may need editing.

Personally, I doubt I take much of my own advice. I just write whatever nonsense pops into my head at whatever time I can grab a pencil or tap something into my iPhone. One thing I do know is that I’ve forgotten more great lines than I’ve ever managed to get down to parchment (or Microsoft Word). Ah well, shit happens.

W. H. Auden said — ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ I see his point but personally I tend to do far less editing than I should, mainly because I’m always seeing something new to write about and so I move on. A bit like Bob Dylan ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ — in the greatest poem / piece of art ever created.

OK, off you go and write some kick-ass poetry.

– Dave Lewis

Dave Lewis is a Welsh writer whose poetry collection, ‘Going Off Grid, is a rant at digital capitalism, the negative influence of big tech and our addiction to data. He lives in Pontypridd and sometimes rides a bike.

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