As you read poetry, inevitably, there will be some poems that you like and some that you don’t. Some poems will reach you in some way, and others will not. If you read enough poetry, the sense of what you like may become intuitive. Although you might not be able to explain why you like or dislike certain poems, which way you feel can become clearer.
In some ways poetry can be like food. Why do you like a particular food? Other than “it tastes good” you might not be able to give reasons. You just like it. If though, you spend enough time eating different foods, thinking about their characteristics, and thinking about what you feel about those characteristics, you can start to develop a more explainable reason for why you like certain foods. You can transition from “it tastes good” to “it’s crunchy and salty, with a little sweetness, and it’s not too rich and …” You can become more precise.
The same notion can apply to learning what you actually like and dislike about certain poems. If you spend time reading enough poems, noting their characteristics, and thinking about what you feel about those characteristics, you can get closer to a place where you can explain what you think makes a good poem.
This idea can be useful in a number of ways.
First, you can get a better appreciation for poetry. You can understand, at least in your own view, what makes some poetry good to you and what makes others not.
Second, you can get an ability to explain why you feel the way you do about poetry. This can be important if you are discussing poetry or debating poetry ideas.
Third, it can enhance your own ability to write poetry. If you learn what characteristics you like in poetry, you can incorporate those characteristics into your own poetry and write poems, that at least in your view, are better. You can come to like your own poetry more.
As you look at poems, there are a number of characteristics you can look at. Some relate to form, some to ideas, some to content and some to other things. Below is a list of some characteristics you can look at as you think about the poems that you read.
- Poem length. The length of a poem is a good characteristic to start with. Is the poem short, like a haiku? Is it medium in length, like a sonnet? Is it long, like a free verse poem might be? As you read more and more poetry, you can get a sense of whether you like longer or shorter poems.
- Formality of form. Some poems have very formal forms. Think for example an English sonnet. Other poems have unstructured forms, such as a free verse poem with form elements. Other poems seem to have no definitive form structure. As you read poetry, you can think about if you like stricter form poems or those with less formality.
- Personal or Impersonal. Some poems you read will be personal to the author. They will be writing about something that directly impacted themselves. For example, they might write about a disease they have. Alternatively, some poems will be impersonal to the author. They will be writing about something they are detached from. For example, they might write about a disease they have only heard of, but have never had. Obviously there is also a space between those two.
As you read poems, think about which you like better. Do you like poems that have a personal tone to them, such that you feel the author’s connection, or do you like poems that are more detached, such that the poem is more about the subject and less about the person?
- Outside references. Some poetry you read will have outside references. They will mention specific places, names, books, music and so forth. In some cases you will know what the reference is about, and in others you won’t. In cases that you don’t know the reference, in some poems there will be enough context to make the reference understandable, and in others there will not.
As you read poems, ask yourself if you like outside references or not. Do you feel that the references add to the poem or do you feel that they distract from it?
- Line length. This idea is a bit different from the idea of poem length. A poem can have long lines, but be a short poem. Conversely, a poem can have short lines, but be long.
As you read poems, you can think about which you like better. Do you like the separation of ideas that short lines provide, or do you think it makes a poem choppy? Do you like the completeness of thought that long lines might give, or do you feel like they make the poem feel long?
- Subject category. Poems can be about so many different things. In some sense, everything in the world could have a poem written about it. That being said, the subjects of poems could be fit into categories. Some poems are nature poems. Some poems are relationship poems. Some poems are disease poems. Some poems are war poems. The list goes on.
As you read poems, make a note of the category that the poem is about. Think about if you like poems about that subject or if it is something that doesn’t appeal to you.
- Rhyme. Although this relates to formality in form, in some sense it can be considered a separate category. A poem can have an informal form and still have rhyme. It is one of those things a reader might “notice” about poetry. It is one of those things that might make poetry, “sound like poetry”, if you are just starting to read poems.
As you look at different poems, pay attention to the rhyming quality. In some cases it will be overt, and in other cases it might be more subtle. As you read, think about if the rhyming appeals to you or not.
- Clarity or obscurity. Some poems, at least overtly, are very clear. A reader can easily understand what the poem seems to be about. Although there might be underlying symbolism and metaphor, the direct expression of the poem makes sense.
Other poems are more obscure. There are poems that have to be read multiple times and gone through piece by piece before even the overt expression makes sense. Within these poems, there might be much symbolism and metaphor underlying the expression.
As you read poetry, think about what you like. Do you like poems that are clear, direct and make sense the first time you read them, or do you prefer poems that take time for the understanding to come through?
The above are just some aspects of poetry that you can look at as you read poems and decide about what you like and don’t. There are many more categories you could look at.
As an exercise, you might find a number of poems by different authors, such as might be in different literary magazines, and evaluate each one. You might look at twenty or thirty poems. You could make a table with the names of each poem on one side and the categories along the other. You could then note your impression of each category for each poem.
As you go through the poems, the hopeful idea, is that you will find yourself writing the same things. You will note, for example, that some poems have rhyme and that you don’t like that, or, for example, that some poems are short and you do like that. As you look at the poems, hopefully, what you like and don’t like will become clearer and more precise. At the end of the exercise, you might be able to write a list that shows what you like in poetry and what you don’t.
Although whether you like a poem or not can feel intuitive, there is a lot to be gained from thinking about poems, evaluating them, and understanding how you feel about their characteristics.