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Recently, a reader found my blog by typing “how to figure out if your poetry sucks” in a Google search. People find my blog through all types of searches, but I chuckled at this one.

Flickr photo courtesy of pericomart

Poets at all levels of experience worry about whether or not our poetry sucks. Often, as we contemplate our poetry, we experience gnawing doubts about our abilities as poets and about the quality of our work. However, the question of “how to figure out if your poetry sucks” tends to be a beginner’s question.

Experienced poets, whether we acknowledge it or not, usually know when our poetry sucks. But as a beginner, it’s natural to be confused by what makes a “good” poem.

Distinguishing Good Poetry from Sucky Poetry

There are so many types of poetry in culture—good, bad, and ugly. Through experience, poets come to recognize what’s weak about a poem, what’s clichéd, and what simply isn’t working. But when you’re first starting out, writing a strong, successful poem can seem elusive, mysterious, or maybe even impossible.

Lacking experience, it can be difficult to tell whether or not your poetry is any good.

You know what they say about beauty being in the eye of the beholder? Well, poetry is like that. If you think a poem is beautiful, if it moves you, if it makes you think and seems to speak some truth to you, then that’s a “good” poem.

However, if you’re looking to publish your poems, then you’ll need to develop a sense of what critics and poets agree makes for good poetry.

Luckily for the beginner, there are some simple indicators that distinguish good poetry from weaker versions.

One Sucky Poem and One Not-So-Sucky Poem

As an exercise in determining what makes for a good poem versus a weak poem, take a look at this excerpt of one of my poems:

The light reflects your skin.

Impossibilities recede.

I trace where I have been,

find the knots and knead.

Run my fingers through your curls,

twisting and bereaved.

Pulling me into your world,

from your mouth the air I breathe.

You are not alone,

as you walk away.

I am here with you right now,

praying that you will stay.

I’m steady on this ground,

holding on with all my might.

You are not alone,

your fears eclipsing light

Umm…can you guess the title of this uninspired poem? That’s right: “You are not alone.” If you like this poem, then great. But trust me, it’s a real stinker. The premise is terrible, the rhyme is laughable, clichés abound, and some of it is so vague as to be nonsensical.

Now, consider this excerpt from another poem I wrote:

Stories sculpt figures,

construct apartment buildings

plant fields and wield iron, forge

whole countries of strangers

we come to believe we know.

Stories create things.

Poetry takes them apart.

Unstitching the unseemly seam, breaking

open rocks, chiseling crystal composites,

uprooting forest ferns just to smell

the fertile musk of soil and finger

the tangled, threaded flesh.

This poem is entitled “Poetry, say it.” This isn’t the greatest poem, but it is a stronger poem than the first. It manages to use relatively original descriptions, its premise is more interesting, its language is active, and its images are concrete.