Writing at Its Best

by Maureen Riggi

This post continues our series of reflections on the nature of “good writing.” For Maureen Riggi, Forbes College’s office coordinator, poetry at its best creates a connection with the reader.

Poetry has a pretty imposing stigma. But really, how do you decide whether anything you encounter is “good”? It mostly boils down to opinion. You know what TV shows you think are good, what books you feel have literary merit, and what music you think is better than the rest. So why do people get tripped up on poetry? There seems to be a higher standard and more risk for judgement: “Oh, you don’t like Shakespeare, you say? Surely you must be simple-minded.” (Insert harrumphing here.) Poetry carries with it a pretty big “Do not disturb” sign that seems to frighten off a lot of folks. But I hope in this short essay to convince you not to let that bother you—come on in: the poetry’s fine.

You do not need a Master of Fine Arts to enjoy—or write!—poetry. So how the heck do you know a good poem when you read it? If it creates a connection with your own life in some way, that’s the good stuff. Much like hearing a new song that seems to curl up in the coziest place in your mind (or, dare I say, your heart?), poetry is meant to do the same. If you’re reading a poem and find a line or image striking a chord somewhere within you, that’s your first clue the poem might be good! Of course if that line is all you’re getting out of the reading, then you may have simply found a bit of beautiful language without the foundation of a good poem to support it—but you’re still taking something away with you. Tuck it into your pocket and smile.

It’s 2018. Gone are the days of the laborious formal poems you likely studied in high school: sonnets and the like. Without the hard edges of strict rhyme schemes, poetry has opened up wide, allowing poets to speak directly to their readers—yes, you! You’ll still see rhymes and formal stylings, but with softer edges: maybe a whisper of a Shakespearean sonnet with an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG end-rhyme scheme, but rather than stomp, that scheme will tiptoe, relying on slant rhymes (similar sounds that create a subtle repetition like the vowel sound of the “a” in park and start) rather than a traditional rhyme of cool/school. This softening lets you slip more comfortably into poems and feel like you know what the heck is going on.

In fact, in most contemporary poems, rhyme is all but dead. Today’s poets look to metaphor and vivid imagery to tell their stories, and readily deploy stark vocabulary rather than the flowerier language of Old English and the like. Good poetry leaves the mind whirring, but uncluttered: you’re not trying to cross-reference events and figure out the minutiae of every other word; rather, you are thinking about the big takeaway—what was the author’s message, and how is it meaningful (or not!) to me?

Perhaps the biggest stigma of poetry is that it’s not for everybody. But I promise you it is. And hopefully you feel empowered to go out and read and find some good poems for yourself.

Looking for contemporary poets to check out? I’m biased, but here are a few starting points:

  • Sharon Olds
  • Marie Howe
  • e.e. cummings (he shattered the mold, after all!)
  • Stephen Dunn
  • Tracy K. Smith (our country’s poet laureate, who will serve a second term through 2019!)