One of my favorite things about moving to Wilmington has been how many people I come across who are eager to talk about writing. The other night, while out with my boyfriend, we met a great couple who engaged me on the subject of what makes a good poem. The guy had sheepishly said that he admired people who wrote poetry because he didn’t think he could, to which I, used to hearing that kind of assertion from my students all the time, softly argued that he could, in fact, if he wanted to, that like all things worth doing, writing poetry required practice.
Well, okay, he answered. But that’s the teacher in you. But what overall makes a good poem?
At first it was argued that there were some irrefutable notions of craft that “qualified” a poem to be good, but I started to feel very strongly against the idea that good poetry exists on a hierarchical scale or graph with certain craft and style elements sliding along the axes. I admit to this argumentative feeling even as I attempted to survive this past semester by clarifying for my students how to make their poems “better” by using rubrics–which, of course, is in some ways another way of saying I spend my professional hours cultivating technical, precise ways to evaluate what makes a poem good.
But apart from arguments about rhyme vs. no rhyme, formal patterns vs. free verse, image-driven vs. narrative-driven, I really do believe on some level definitions of “good” are personal and subjective. One person’s subjective notion of “good” can cross over with someone else’s and thus help the work in question reach a universality that poets like Maya Angelou are great at capitalizing upon. That said, ultimately, when sitting in an audience with an ear to the stage or entering the private room within the space between your eye and the page, “good” depends upon what you bring with you. “Good” is entirely within your power, as a consumer. As the audience. As the reader.
We forget that. We ascribe deity-like status to those favored by power-house publishers (or, when you are at my level of being a writing student: any publisher). But if I learned anything from my experience this summer at Bread Loaf in Cheryl Glenn’s Engendering Rhetorical Power course, I learned that audience is everything. It is from the audience that one derives the power of being made “good”–or, at the very least, effective.
That’s not to say that the poet, or rhetor, or artist isn’t in control, or that they don’t work hard to master certain rhetorical devices and other elements of craft as they balance against individual creativity. Of course they do. But elements of style go in and out of fashion and cycle back again as the years drift along. To definitively say that one form or style is better than another is sheer foolishness if one operates with that perspective of time in mind. In my mind, the only way to discover how I love to write is to more deeply consider how I love to read, so that the product of my writing speaks to me on that same level. And if someone else consults with herself from up against my piece and deems it “good,” great! And if not, so be it. The non-negotiable variable in this equation is myself. I forget that: that my first audience is always myself. Whether or not I decide to craft the piece and re-work it and edit it with another audience in my mind after that first draft is another matter entirely. (Which is part of the reason blogging is so interesting: you never do quite know who your audience might end up being).
This semester I worked for Ecotone, the school’s nationally distributed literary magazine, and we had a hard time putting into words just what it is that makes an Ecotone story, essay, or poem. In essence, the question, for me, boiled down to: what makes this essay, story, poem “good” for us vs. the ones we ultimately decide are not?
My answer to that ended up being a broader way to navigate the ever varied, ever rich literary landscape, and ended up being echoed in my final answer to the lovely couple we met at Husk: it’s good for me when the artist is able to encapsulate some seemingly ineffable quality of life as I have lived and understood it thus far, especially as that quality relates to place and environment. When the authors are able to wrangle that quality into words in such a way as I had not yet considered, but nevertheless, deeply recognize. That confluence of surprise and recognition is key, for me. When I can sit in a flood of familiarity and still feel awakened–or even the opposite, when I am called into an existence I do not or couldn’t previously have spoken of with any sense of authority yet still made to feel at home. In class, I called it the strange being made familiar, and the familiar made strange–a type of chiasmus I’ve heard before that has always stuck with me.
In Alan Bennett’s play turned film, The History Boys, the English teacher at an all-boys schools talks down a wretchedly depressed student, speaking of literature as salvation. When we come across lines that seem to set down especially for us, he says, “it’s as though a hand is reaching out across time.”
Lovers of books, we all have one, at least one, I think, that we harbor in our hearts as being that kind of book. A life line.
That’s not to say that is the only definition of “good.” Nor do I claim that it is anything other than a working definition. It is in fact a discussion of the effect of literature I have loved, not actually an in-depth analysis of the elements of craft that seek to demonstrate the how and the why of this question of what makes a piece good (in part because the variable elements of the how and the why don’t always have a ready thread of commonality beyond that of: strong imagery, balanced lyricism with confessional narrative, clean mechanics–and because there are many pieces of literature that DO exhibit those qualities that nonetheless still leave me cold!). I have plenty of colleagues and friends who might push for a more rooted, academic, structured, thematic, or craft-oriented definition of “good” when it comes to writing. Some of whom may scoff and roll their eyes at the blast of sentimentality I echo above in my definition.
But the best part about this question is that it calls upon all of us to assert that definition for ourselves, once again affirming my belief that audience is everything, especially when we consider ourselves as part of that audience. And it is in the rare, unifying moments when we can leave to consult our deepest self and return to a wider audience only to find that we in fact agree on some singular quality of art that we can truly feel our hands reaching out to touch, even across space and time.
I thus consider it my job these next few years to discover more about my audience. To find my readers. To figure out a way to make my words a bridge, to turn my phrases into reaching palms.
In other news, I’ve lost my way a bit this semester. I got caught up in obligation, as is my human wont. I neglected my personal writing here and didn’t produce as much new material as I had intended. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I will always fall short of my own ambition, the way my words will likely always fall short of my intended meaning. In some ways, perhaps this can be helpful, as I will never be bored, never too self satisfied. In the spirit of being kind to my writer self, the other day I decided to list out all the things I accomplished this semester, instead of, as I’m so often inclined to do, harshly dwelling on all the goals I did NOT accomplish. I surprised myself with how much was actually on that list as well. Those who know me well know that I am a great lover of lists and trying to organize myself and my time spent. I highly recommend anyone feeling lost or uninspired or unhappy with their writing progress (or, really, life progress; this works well for sport, too) try it!
In the past six months, I
*wrote 20 new poems; two new personal essays; hundreds of workshop critique letters for my students and peers; 10 critical essays; 100 slush reviews.
*successfully taught at the college-level and saw all my students through the ups and downs of their first foray into the sustained creative writing process
*moved from Detroit to Santa Fe to Wilmington in my car
*joined a new gym
*practiced teaching yoga to friends
*subscribed to literary journals and yoga/running/vegetarian magazines
*explored the Wilmington riverfront by boat and the Wrightsville Beach by foot
*established a downtown routine, including hitting up the farmer’s market
*joined a running group
*started a new blog
*worked to establish residency in a new state OR: re-learned the charms of bureaucracy
*learned how to manage social media and a blog for a non-profit
*made many new friends
*visited or hosted many old friends/family
*started an independent reading/research project that will supplement my creative projects as well as accelerate my degree for Bread Loaf
*re-learned how to live, cook, exist, and clean alone OR: successfully made a stab at being a real homemaker rather than a slob on a weekly basis
*travelled to Asheville and Boston and Michigan
*flexed my muscle of “NO” that had previously been rather weak by turning down responsibilities that would be too much
*joined and captained a volleyball team
*submitted to a household name literary journal for the first time, as well as to an academic conference in March
When I list everything out like this, I cease to berate myself bitterly for not writing daily, for not reading the stack of books I have acquired on my nightstand and dining room table, for not blogging regularly, for falling short in assignments or my own rigid expectations for myself, for gaining a grad school ten, for dropping out of the half-marathon–etc., etc.