Expanisve Poetry Online Essay
The Hard Edges of a Poem
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics
Hunter College (CCNY)
Copyright © Joseph S. Salemi, 2004
Several persons have asked me to describe in general terms what I think constitutes
good poetry. I always reply that it would be idle to discuss poetry in the
abstract, since one can always find a good poem that escapes any preconceived
strictures. There's a huge amount of poetry available, and not all of it
is reducible to some common blueprint.
What I can do is describe the principles that guide me in the writing of
my own poems. Whether these principles are useful to other writers is for
them to decide. But I do think that my individual poetic practice can be
a salutary corrective to a lot of what is wrong with the contemporary poetic
mindset. A great deal of what ails poetry today can be encapsulated in three
words: flabbiness, softness, imprecision.
If the current poetic scene could be metaphorically imagined as a body-building
advertisement, most poets would be the "Before" photograph: the fat, wheezing,
skin-sagging schmuck who looks like a ripe pear, and who can't touch his
toes. The verse of such poets is out of shape. It lacks the hard edges that
one sees in a well-toned physique.
Poems need hard edges. They ought to be as recognizably sleek and sharp as
a bayonet. They can't be vague or gaseous or tentative. Poems—if they are
worth doing at all—must be clear and unmistakable. Let me outline what those
hard edges are for me.
The first hard edge is meter. A good poem's meter is crisp, unambiguous,
and not larded with half-assed substitutions. Of course some substitutions
are necessary at times. But if your verse has so many of them that the reader
has trouble recognizing your meter, then perhaps you are in the wrong field
of creative endeavor.
The second hard edge is grammar and syntax. Your poem must be coherent
and intelligible. If you begin with a noun subject, it ought to govern a
finite verb. The use of participles should be rigorous, so that every participle
connects with a specific referent. The syntax has to be such that, if someone
wanted to diagram your sentences, it could be done. If all this is too restrictive
for you, you're not really writing poetry. You're just spouting oracular
phrases. Find another line of work.
The third hard edge is vocabulary. Use whatever words you please,
but use all words in their prescribed dictionary sense. The habit of using
made-up words, or using standard words in some solipsistic private sense
of your own, is a sign of incompetence. You're not Adam in the Garden of
Eden, giving names to the animals. You are the inheritor of a vast literary
and historical tradition known as the English language. If you're uncomfortable
with that, go study Esperanto and stop bothering the rest of us.
The fourth hard edge is fearlessness. You must not have the slightest
qualm or hesitation about saying whatever you want to say. The worst kind
of censorship is self-censorship, the sort of squeamish timorousness that
makes you fatally irresolute when writing a poem. Don't be afraid of anyone
or anything—just write the best damned poem you can. Remember that you can't
be prosecuted for composing a poem, at least not in this country.
The fifth hard edge is wit. You have to have a strong sense of verbal
playfulness, mischief, and the sheer devilish fun of using language as a
weapon. The deadliest thing in a poet is staid middle-class earnestness and
propriety. If you don't take pleasure in puncturing the balloons of other
people's pomposity and illusion, you're just not cut out for this job.
The sixth hard edge is insouciance. You must be blithely indifferent
to the reactions of readers to your poems. Under no circumstances should
you tailor a poem to suit the tastes and preferences of a potential group
of readers. Your poem is answerable only to yourself, God, and your internalized
These hard edges, in my opinion, are what make for a good poem. I'll grant
that such guidelines are not for everyone. I can imagine a number, of ethereal
female poets for whom a list like this is cold, harsh, and drill-instructorish
in the extreme. Their poetry will be of a totally different sort. Not worse
or better—just different.
Nevertheless, that is what I think constitutes good poetry, in general terms.
I hope I have satisfied the inquirers.
Joseph S. Salemi