The Hermit Poet

June 27, 2005

Good and Excellent – Little Emerson Revisited

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 1:07 pm

Barbara Reyes comment on my last post triggered this further line of thinking…

Essentially the problem is our inability to agree on what exactly makes a poem “good”. Our aesthetic and internal sense of what is “good” or maybe more appropriately, what is “excellent” is largely a product of our social-historical-cultural context. Often the educational system and the media tell us what we should think is good — this leads to some sort of homogeniety, but tends toward mistaking “good enough” or “barely sufficient” for “good”.

When someone says a poem is a good poem, what do they mean?

This poem is good because:
1. It has certain qualities that I find admirable — ie. I like how it sounds / looks on the page / etc
2. It does something technically difficult very well
3. It is a well-crafted and thought-out expression of language
4. It appeals to me on a cultural, political, nationalistic, or religious basis — ie. I agree with its message
5. It reminds me of something else I really like — ie. It’s a poem about dogs, therefore it must be good.
6. It teaches me something new and surprises me.
7. It’s something I wish I had written
8. It describes my life and fits my thinking
9. It makes me rethink my assumptions about the world
10. It makes me feel better
11. Someone important/famous said it was good.

… and undoubtedly many others

I don’t agree with all of these, but I think that some combination of these factor into everyone’s definition of what is “good”

In the end, poetry is itself a form of rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion. As such, it makes its appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos.

Ethos — the poem tries to make a connection with us through a sense of authority, whether it is from some reference to another well-respected poet or poem, or to an easily recognized person. Whether we feel the poem is good or not, may depend on our own reaction to this appeal. (Narrative poems are usually strong on appeals to ethos)

Pathos — the poem makes an appeal to our emotions – it makes us angry, happy, sad. It tries to move us emotionally to a new place. (Lyric poems tend toward pathos — not bathos).

Logos — the poem makes an appeal to our sense of logic – it reasons with us, draws us down a line of thought, a case and its evidences. (Language and formal poems appeal strongly to logos)

However, any given poem consists of a combination of these.

Perhaps how we individually determine if a poem is good is by its success in making its appeals to us.

How well any appeal succeeds is more than just a function of our background and context, it also is a reflection of who we are at a given moment in time. Each time we revisit the poem, we return as a different reader.

In response to the Little Emerson challenge, I find the likelihood then of any set of nine editors to come to consensus on what is truly “good” to be highly unlikely. What is “good enough”? Perhaps.

Any thoughts?

Leave a Reply