The Only Bad Poem is a Dead Poem, or: Random Thoughts on Meaning in Poetry

What makes a bad poem?

  • too cloying and / or angsty?
  • too cryptic and indecipherable?
  • uses too many words like “cryptic” and “cloying”?
  • composed by Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, or a Vogon?*
  • reads like pop music lyrics from the 80’s?
  • doesn’t rhyme?
  • does rhyme, but in a Dr. Seuss-y kind of way?
  • a trochee got jammed amidst the iambic pentameter?

In my opinion (typically, not humble), the answer revolves around meaning and feeling. Poetry is a product of words, and for every other product of words, clarity of meaning is at the forefront of desirable traits.

Allow me to illustrate: Say one produces a business memo, and one hands copies around the conference table. If, having read the memo, not all readers are in agreement about its meaning, one has failed as a memo-writer. (Unless one or more of the readers is an idiot.)

However, if one produces a poem, hands copies around a table, and everyone agrees about its meaning, you’ve failed as a poet.

Like any blanket statement about poetry, that one is a lie. My point is that meaning is overrated as trait of poetry. Poems can be like Zen koan. If you can grasp the meaning intellectually some old monk will be there to cuff you upside your noggin (probably figuratively, your own inner angry Zen monk.)

So if conveying meaning is purely optional, what to convey? Feeling. Sounds, images, and even metaphors can evoke a feeling in one reader that’s different from the next reader, but evoke a feeling in each never-the-less.

So, just ask, will this poem make a reader feel some kind of way?

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* This is a joke that only makes sense to those who’ve read Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” books. If you haven’t, go read at least the first (same-named) book and come back. I’ll wait.

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