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.

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Emily Dickinson: “A Certain Slant of Light”

Read the poem

What is so great about this poet is that she can really turn a compact phrase. I have heard Emily Dickinson sneeringly called, “the undergraduate’s favorite poet” and at the same time critical giants like Harold Bloom consider her one of the greatest. Whether you think her poems are clever (in the worst sense of the word) or clever (in the best sense), the first four lines of this particular poem illustrate poetic thinking at its best.

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