Poetry | The "Je ne sais quoi" of a Good Poem

A beautiful young lady I met at a meeting in North Carolina a few years ago is now college age. She asked if I could give her a little jump-start on an assignment to write a poem on the subject of Springtime.  Here is my letter to her:

Ellicott City, Maryland

March 21, 2014

Dear Hannah,

Your mom wrote that you could use some help getting a poem started for school.  I’ll be happy to try to do that.  They say something once taught is twice learned so, thank you for helping me to develop my own talent a bit more.

What is poetry?  It is the most advanced form of human communication.  It is far beyond mere rhetoric and far beyond any scientific treatise, because a well-written poem communicates on many levels all at the same time.  Yes, it communicates simple information, just as other types of writing do—but it also communicates emotion.  More than that, it transfers emotion from the poet directly into the soul of the reader. A poem communicates not just on a physical level but on a subconscious level and even a spiritual level as well. As my friend, mentor and former writing professor, Manfred Wolf, wrote to me recently: “A good poem does have a certain Je ne sais quoi about it.”  More than just not knowing what it is that makes it a good poem, it can leave you slightly stunned–if the poet is someone who really speaks to you personally.  In my case it’s Emily Dickinson.  Her little short poems are sometimes like acid cutting through the steel of my preconceived notions, and maybe my prejudices as well.

Here’s how I start a poem:  Write down what you want to say, in regular prose.  Your assignment is to write a poem about Spring.  Write down all the emotions you feel about Spring, positive AND negative, if you do have any such feelings about it.  It might be negative for someone who has recently lost a loved one and the happy sounds, fragrance and balmy breezes keep reminding that person of happy times they spent with their loved one and therefore winds up   compounding their feeling of loss.

On the other hand, things are good or bad by comparison.  Use the soggy cold, muddy images of winter to emphasize the beauty, comfort and ease of springtime.  Use the quiet, lifeless woods of winter to showcase the riotous life breaking out in the spring such as squirrels chasing each other or mocking birds having song competitions across a field or woods.  When I came to North Carolina from California, a few years ago, the woods around Mooresville were bare and the forest floor was brown.  Then one day the dogwoods bloomed in the forest and they were like a layer of white clouds, a cottony staircase marching up the hills between the ground and the tops of the great hardwood trees.  The comparison between those delicate white flowers and the roughness of the tree bark and  dead leaves on the forest floor was very striking and memorable to someone seeing it for the first time.

The next step, after getting your emotions about your subject out onto paper is, start to pare it down. Throw away unneeded words; boil it down.  If you can imply something without even saying it directly, so much the better.  Experiment using synonyms and see what emotional effect the change of wording creates.

It’s not enough to provide information about the beauty of spring or even a very accurate description of springtime scenes  if you don’t clearly communicate your emotional reaction to those scenes.  Even better, would be to show some psychological or emotional growth within you as the poem progresses.  The reader is learning the lesson you learned right along with you as if they were re-living the experience of coming to an “epiphany” the same moment you did.

Go back and read a few poems by Emily Dickinson or perhaps Robert Frost.  Sip, don’t gulp.  Take a sip and roll it around in your mind and savor the taste like one would do with a fine wine. Read and re-read the same poem several times while meditating for a few moments at the end of each reading.

I haven’t said anything about rhyme or meter.  Songs have both, and poems used to.  Now it’s optional.  Rather than strict meter such as Di dah, di dah, di dah, di dah —di dah, di dah, di dah, try to make sure that there is a pretty flow to your verses.  Read a newspaper article for an example of where little or no thought has been given toward maintaining a smoothly flowing rhythm in the mind of the reader.  Re-read your own poem when you think it’s finished.  Does its rhythm have the feel of a bumpy road or a beautiful new Interstate Highway?

I hope these words are a help to you.  This is the first time I’ve ever tried to teach someone about poetry.  My best wishes for the continuance of your education.


Vern Kerr