What makes a good poem?
I like to ask my students this question. They usually fumble with an answer.
That is what makes reading poetry with students rewarding. Eventually, even the hardest teenage heart will come to at least appreciate the complexity of language — maybe she’ll never appreciate the beauty of it, but she will appreciate the craft of the poet.
Sharing good poems with students on a regular basis proved a hard goal for me this year. (Better than last; not as well as I wanted.)
One go-to book is Garrison Keillor’s collection of Good Poems, as Heard on the Writer’s Almanac. It is a must for every English classroom. My wish list includes two other volumes: Good Poems for Hard Times and Good Poems: American Places.
I especially like how Keillor sets the tone of the selection with poetic lines in the introduction that describe what makes a good poem:
Stickiness, memorability, is one sign of a good poem. You hear it and a day later some of it is still there in the brainpan.
What makes a poem memorable is its narrative line. A story is easier to remember than a puzzle.
[Poems] surprise us with clear pictures of the familiar.
And this beautiful paragraph, an epigraph for Emily Dickinson, really:
To see poetry finding an existence that its maker never imagined, visit Emily Dickinson’s grave in Amherst. Here lies the white-gowned virgin goddess, in a cluster of Dickinsons, under a stone that says “Called Back,” and here, weekly, strangers come as grieving family, placing pebbles on her big stone, leaving notes to her folded into tiny squares, under small stones. Dickinson was a famous recluse who camped in the shadows in the upstairs hall and eavesdropped on visitors, and now there are few graves in America so venerated as hers. She is mourned continually because the quickness and vitality of her poems maker her contemporary, and when you make flies buzz and horses turn their heads and you declaim Wild Nights! Wild Nights! and give hope some feathers, you are going to have friends in this world for as long as English is read.
I just love that, and Dickinson isn’t even my favorite.
My students need the chance to find favorites, and that is why I must expose them to good poems. Reading aloud poems on a regular basis has the same effect as talking about books regularly.
Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Will you participate?
Because I know I need to be more consistent with poetry, and even though we are in the middle of a giant writing project, my students and I paused this week and talked poetry. We read and questioned and laughed and loved being immersed in beautiful language.
We pulled the poetry books off the shelves, (I only have about 15, so far, so we had to share) and we wrote out poems on pretty paper to put in our pockets. I challenged students to share their poems throughout the day.
Some said sure
but meant no way.
Others will follow my lead:
“Hey, do you want to hear a good poem?”
©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015