Poetry is often described as a personal art, expressive to a point nearing complete subjectivity.
Yet, there are certain measures of objective quality. We have a sense when a poem is innately bad, rooted in subjective matters of taste and interpretation. That much is hardly in debate. Opinions will always be plentiful and varied when it comes to poems, though some near being of an “objective” perspective, given their years of experience, practice, or prominence within poet circles. One might be tempted to claim that the only platform for judgment of a poem is from atop the peaks of one’s own experience. Given the nature of poetry as written word that bends and breaks the rules of prose in terms of structure, grammar, and even narrative, it would be fair to become an unerring skeptic of the idea that poetry might ever have a chance at a fair, objective trial. Yet, I would argue there are certain measures of objective quality — or at least subjective tastes so universal that they approach as close as we can to an objective stance. One such issue is on the nature of an “immature” poem. But what do I mean by that?
There exists a certain cliché that stalks poetry as an art — the notion of moody teen poetry, steeped in self-interest.
But why is that poetry bad? What gives it the natural position at the bottom of poetry’s quality and skill curve? How can it be so clearly labeled? More importantly, why is that label such a communicable term?
It is an immature attempt to explore one’s ego — confined to one’s ego. One’s inner-self or ego can be a powerful thing to explore in poetry and prose, but it has to be done properly in order for people to connect with it. The cliché of a bad poem is a work that fails to connect with people. Even when viewed a thousand times, creating it has the same effect as screaming into a void.
A line like “my heart is darkness and I am bleak like the moon, soaked in the blood of a thousand ravens” sits poorly. It isn’t inherently bad on every level. So let’s look at where it fails. The imagery isn’t weak, thought it might be a bit dissonant, given the idea of bleakness contrasting with something being soaked, but it’s far from outright awful. The words are strong, if not a bit excessive. Some people might even resonate with it. The words are used properly. The problem is the possessive nature of the statement. It may not come across as possessive at first read, because it is a declaration of one’s feelings, but that is where its possession thrives. It is claiming ownership of a certain feeling. Starting with “my” and reinforcing with “I” serves to weaken the applicability to readers. It’s not the expression of or the story of an experience that other people can claim. It comes with the unwritten caveat of “and nobody will ever feel the same way I have felt.”
When I first began writing poems, I did so in a manner that heavily relied on using “I.” As I grew older and wrote more, I started to notice that every poem that heavily relied on being statements about myself and my feelings bugged me. They felt weak, uncomfortable, embarrassing — but the embarrassment was not from the vulnerability they represented, it was from the lack of quality or demonstrable value. At best, I’d written a wordy way to say “I’m sad about something that happened recently but I would like to keep the reason vague.” I’m sure other people have felt that, but it simply isn’t evocative.
A good poem can take the fringes of one’s experience in an emotion and tug on them to bring someone into a condition of empathizing outside their own direct experiences. That’s why love is such a common subject — even among the famous and talented poets. Everyone has experienced love in some way, but no two loves are the same, so we have to rely on the common threads, the shared fringes that poetry can pull on.
As time went on, I learned to not only feel bad about using “I” but to outright reject it whenever possible. The reasons are different from, but not entirely dissimilar to that of writing a formal essay without “I.” You don’t want the reader to think these are your opinions, in an essay. In a poem, you don’t want them to believe that these emotions or thoughts are unique to you. You want to resonate with people. You want people to connect to your work.
Here is a poem I wrote in March of 2011, before I had even graduated High School — a poem that I have filed away in a folder marked: “Borderline Irredemable Poems from the edgy sad starter days”
I seek forgiveness where there is no fault
I in myself create this guilt
I cannot help and am to blame
For all misfortunes that are dealt
There is this sense
Which I feel
And seek to redress
But in itself
There is no cure
A fatal flaw
of distinct allure.
Can you see what I mean? Most of the poem is declarative of my feelings. It doesn’t explain anything. It is, in part, another example of failing to show, rather than tell, but more importantly, it doesn’t even go so far as what telling does and tell you about an experience or events or a narrative. It tells you that I feel guilt, that I seek forgiveness. It doesn’t help the reader feels these notions. It lacks any and all subtlety.
Of course, moody poems are not the only genre to fall into this trap, just the most common for the cliché. Love poems do it as well, but I think because love poems tend to flatter their victim, there is no accounting for taste. Moody poems don’t target anyone, because they are, by nature, introspective (unless they read more like an indictment or manifesto…which would be its own problem).
In psychology terms, as mentioned before, this would be an issue of being stuck in one’s ego, lacking experience in more broadly applicable things, or even one’s peers lacking such experiences, leading to the perspective of being the only one who might understand one’s own plight. I’m certain these poems are often written by people who consider themselves abnormally mature. I know I did. Poems like this, even if they use vibrant images, still inherently refuse to take the reader anywhere. They are not a journey. They are not an episode.