Sara M. Robinson
How will I know if my poetry is good? That is a question I am often asked. And it is almost impossible to answer. First of all, what do we mean by “good”? The person creating the work should determine his/her own definition. Good is SO subjective. But before you even ask that question, get the poem down, then work on the “good” part. For me to supply either an encouraging answer or to attempt to define it, would be like trying to train a rhino to heel.
But the question does determine an attempt. Here are my thoughts, presented as a list:
With something completed, ask yourself if you like what you wrote. Even if you like it, can you like it even more with some revision? Revision can be the most fun about writing poetry.
What was your original goal for the poetry? Did you achieve that? If yes, then think about the importance of the goal’s satisfaction. If no, then go back over what you write and try to find pieces to fix, keeping the goal in mind.
Read other poets and explore why you like or don’t like their writing. Use their writing to help you put together a definition for “good.”
Poetry is not just about good writing; it is also about feeling. When someone scratches your back, you say “that feels good.” Good poetry should also make you feel good. Also bear in mind that good poetry can make you feel bad. (And that could be good in a totally different context). Poetry is an intimate relationship in which both good and bad exist.
Think about texture of your poem. What other feelings do your words invoke?
Are you satisfied with presentation of the poem? How does it look on the page to you? If you are not happy with it, what changes could you make?
Don’t try to find “good” in one sitting. Let the poem under consideration stew for a while, then come back to it. Time is always on your side.
In her poem, “To Charlie, on His Poetry,” poet Alicia Ostriker writes, “The zoom of your poem would often/ pull far out from the scene you were capturing, // then you would nail it, down to the last/ pixel of the truth.” …
You will write in your life a number of words. Some will come together. Some won’t. When you feel like you have nailed your poem, and you feel good about it, then at the very least, for you the poem is good. Now you can get that rhino to heel.
Until next time…
Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).