What Makes Me Call a Poem “Good”?

I came across a copy of this post in my notes today and think this one from February 2018 deserves a rerun…


As a poet I am always pondering what makes a “good” poem.   Of course, subjectivity plays a big part.  Nevertheless, some poems appeal to vast numbers of people of all ilk. What makes a poem or dance, a symphony or painted picture touch the golden cord /chord of universal appeal?  My daughter Kathleen Irving’s theory of enlightenment helped me figure it out.  Turns out it works for evaluating any kind of art.  Best of all, I’ve discovered it acts as a jump start when I can’t come to grips with a poem or when I lack inspiration.

Kathleen’s Buddhist perspective led her to think that enlightenment requires “a swan dive across the corpus collosum.” brain

The corpus collosum is the bridge in our human brains connecting the left and right frontal lobes.  Kathy says to achieve a sophistication of the spirit, heart and mind must connect.   But it takes more than a first fertilizing plunge.  Again and again the diver must cross and re-cross the distance between feeling and thought, strengthening the connection needed to carry the juice, the energy, of new creation.  The finished piece embodies the vitality of this surge.

Reading, touching, gazing at such work, observers experience swan diving between their own hearts and intellects.  They undergo two simultaneous experiences.; something like interacting with the famous picture where one can see both a young girl or an old woman in the same drawing; crone-300x158or the way a shaman sees an alternative dimension existing simultaneously with our everyday world.  Intuitive and logician, sensate and dreamer come together within the observer and both become en-lightened – made lighter and more whole.

Bringing the swan dive to consciousness has helped me grow as a writer; especially during the process of finishing my  book, Sitting on the Hag Seat: A Celtic Knot of Poems. 


Composed in the glow of my pilgrimage to Ireland, the first few poems almost wrote themselves. The second tier took a little more thought.  Delving into memory, reliving the journey, I thought deeply about the personal significance I found in places and events I had witnessed.  More poetry transpired, but soon enough the moment came when I felt I had written all I had to say.

The problem was that I had made a pact with Ireland, or rather with the spirit of the place we call Ireland.  I had promised it a book.  I am not a superstitious woman, but I know the oathramifications of breaking such a promise.  It was a sort of geas, an oath undertaken knowing that to forswear meant I would be haunted forever until the promise was fulfilled, possibly in some unexpected and unpleasant way.  Besides, I like to keep my promises.

So, I began to research the places I had visited, delving into myth and folktales.  I looked up every archetypal symbol that presented itself, explored Irish history, traced the lineage of its kings and queens.  I widened my focus by including my family history, former visits to the Ireland and even far-fetched associations,  Ireland’s appellation, The Emerald Isle, had me googling emeralds.  I ended up with a wealth of topics to write about, but everything I wrote was forced and artificial.  I kept crumpling, discarding and erasing before remembering the swan dive.

In order to write an authentic poem, I needed to find a heart connection with the ideas on my list of topics.  For instance, in the book into thematic sections it occurred to me the sacred trees associated with Ireland’s ancient runic alphabet would be a good choice. tree alphabet

Sadly, I had few personal connections with the fourteen trees I had chosen.  Back I went to their specific myths, stories, etymology and dendrology.  I began making mind maps with my chosen tree drawn in the center, adding associations and memories as they arose. Soon enough some visceral reaction would occur and I’d find myself mid-dive.  Take, for example, my poem:

 Beith – Birch – Ogham Letter B

Night forest reflects the moon

in intermittent silver streaks,

slender threads of argent

woven through dark tapestry,

each filament a guardian birch,

tree nurse, soil minder,

Lady of the Woods,


preparing soil, venturing

in barren places ravaged

and laid bare by flame.

First tree to follow after ice,

mammoths nibbled her limbs,

aurochs sheltered in their shade.

Her branches drive out evil

sweep away detritus.

Leaves heal, sap sweetens,

wood burns bright against the cold.

She is the beginning place,

herald of the New Year

reviving, replenishing, restoring

and Beith is her beautiful name.

My way in here came through Beith, the word for Birch in Irish and the letter “B” in the Ogham alphabet.  Beith looks like Beth, a shamanic friend of mine who reminds me of a birch tree.  She is tall and slender with a wild cascade of long silver hair.  Beth became the heart connection, linking my idea about sacred trees to a person I care for.  The birch in the poem, incorporating aspects of the real tree, became a metaphor for her dear self.  A birchfurther correspondence exists, between the mythical and magical attributes of Birch and Beth’s spiritual path, deeply embedded in the mystical aspects of our natural world.  Though I don’t mention my friend in the poem itself, the truth of my affection for her translates into an authenticity that informs the poem and gives it vitality, power and tenderness.

This process of purposefully searching for the connection between my idea and a corresponding personal meaning evolved out of trying to define “good” writing.  By incorporating my daughter’s “swan dive across the corpus collosum” I found a means, through research and association, that precipitated my own swan dive and its resultant poetry.

Acts of creation seem to arise from the meeting of intellect and heart.  I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith across the abyss of the absurd.  Perhaps, ta artist needs both an abyss and the willingness to engage with nonsense to manifest something  original.  Perhaps only the void, the space between the things that are, can generate and contain the spark of creation that precedes the birth of new life.





This entry was posted in Herstory, Meaning, Poetry, Thought, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s