What is a good poet? And who cares?
Seriously though, it’s unanswerable, subjective, redundant, a waste of time, clickbait, whatever whatever whatever. Of course it is. You know it and I know it.
Shakespeare or Spencer? (Someone in the crowd yawns.) Hughes or Plath? (That old chestnut.) Ashbery and O’Hara, pictured above? (Could be!)… But…
Let’s try another question:
Why does trying to answer the question “What is a good poet?” seem to matter to us?
Easy. Because when we think about why a poet might be good or bad at what they do, it helps us work out what we like about poetry. And when we think about what we like about poetry it helps us think about what we value in life. Not everything we value, of course, but some things.
And furthermore, if we also write poetry ourselves, it helps us work out how we might try to improve our own writing.
Is this obvious? You see, sometimes it feels like us poetry-type people become a little confused. And from what you see, say, on Twitter, there are an awful lot of us poetry-type people who become a little confused a lot of the time.
Say, “competition”; say “submission window”; say “theme for the next issue”; say “rejection email; say “workshop”; say “really rather expensive writer’s retreat”; say “funding application”; say “invitation to read”; say “featured in a fantastic new anthology”; say “entry fee”; say “the editors are looking for poems that reflect how they see the world or want to be seen as seeing the world and are maybe even saying how we should all see the world and express all that in poetic form”; say “the judges decision is final and no correspondence shall be entered into but understand that if your poem is accepted it’s because someone somewhere thinks your work fits the bill, and if it’s rejected it’s because they thought other poetry-type peoples’ work somehow fits the bill just a little bit better. For now.”
Has any of that previous paragraph got anything to do with improving your own writing, or working out how we might do so? No.
Has any of it got to do with being a good poet? No.
The fact is that there are probably too many people ‘out there’ calling themselves poets and considering themselves as being “good” or want to be “good”. One of them might be you. One of them might be me. There are also increasingly large numbers of poetry-type people calling themselves editors (that’s the internet and print-on-demand for you!), and many of them should perhaps not be in a position to elevate or denigrate the work of other poetry-type people. Maybe you’re one of those. And I’m an editor, so maybe I’m one too.
But really, none of that matters. Because when you write poetry (and it’s great that so many people do), it’s in essence – and little more than – a contract between you and the world. Then, if you take it somewhere to read aloud, it’s a wager between you and the audience. And oh yeah, you’ve just joined the entertainment industry. Good luck. Be professional, read well – it’s somebody’s night out.
And that’s about it. Write as well as you can. Read as well as you can. But being lauded as “good”? Nah, you’re having a laugh – it mostly misses the point.
Keep on doing what you do. Always try to improve. Work hard at it. Or don’t, if you don’t want to. And only ever try to be ‘good’ in a way that means something and brings value to you. It’s your work, after all.