a Women Writers' Showcase
Preparing a Poetry Entry
Loraine Stayer
(Reprinted from "Slate & Style", April 2002, Volume 20)

I guess I'd have to start by asking "What makes a good poem?"  I can tell you what it isn't.   It isn't rhyme if in order to accomplish a rhyme you twist the language until it screeches; it also isn't prose.

Poetry has a certain rhythm to it.   It's not precisely the rhythm of prose or of speech.   Poetry's rhythm sets up an expectation, and the poem must fulfill that expectation or it fails; it's no longer poetry.

Is poetry song?  In some cases poetry can be set to music.   I believe we find an example of that in "The Wedding Song. "  But many songs when read aloud without the music seem commonplace, banal, ordinary.   In other words, lacing in the true components of poetry.

Some people believe merely expressing beautiful emotions will make words into poetry.   But that isn't enough.   Poetry is about language, not just words.   It's the difference between "I love you," and "How do I love thee?"

That said, how do you know what you've written is poetry?  You can start by getting your hands on the works of every major poet from Solomon and King David through Shakespeare, William Blake and Robert Frost, not to mention Dylan Thomas and other contemporary writers.   Read as much poetry as you can.   This will give you a feel for what makes a poem.   It obviously isn't the same for every poet.   If you want to prove this to yourself, read aloud a Shakespearean sonnet, and directly afterwards, a Mother Goose rhyme.

Poetry involves creating images.   Images are not necessarily visual.   They can use every sense:  taste, touch, smell, and hearing as well as sight.

Poetry involves compression, expressing much in a few words.   You can't pad a poem.   That would be like making a peach taste like a feather pillow.

Poetry employs the language of dreams: Metaphor and simile.   A smile is a brilliant sunrise.   A tear is like a glittering pearl.

Poetry involves emotion:  Love, hate, fear, nostalgia, regret.   Poetry has impact because it touches our feelings.   (Emphasis on because)

So what are the most crucial things to consider when you write a poem?  You want to consider your familiarity with good poetry and your experience in writing poetry.   You want to risk yourself by reading it aloud to others.

Probably courage is the most crucial element.   Are you willing to put your soul on paper?  If you are, you have the possibility of writing good poetry.  

Getting feedback on your work is also crucial.   Keep in mind exposing your poetry to a group is like getting onto a bus and finding yourself naked.   Everyone can see what you're made of.

Loraine Stayer lives and writes in Merrick, New York.  She has been editing Slate & Style, a magazine for blind writers since 1982.  Her first love is the novel, as witnessed by the hundreds of notebooks on her shelves, but lately she has spent time developing several short stories. Contact Lori.