What is good poetry?

Today, a teacher came to me with a poem a student had written in his class for an assignment.  This is a science teacher, so I was intrigued immediately.  The teacher mentioned that he thought it was good, but he isn’t a good judge of poetry.  I was the expert, he explained, so I could judge whether or not it was any good.  I read it, but came to the same question that always plagues me when I assign poetry writing.

What is good poetry?

If a student writes simplistic rhyming quatrain like a kid’s Hallmark card, is that good poetry?  If an angry young man vents his rage in poetry form while misspelling and improperly punctuating his piece, is it still good poetry?  Does it matter if it’s only two lines long, or a seven page epic ballad?

How do I judge a poem?  Completely subjectively?  If it evokes emotion, that’s good?  Imagery, good?  What about a humorous poem, or a solid narrative poem?

In my student writing club, I do evaluate poetry.  I speak plainly about lines that are especially vivid, or the overall feel of the piece, or rhythm that has an off beat.  But there, I’m not looking to say if it is good or bad.  I’m merely offering constructive criticism to improve the piece.  That’s not the same as evaluating “Good or Bad”.

This is basically the problem in teaching writing.  How do you grade it?  Generally, I come up with a series of specific guidelines for writing assignments and a simple rubric to help me assess.  This means that a poem devoid of life, but is properly punctuated and uses the right number of metaphors and similes can get the same grade as the poem that makes the class break down and cry.

Is there a solution?  I don’t really know.  Any thoughts, faithful readers?

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts. 



  1. renaissanceguy said,

    October 9, 2007 at 4:51 am

    Been there. Done that.

    Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as though the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Too bad we can’t give grades based on lightheadedness!

    I look for originality and effort, which means that I end up grading the poems mostly subjectively. Since most poetry assignments that I teach involve a particular skill set, then I must also see evidence of mastery (correct syllable count or meter, correct rhyme scheme, onomatopoeia, etc.) for the student to get a high grade. I know that rubrics are the big thing now, but I rebel against a rubric for poetry. (Did you ever see the movie Dead Poets Society?)

  2. languagelover said,

    October 9, 2007 at 10:58 am

    What teacher doesn’t LOVE Dead Poets Society? Occasionally, I like to imagine my last day of teaching, which is quite a few years from now, and having my students jump up on their desks crying out “O Captain, my Captain!”

  3. 1poet4man said,

    October 22, 2007 at 5:41 am

    You will know good poetry – when you can count the beads of its perspiration… hear the breath of its exertions…when its words spoken out loud start to vibrate and rattle a foundation…


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