Defining Great Poetry

“In art, you’re free.”

–Marvin Bell

One of the delights of my web presence is that I sometimes get emails from writers and readers fairly new to poetry. Recently, a young marketing executive in Singapore wrote to me. In our most recent exchange, he rightly points out that, especially in the US, there seem to be countless poets, poetry awards, and poets with awards. How, then, do we define great poets or poetry? He gave me permission to answer publicly, on this site.

In doing so, I first have to admit that I do not feel qualified in any way to define great poets or poetry. I can really only comment on the poets and poems that are great within me. I have been giving this some thought, and have identified a few common characteristics.

Voltaire is reputed to have said, “Verses which do not teach men new and moving truths do not deserve to be read.” That’s a bit harsh. But I am inclined to agree that poetry does involve its own kind of “truth.” It is not a factual truth, but more what Seamus Heaney called “a ring of truth within the medium itself,” since, according to Emily Dickinson, a poet “tells all the truth but tells it slant.” I also think poetic truth needs to be both new and moving in order to reach toward greatness.

Some would argue that newness, especially innovation in language, is all that matters. I think, instead, that innovation is actually a by-product of great poets seeking after new truths (which are often, in fact, old truths newly arranged). The quality of moving the reader in some way is, to me, essential. This does not need to involve an intense emotional outpouring. But if the reader is the same before and after reading the poem, then the reader has not been moved, and the poem can hardly be said to have fulfilled its potential for greatness.

Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz are two poets I think are great. Among other things, Heaney mostly wrote about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Milosz mostly wrote about occupied Poland during World War II. The combination of their position in history, and the profound ways in which they related to such difficult subject matter, make it clear why they were both awarded the Nobel Prize.

I believe there is an energy and intensity that comes with discovering poetry as a means to reconcile life’s difficulties, and then discovering how much one needs such reconciliation, or, at least, creative freedom. However, the drive to write does not necessarily require such epic circumstances. Emily Dickinson wrote poems of remarkable ingenuity and skill in the midst of a repressive life as a Victorian spinster. In fact, I think that anyone sufficiently sensitive to the circumstances of the world in which we live has all the encouragement necessary to seek the solace poetry can provide.

The most common characteristic I can identify among those poets I consider great is their absolute hunger for the freedom in art. It is this quality that galvanizes talent, effort, patience, endurance, and everything else I find inherent within those poets I most admire. It is true, as Marvin Bell points out, that in life we are not free, and even the most privileged life can be a burden. But in art, we are free, and this freedom, and the poetic truth that issues from this free space, can touch to others in ways that are great inside of them as well.