Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Generally Agreed-Upon Qualities of Good Poems, with Rick Kempa

guest post by Rick Kempa

I put together this list, “Generally Agreed-Upon Qualities of Good Poems,” so that the students in my poetry classes at Western Wyoming College would have a point of reference in the art of shaping the words that come spilling onto the page when the floodgates of inspiration are pried open.

It is not meant to be didactic, exclusivist, all-encompassing, chiseled in stone, written in blood, tattooed on the writing hand, or any such thing; it is just a list (and a fluid one at that) intended to give us a language for thinking and talking about our poems-in-progress, so that we can do more than say things like, “Your poem is great; maybe add a comma or two,” or “It’s missing something, but I can’t say what,” or (worst of all) “It’s perfect; I wouldn’t change a thing.” We want to be able to articulate what makes a poem “work” (when it works). We want to say something specifically helpful about the poems-in-progress that we are aiming to improve. Hopefully this list will help.

Generally agreed-upon qualities of good poems
Whatever their shape or their length or their subject matter, good poems usually embody these ten traits.  Aim for them!

  • voice   (Develop your own. Don’t hold back!)
  • precision  (Aim for “the right word in the right place.”)
  • economy  (Make everything contribute; no slack.)
  • vividness  (Find “words for the world.” Use fresh images that appeal to the senses.)
  • clarity  (Challenge us, stretch our limits with language, but aim to be understood.)
  • development   (Be willing to push the poem forward, to keep exploring.)
  • music  (Make the poem’s music somehow suitable to its subject.)
  • fittingness of form  (Make the poem’s shape—its stanzas and line-breaks—mirror the meaning or the tone.)
  • surprise  (Break the patterns. Delight us. Give us a twist.)
  • subtlety (Employ the light touch: A little bit goes a long way.)
Poet, essayist, and editor Rick Kempa teaches writing and philosophy at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs. Learn more about Rick on the Wyoming Authors Wiki.

Susan chimes in....
I've often noticed in critique groups that my fellow writers -- particularly the ones more fond of writing prose -- get that "deer in the headlights" look when confronted with a poem. That's why I was grateful at last year's Wyoming Writers conference to sit in Rick Kempa's session where he shared this advice. With this in hand, I had better tools to see where a poem excelled or could be made better. It didn't hurt that as a teacher, he was kind, entertaining and encouraging.

Having experienced Rick as a teacher, I was fortunate to come across a copy of his book, Keeping the Quiet, so I could get to know him better as a writer. I found pages filled with beautiful language and love of family. His poetry touched me deeply. It will be a treasured volume on my bookshelf.


  1. This list is very helpful. Thank you, Susan and Rick, for sharing it here. Though I can recognize a good poem when I read or hear one, I've never analyzed the particular qualities which make it so, and therefor have also struggled as a fledgling poet with trying to craft a good one. This does indeed give me something to aim at and much needed direction.

    1. I've struggled with the same thing. And sometimes I'll have a poem that I really feel IS working ... but I have no clue why. I'm planning on printing off this list. Always something new to learn!


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