“Good” Poems?

While giving a workshop on haiku to teachers in Richmond on a recent Saturday afternoon, one of the teachers asked how to evaluate whether a haiku is “good” or not. My answer – that haiku, like all poetry, is intuitive and touches you in inexplicable ways – failed to satisfy the desire for some objective criteria. I had written a long list of common elements of haiku on the board and emphasized that those were to be used as tools – not as strict rules – for writing haiku. The problem in evaluating haiku is that some poems that meet all of the objective criteria for “good” haiku might still fall flat, while some of the very best haiku might lack some of the key criteria on the list. So, what makes a good haiku? Who can judge the quality of a poem?

One teacher suggested that if a student’s poem fails to get a positive reaction from the rest of the students in a particular classroom, then it is not a good poem regardless of how much the student who wrote the poem likes his own work. Aaagh. No! Wait! I may not be able to give a satisfyingly clear answer to the first question of what makes a “good” haiku, but on this point I am adamant; if a student likes his own haiku, that is a successful poem. A poet writes first to please himself; whether the poem touches other people in a profound way is secondary – it is wonderful, of course, but still secondary to the initial joy of satisfying your own need to write.

This past week I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, in which he offers the following advice to an aspiring poet:

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not now do. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.

Rilke goes on in this series of letters to advise the young poet to trust himself, to write of common everyday things from his own life experience, and to read great literature. It is natural to want to rate our work, to see how our own efforts stack up in comparison to the poems of our classmates or of the whole literary world. Rilke’s advice is right on, though, and a good reminder not only to teachers and students, but to all writers. Trust yourself. Don’t let anyone else – critics, editors, classmates – dampen the pleasure you take in creating your poems.

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7 thoughts on ““Good” Poems?

  1. Susan, I am so glad you posted this. So much of my own writing is my own way of exploring the world. I don’t submit to journals very often. When I do it’s because I want to see if certain haiku touch others too. But much of my own writing is exploring simple things…not very exciting things… almost a sort of diary of where I’ve been or exploring a place I’ve felt like I’ve been because I’ve had some sort of contact with that distant place. But those simple things can often prove profound…but you won’t find that magic if you’re chasing after “being published.” This is a great post…many thanks…

  2. Hi, Susan, And I’m so glad the poets of Mariposa send their work in too. Mariposa is one of my favorite journals as it keeps me in touch with a way of life from the other side of the country. Many insights I wouldn’t have access to here in the East. Thanks for all your work on it. Merrill

  3. Pingback: Across the Haikuverse, no. 1 « Red Dragonfly

  4. Dear Susan, Thank you for all you’ve done for Mariposa. It’s been great. I’ll miss both you and Ebba a great deal. Love this last issue. Merrill

    • Thank you so much, Merrill, for your kind words and for sending such great work to Mariposa while I was co-editor. You made our job so much easier than it otherwise would have been by consistently sending such high quality work. Your drawings became the signature look of Mariposa over the past few years. I will keep my eye out for your work in Mariposa and in other publications.
      Susan

      • Hi, Susan, I go where I think it will help. I’ll let your new editor decide if my art is in line with her vision. Like you I have found it more rewarding to go with the flow of life and let life take me where it will… it’s a fascinating journey. I always appreciated your encouragement and the great haiku you chose to make Mariposa such a substantial publication. Many thanks. con afeccion, Merrill

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