To come back to this knotty problematic. The words artist, poet, literature, writing, poetry, poems, human being/s are all interconnected but down the ages, fortunately, or unfortunately, some people have got the name of the great poet, or good poet, and some poems have got the name of great poetry or good poetry. While all this may be pooh-poohed by many who want poetry to be just something that makes them feel, this “I feel it, I feel you business” is only one of the measures of good poetry. There is the question of what made you feel, and how, and why. In academia, poetry is judged by many yardsticks. Some talk of political correctness or relevance as a measure if they go by the content-centric school. Some go by things like how a poet uses figures of speech, imagery, and ‘sound’ or music devices, and themes if they believe in and go by the tenets of new criticism and close textual analysis. Poets themselves are as diverse as leaves on a tree in their opinions, as are readers as to what constitutes good poetry or great poetry. Is it its resonance with a certain culture or national pride or savviness in making things popular and canonized. or the other many things it is supposed to be, including where all one got published and in which all libraries one’s book appears in that makes writing good? Is popularity a measure?
I return to my main point, poetry is not really all this but a linkage between the author, the text, what the references are, as in what the poem refers to, and the richer the references or allusiveness the better for the poem, or the readers who bring to it their own references, texts, and worlds and emotions and interpretations, thus enriching what is at the beginning, at best, just a bare outline and at worst not even that, and if this happens the poems becomes itself and comes into its own. At this point, I can widen the frame of reference and say this definition includes not just poetry but any form of written art or any kind of art. The modern world moves towards groups and if we look at museums the curator matters, if we look at anthologies the editors matter, if we look at communities interactive participation matters and individualism plays only a part in all this. This democratization or post-modern levelling where all matters and everything does, and no one matters and nothing does, is also not what I am talking of when I mean good or great poetry as it is only part of the process around it, framing it, according to me. The final proof of it is in the writing if the poet has been sincere enough to give it his or her best, and the reader too gives it his or her best and this becomes a groundswell that leads to hundreds and thousands and billions of people reading it in many places/spaces and over time, that is over hundreds of years, and writing of/about it, in the effort to keep it alive, and if it survives the ravages of time, space, readers, forgetfulness, discrimination, and chaos, then perhaps it is destined to be called great or good poetry.
Let me take a poem for consideration, to illustrate some of my points. I will not say who it is by, initially.
With Annie gone,
Whose eyes to compare
With the morning sun?
Not that I did compare,
But I do compare
Now that she’s gone.
This is a very simple poem. I am sure people who read it will like it though it is small. The first line talks of parting from a loved one and this might have been through a falling out or even death, it is not clear. The second line alludes to a typical poetic device or figure of speech, the simile, and bringing in ‘sun’ at the end of the third, a slant rhyme. There is implicit visual imagery too, there. Those familiar with Shakespeare may remember the line “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” at this juncture.
This is the reader, me, bringing in the Shakespearean sonnet-text, to make more sense of the quoted poem. Shakespeare compares, and comparing finds that while poets lie by exaggerating their muse’s beauty probably to please him/her/them, this does not mean that he loves his mistress less. The quoted poem in this frame is apposite, the lover did not compare, but now that the beloved is gone, does. There is regret, wistfulness, and guilt, as he realizes the value of the person gone, but it is too late to set it right. This is beautiful how with a few words, a bareness, an economy, the poet, who is Leonard Cohen, by the way, tells us how much he feels that he should have been more sensitive to the inner and external beauty and needs of someone he actually loved but lost due to his inability to “compare” and articulate what he found. What he regrets, unlike Shakespeare, is that his love was not genuine and poetic enough, while Shakespeare says false love couched in poetic terms (“false compare”) does not interest him, he would rather love genuinely and not use hyperbole but its antithesis, understatement, to describe his lover’s beauty. There is no doubt that both are good poems and good poets but let me now give Shakespeare’s poem.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
We imagine Annie and her eyes and the comparison but here, in the second poem, we not only have a sonnet with meter, rhyme, and perfect stanzas and form, but beautiful imagery and more to imagine as comparison and contrast with inverted similes(“nothing like the sun”), and striking metaphors. We find a rare felicity in the words used that expands our vision and vocabulary. We find humour in the comparisons that make us laugh or at least bring a smile on our face and at the same time the ending brings in an exalted note of both the inner virtue of the woman and the sincere love of the poet.
For me, the first is a good poem, a lovely one, but the second is a great poem. If I was to judge solely on the basis of these two poems, the first poet would be what I call a good poet and the second a great poet but fortunately, I do not have to judge, as both exist in the wide realms of poetry, art, literature, writing as their own suns, lights, moons, candles or flames and have their own niches or mansions but while there may be some who say both poems are equally good and there is no need to “compare”, or that the first one is better being more minimal, etc., for me, the second one teaches more while I also enjoy the first one, and so I lean to that as winning the contest, self-made if this is a contest. Forgive me.
Readers will of course be of many sorts and if given two poems to read and compare with no names of writers attached they will come up with interesting subjective choices as to which they like and some will even say they dislike both or hate both or are indifferent to both or like the one you don’t or love it and vice versa. This is called reader response but even here, over time, objectivity is reached if the readers persist in reading and rereading and are honest with themselves and others as to their own reactions even as they also change.
We see poetry can be enjoyed at many levels but to come to decide for oneself whether it is good or great one has to give it, as readers, more than one takes from it, to reduce one’s biases and prejudices as well as the ones that others would thrust on us as to how to read it, who to read, why, when and where, and probably that is what I want to say in this essay apart from saying that poetry is a world as wide as the universe and so one must walk in it humbly to learn all that it has to give one.
Updated Bio of the Author: Dr. Koshy A.V. is a fiction writer, literary critic, essayist, non-fiction writer, editor, anthology maker, literary theoretician and poet. He has founded Autism for Help Village Project, with his wife, Anna Gabriel, The Significant League, with Reena Prasad, and instituted the Reuel International Prize for Literature besides inventing the Roseate Sonnet form. He is working presently for I-Nurture at Jain University, SET, Bangalore, India, teaching ESP. He has 25 books with his name on the cover. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has certificates from Harvard X, World Bank, and other places, besides having two Amazon best-seller books to his credit with Santosh Bakaya and Jagari Mukherjee, named Vodka by the Volga and Wine-kissed Poems. He is famous for his A Treatise on Poetry for Beginners.