25 Characteristics of an Enduring Poem

Author: Bruce Cohen

I suppose I am a natural voyeur: I like to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations, I get easily sucked into reality TV & I can’t stop myself from reading the Personals, though I find them too impersonal, not revealing enough. I love to unravel the most intimate secrets, hear & see that which people do not wish to reveal, even to themselves. I am addicted to hot-gossip; as child I always chummed up to the tattletalers & I am not too ethical to place an empty water glass on the common wall of the hotel I am staying at for one night only. If I were a little less moral I would consider drilling holes in those walls. My damaged & brilliant & insomnia-cursed poetry mentor insisted that each time one sits down to write a poem he should reinvent poetry, an impossible task no doubt, but a lofty target which helps me make every effort to avoid imitating the successes of famous poets or my favorite poems, or even diminishing my own minor successes.

I want my first line to be sexy, in-your-face alluring, demanding a reaction so that the reader can’t help but move her barstool a little closer, inquire if I will tell her more. Often she will offer to buy me another drink. Once the reader is hooked, a little tipsy from the poem perhaps, I want her to be nervous, edgy, unsure, eyeballing the emergency exit, perhaps noticing that it is cemented shut, making sure her pocketbook is within reach & her pepper spray has not expired. The weather is nasty & there are no cabs to be found. I like people who are smart & funny & vulnerable, unafraid to say something that is so deeply personal it makes me blush, on the verge of embarrassment, feel simultaneously world-included & world excluded. I like my mundane life experience to be validated in poems, because mostly, I don’t fit in, have no complete friends, only partial acquaintances. I like things that do not, on first impression, seem to fit together. I think poems should possess such an esoteric life vision that only that writer could have written that poem.

Mostly I am clueless, but sometimes I overhear a quirky turn of a phrase or a random, unusual idea crosses my mind & I feel obliged, obligated, to explore it, see where it leads me. I can’t help myself. There is no subject matter that is not poetic; I exclude nothing; I am receptive & open minded during my initial draft. Not in real life though. In real life I have very inflexible ideas but I change my mind a lot. I don’t like most people. I am wherever I am at that moment. I am never where I am at the moment. It seems obvious that art is everywhere. I don’t try to control my poems but I do try to be a good listener, follow where they want to take me. I like it when they are musically insistent, i.e. have more accents than unaccented syllables per line & I like a little obsession which, for me, translates into passion. A dirty little secret: I will force music into an invented truth rather than stick to what actually happened & will toss a poem out for the crime of being unmusical. I like my music to be subtlety disguised, not an obvious cross-dresser. I like poems to sweep me off my proverbial feet & I love a voice that I have never heard before. I am a soft-touch for raspy voices that seem to exist on the edge of anger & awe & desire. I like my poems to reveal their suffering but to express them matter of fact-ly. I am not afraid of lingo or the vernacular or slang or sophisticated academic intellectual diction or plain talk or the entire complex scope of American language co-existing within one poem. I love consistency but have no use for consistency. Be alert: art can be anywhere.

I like surprise parties but I don’t think I have ever had a surprise party. (Hint). I like to revise. I love to revise. I am married to revision & revision is my secret mistress & a one-night stand & I don’t care how pretty she is but she is fabulously beautiful. I love them all the same at the moment they are with me but have no loyalty to any of them once I am comfortable in my own alone-skin, watching reality TV on my couch. The morning after is the morning after, a new day. I am ruthless in junking poems. I often think of my favorite poems sometimes when I’m writing but I wish I didn’t. I wish they weren’t in my head. I junk my poems primarily because they don’t shock my intellectual sense of the world or pose questions that advance my understanding of my life or if they simply seem too much like other poems I’ve read. I have grown into a grumpy guy, hating the sameness of a good deal of American poetry. I read many, many, many of the literary journals & I find that too often the voices of poets are interchangeable, indistinguishable from one another. This bugs me to no end. I want, I demand, a distinctive voice. A Picasso is a Picasso. I can recognize John Berryman blindfolded in the dark. You get my drift. My sincere & painful confession: I have never written a good poem, but I try to write a lot of poems in the hope that I can get lucky & stumble upon one good one before I croak. What does a good poem look like? A good question Brucie! Something that does not exist yet— but when I see it I’ll know what it is; it will be unlike anything else I’ve ever read but will seem inevitable: of course, why didn’t someone think of this before? I guess I am a genius I will say to myself if it so happens.

I write my first draft like there’s no tomorrow & the time bomb strapped to my chest is ticking madly away & I revise like I will live forever, that the world is in a continuous & all inclusive game of freeze-tag. I constantly remind myself: no subject matter is taboo—avoid “poetic” topics as I find they often handcuff me & I am petrified I will slip into the predictable. I find it useful to try to trick myself, to drive into strange neighborhoods & let language guide me until I get to some other landscape within my brain. I have an advantage as I am horrible at reading maps & I don’t own a GPS. It’s rare, but sometimes it even snows in the Sahara.

I like poems that validate my secret thoughts. I like poems that make me see the world from a different, slightly surreal, angle, that tell me something I didn’t know, but maybe suspected. I like poems that are moving in a way that makes me renew my love for the world. For many years, while raising my sons, I wrote with one foot against the door: my house was metaphorically on fire & I needed to get a draft spat out before the fire engines got there. Impatience is a virtue. Impatience destroys art! So, what makes up a good poem?


Characteristics of a Well Written Poem

  1. The first line of the poem should be inviting, seductive, shockingly interesting or comforting, luring you in.
  2. The poem should astonish the reader.
  3. The poem should make you see the world in a way in which you have never seen it before. You should gain some insight into your own life or it should change you.
  4. You should have a least one image or perception that makes the reader stop reading the poem in utter breathless amazement.
  5. It is probably better to have your images emerge from the same world.
  6. Your line breaks should have a logic that is clear but not intrusive.
  7. The poem should be euphonious.
  8. It should be evident that the writer was surprised or learned something she didn’t know before the composition of the poem.
  9. There should be an element of mystery and understatement in the poem, even if the poem is an “in-your-face” poem.
  10. The poem must have a unique and distinctive voice, voice being the way in which the writer “thinks”.
  11. With an authentic voice, the way something is said is infinitely more important than the intellect of what is said, mostly: the attitude of the speaker towards the subject matter becomes the subject matter.
  12. The language should be imaginative even if the situation is not, but the language can be flat and subdued if the subject matter is imaginative.
  13. Clarity with a hint of being on the edge of understanding is always beautiful and worth contemplation. Obscurity for its own stake leads to reader frustration.
  14. Yet. No poem that can be fully comprehended on a first reading is successful.
  15. Nothing superfluous: no extra words, no extra syllables. No explanation of what you said in the poem: trust your images.
  16. .Always aim for at least 50% accented syllables per line whenever possible.
  17. Be generous with caesuras. Allow the unspoken silences of the poem their equal time. Sometimes the best part of the poem is what is left unsaid.
  18. Notice how the use of polysyllabic and monosyllabic words affects the tone of the poem. Do your word choices make the poem feel emotionally accurate?
  19. Would you like to go on a cross country car ride with the speaker of your poem? If not, maybe you should consider the company you keep with yourself.
  20. Your poem should make both the writer and reader a little uncomfortable, fidgety.
  21. Your poem should pose questions that are difficult, if not impossible, to answer.
  22. There should be a sense of intimacy in the poem, a revealing of something you’ve never exposed before.
  23. It’s impossible to write a surreal poem; what can be more surreal than the world as it is? The world of synesthesia is not surreal.
  24. Your bond with language should be greater than your connection to your perceived reality.
  25. Every time you write a poem you should re-invent poetry.