What constitutes good poetry differs from person to person, and what one reader might enjoy, another will not. Judging a good poem is very subjective. Basically, this means there is no way to truly determine what ‘good’ poetry is, but there is a way to tell if poetry is ‘bad. 'Poetry, more than any other type of writing, is usually very personal or emotional. Because of this, readers will like poetry with which they can feel a personal or emotional connection and probably won't like poetry with which they cannot connect. Just because someone can't relate to the emotion of a poem doesn't mean the poem is bad, and just because some can relate to a poem doesn't necessarily mean it is good. Like I said, it's very subjective.
The first thing you most know about poetry is that there is no set of ‘rules’ for poetry. While there are some guidelines for certain types of poetry, such as a haiku (which is written in seventeen-syllable verse form, arranged in three lines of five, seven and five syllables), most poetry tends to be free verse. Some of it rhymes and some of it doesn't, and that's okay!
When writing poetry, avoid using all caps or toggling between upper and lower case. This does nothing to appeal to the reader and actually detracts from the visual imagery your words are supposed to convey.
Using phrases such as “Undying love" or “I love you more than words can say" are cliché, and honestly, unoriginal. We've heard these tired lines over and over. Plus, there's nothing worse than reading “I love you more than words can say. . . " but then to go on and read three pages of a poem where words are saying how much love is there. If words can't express love, then why write the poem in the first place?
Avoid over and under use of punctuation. I have seen a lot of poems that have no punctuation at all, which makes it difficult to read and pause while reading. I've also seen poetry that has an over-abundance of punctuation, which causes the poetry to be choppy and hard to read it with any type of flow.
Don't misspell words. Edit your poetry, proof it, read it out loud like your reader would read it, not like you think you have written it. Poor spelling or misuse of words will detract from the emotion of your poetry.
When writing poetry, esoteric poetry is great, as long as the reader can get a sense of what you mean or can connect and find a meaning all their own. A poem that makes no sense and leaves the reader wondering, “What was that about?" is truly not good poetry. The reader doesn't have to understand it from your point of view, but they need to be able to feel something or understand it from their point of view.
Fresh imagery, visual imagery, or emotive conveyance - you want your reader to see something they have never seen when reading other poetry. You want your reader to be able to visualize your poem, in full living color - see it, feel it, or even for the moment to live it, and you want to do it in a way that others have not done it many times before. Poetry that fails to do this is simply not good poetry.
Take a look at how the poem looks on the page. Are there some lines that linger out longer than others? Does it look choppy or have a weird flow to the lines of the poem? In fiction or non fiction writing, how the words appear on the page is pretty much standard, but in poetry, how the lines flow, the ‘shape’ of the poem is sometimes as important as the poem itself.
Think about how the words flow, the meter and rhythm of the cadence. Does it have a beat, a pulse, a pattern? It's not required, but when you read it, does it flow well? Read your poem out loud and see if your voice rises and falls naturally with a good ebb and flow.
Good poetry does not have to rhyme, however, if you do rhyme your words, don't stretch too far to try to make them rhyme. For example, if one would have to change the standard pronunciation of a word in order to make it rhyme, this is not good poetry - with the exception of humor poetry, which sometimes forces rhyming as part of the very humor of the poem itself.
Use the proper words and meanings. Just because a word sounds interesting or rhymes with another word, that doesn't mean it's okay to use it if the meaning of the word doesn't fit with what is being said. After all, poetry is more about the meaning than about the reading of it - a word may sound good, but if the poem makes no sense, who cares? Get yourself a good synonym finder online or a good thesaurus and look up interesting or even archaic words that mean what you want to say, but never throw a word in there just because it sounds good if the meaning is skewed. Again, humor poetry is an exception, and sometimes using words intentionally incorrectly might be the point of the poem if it is meant to be humorous. I adore ‘play on words’ poetry.
Human beings like twists. We don't always want to know what is going to happen next. Poetry is a story in verse form, and it should have a ‘plot’ of some sort that we can see. Use irony, metaphors, analogies - tell us a story, and let us be sucked into it. Make your poem a condensed short story and give us a good ending to our short word journey.
Okay, after all I've said, this one will seem to contradict - emotion isn't enough! I know, I have said over and over to be emotive and make us feel something, but truth is, your raw emotion is not something with which I can connect. Write your poem based in and infused in your emotion, but do it in such a way that I can feel that emotion too.
Oscar Wilde once said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. "
Emotion is good, but poetry needs words to convey the emotion, and you should choose the words and the meter and style that fits the emotion you want to convey to the reader of your poem.
Emotion isn't only sorrow or love or grief. . . happiness and elation are emotions too. Humor is a great way to convey emotions to the readers of your poetry. When you are stuck on a poem, try taking a break and write about an opposite emotion instead - be silly, be funny, and the person who reads your poem can have an emotional connection to that too. Good poetry doesn't have to be esoteric and morose.
In the end, good poetry is the poem that makes you feel something. . . it will make you think, respond emotionally, laugh, cry, get angry - but FEEL something. If a poem fails to evoke emotion in a reader, then it is a bad poem. If a poem cannot be understood or the reader cannot connect to it in some way, then it is a bad poem.
And lastly, don't write poetry just for yourself. Some of the best poems ever written were written by the poet for someone else. Learn to write for you as well as for other people who will read your poetry. Spark emotion in them, make them laugh, smile, cry or scream - and if you do, that is how you know you have written a good poem.
Michelle L Devon is an award winning and published poet as well as a professional freelance editor. You can see a sample of her poetry prowess by picking up a copy of the book, In a Perfect World, a Series on Lost Love and Redemption, sold nationwide in fine book stores or from online retailers such as Amazon.com. For more information about Ms. Devon's writing, you can visit her author's site at http://www.MichelleLDevon.com