Wednesday, 27 May 2015

When is poetry good poetry?

This question came to me a couple of times when I was sorting through a stack of entries to a North Devon anthology. As usual, the standard is very variable, with a lot of very accomplished pieces of fiction and memoir. Writing groups in North Devon have a high standard and are happy to critique constructively, most aren't of the 'well, that's lovely dear' variety. (There's a place for them too, I know). Consequently there is a marked difference between the poetry and the prose entries.

Which is what I'm thinking about. Writing fiction and poetry is so cathartic for many people, so satisfying - does it have to be 'good' as well? If the writer likes it and their family and friends like it, is that enough? What standard do we judge to?

Of course, there's another element here, people want to be read, they often want publication. And mainstream publishers are extremely fussy, they can afford to be. For them to hand over hard cash it has to be a) well written b) saleable and c) turn up at the right time. But in pursuing publication, are we overlooking the value of all of that less 'good' writing out there?

I enjoyed working through the anthology fiction pieces and discussing them with my other judges. Generally, we agreed on what should be included and when we didn't, we included as much as we could. But the poetry creates a dilemma. For me it's simple, put the best of the poetry in, but home-grown poetry isn't like literary poetry. Where a short story in a  magazine and short story submitted to the anthology aren't that far apart, the poems are much further from the literary ideal. Perhaps this is because there are lots of outlets for fiction in popular magazines, and few for poems, but I think at its heart the problem is one of reading. Amateur poets don't read the same poetry as published poets, so their idea of a poem is different. Here's some advice on telling the difference. How to tell a 'good' poem from a 'bad' poem

The problem for me is I see lots of poems that by those criteria are pretty good. They lack focus very often, the biggest problem with most of them is they need a lot of editing and development to get to their best. But they have the right stuff in them, they do the job. They evoke a feeling or an event in an interesting way, they connect people. but they aren't good poems by literary standards.  

So what do we do with the not-literary poetry, the poems that don't look or sound like the ones in the poetry magazines and collections? Some of them are just too sentimental, some lack structure or timing or include clichés, but they are still full of emotion and imagery and heart.  Perhaps we should call them something else, spoken songs or poetry of the people, because I think they are an important part of the total scope of creative writing in this country and we need to cherish them. In the meantime, I shall encourage local poets to keep reading, not just the popular poetry but some of the literary stuff as well. Here's a sample of poems to read that will start you off - and entertain you. They run in the poetic veins of our culture, but are they all 'good' poems?

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