Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of an interview on “What is good poetry?” with Writers.com instructor Jonathan McClure, author of the recently published poetry anthology The Fire Lit and Nearing. In this excerpt, Jonathan describes what he believes is the main element of good poetry, as well as the most common issue that makes poetry less successful for the reader.
What is good poetry to you?
My first question is, “Does it make me feel something?” Do I feel like I’ve gotten something out of it? That’s my initial test.
From there, you can talk about craft elements: Is it relying heavily on clichés, or is it using unexpected metaphors in interesting ways? That kind of thing. But the basic litmus test for me is, does it do what it’s trying to do—does it convey that experience that it wants the reader to have?
My question as the reader is, Does it make me feel something? In a way, it’s hardest for the writer, because you know what you feel, and you know what you want the poem to do, and so it’s hard for you to see what it actually does. One of the values of a workshop is really learning to hear those outside voices: what someone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about would say about this poem, coming into it fresh.
So I don’t think it’s just am I, the writer, having feelings I’m talking about, but rather it’s taking that raw material and shaping it in a way that’s going to mean something for the reader and for someone beyond me.
In your experience, what most commonly causes poetry to deviate from that sense of transmission?
I’d say by far the most common thing is that people who are new to poetry tend to rely heavily on abstractions, like love, or pain, or suffering: big idea words like that. They may say interesting things about those big ideas, but you’re never really allowed to get close to them; you’re only thinking about them in the abstract. So you may believe what the poet is saying or not, but you don’t really feel it yourself, in yourself.
I can say to you, “I’m sad,” but that doesn’t make you sad. If I show you a raincloud and a sad puppy, because you’re looking at these concrete objects that are creating that feeling within you, it’s going to feel more organic than if I’m just telling you about it.
So it’s a “show, don’t tell” thing?
Exactly, specifically with big concepts like that. It’s the poetry version of that fiction rule.