April 1st – On the difference between a good poem and a great poem

(fess up time – I’ve been working on various drafts of this for a while now, but it finally solidified in re-visions this week, so I’m counting it as my first poem of the month)

(2nd fess up – it may actually be prose. or a lyric essay. or a prose poem. it feels like poetry, and that’s good enough for me.)

On the difference between a good poem and a great poem
Elliott batTzedek

A line, like the tightrope between the twin towers, the one with the Frenchman all mania and magic—the line between a poem that’s good and a poem that’s great.

Words teeter along the balancing point, the tipping point, the moment the puppet becomes a real boy, the moment form’s armor becomes living skin you find you must reach to touch, the clay at the moment it lumbers off golem, immense forehead branded with the single perfect letter that bestows a soul,

the moment a soul is bestowed upon words.

A soul you can almost measure in its depth and heft and opacity and there is a solid pleasure to be able to take the measure of a good poem, but then other times you find yourself inside a soul looking back out at yourself at your world and that is a great shock.

A great shock, too, to be driven over words so sharp that reading across them makes eyes bleed.

Great is not a question of good and then a little more so. Good poems raise and answer questions, as image or metaphor or objective correlative, but to raise a question and leave it hanging, knotted into a noose of words that makes you both hangman and hanged, to refuse questions that beg answers that beg for a question, to give the truth but not what it means, to have a how so urgent that the why is unnecessary,

to have these is to have words that justify the brain having ever evolved language.

Highly quotable lines, lines that make sense of the world, that get cited and copied and sent as email signature lines—hallmarks each and all of solid poetic goodness. Quotable lines, so much prettier than the pale quivering jelly that is a line from a great poem ripped from its shell.

Show, don’t tell, what any poem does to be good. But every rule can be shredded over the greater of poems that tell exactly whatever the hell they need to tell and show only the how of the why of the needing.

The poetic line, the sharpened distinction between a careful architecture rising toward the sky and the sky birthing from itself its self.


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