The Broome Review

What Makes a “Good” Poem?
Andrei Guruianu

Quick Note about this issue: This Editor’s Issue of The Café Review is different from our normal published reviews. We have asked 14 editors of poetry journals from across the United States two complex question: Why do some poems stand out from others? And what is he state of poetry in America today? Their answers will surprise you. We hope this issue will give poets a better sense of what editors look for in poems. You will get the inside scoop about why different journals accept different types of poems. For teachers, this issue will answer questions students have about the dos and don’ts in submitting poems as well as the perennial question of why poetry matter.

When authors query The Broome Review before submitting their work, one of the most common questions I am asked is, “What kind of poems are you looking for?” It would be all too easy and trite to answer that I’m looking for the “good ones.” But, of course, that’s what all editors look for the best possible work they can get their hands on.

Authors despair, of course, at such a generic answer because the qualities that make a poem “good” are extremely subjective. If I think a poem is good, another editor might think it needs quite a bit of work, and vice versa. To make matters even more complicated, tastes change. We grow, evolve, and adapt as readers/writers/editors.

The following guidelines are my attempt at applying some kind of general code of quality control over the poems that have a chance of making it into an issue of Broome. These, of course, come with the caveat that they are not 100 percent infallible, that there are always some exceptions, and that they can change over time.

First, a poem has to have a strong beginning. It has to grab you. It has to, as in a good introduction to an essay or a piece of fiction, pull you into the “story.” It has to make you want to continue reading. Take for example the first stanza of Stephen Dunn’s poem, The Gasoline Sportcoat, published in our No. 1 issue:

     At parties, women with skirts
          slit up to their thighs
     have been known to touch it,

These first three lines make a good beginning because they work on multiple levels which is the mark, in my opinion, of any great piece of writing. First of all, they make a flawless and smooth connection with the title. The “it” in the third line clearly refers to the “sportcoat” in the title. On another level, they contain a concrete image that grounds the vague and abstract reference to “it.” The women with skirts/slit up to their thighs provides a solid visual element that automatically draws the reader into the picture or story. This same image carries with it the dual quality of being a double entendre.

The second quality I look for in a strong poem is consistency.

If it starts out “good,” then it must continue to do the job from beginning to end. Even one or two weak or misplaced/misused images in the middle of a poem can ruin the entire piece. This is often due to a careless mistake, or a “rush job” that can be fixed with a few strokes of the keyboard. However, in the literarymagazine business, editors seldom truly edit. On only a couple of occasions have I taken the time to ask a writer to revise, and both times the changes were minimal. If a poem needs major revisions such as a completely different beginning or ending, I will pass on that poem regardless of how good the rest of it is.

A third critical aspect of a poem for me is the ending, which has to be just as strong if not better than the beginning. I often encounter poems that read smoothly until the very end and then the last one or two lines will simply ruin the poem. “Bad” endings come in several forms, including proclamations; generalizations; outrageous statements where the author is trying to make a point; and flatout dropped endings where the poem doesn’t really end and begs for a resolution of some sort. My best advice when it comes to endings and this approach can likely be applied to other parts of the poem is that understatement is often the more effective approach. It helps you avoid clichés. Let’s look at the ending to Dunn’s poem:

     it’s influencing the sweaters on the topmost
          shelf, it’s becoming
     its story, the story I’m now telling.

Notice the continuity in this last stanza with the first stanza. The ubiquitous “it” refers clearly to the “sportcoat” but by remaining understated and a bit vague, the “it” takes on a more universal quality that helps the reader step into the poem and associate with the subject matter. We all have an object, place, or person that gives us that extra boost of confidence to get through the day, to do things we normally would not be able to because we are shy, uncomfortable, afraid, etc. Yes, the poem is about Dunn’s sportcoat, but it is also about our sportcoat, our getmethroughtheday talisman.

The Broome Review’s strict editorial vision is necessitated by the sheer volume of work received. Out of more than 3,000 poems considered for the last issue, the staff accepted less than 30 poems (the rest was prose). Having to make decisions on what poems are publishable and which aren’t is not an easy task. It involves much discussion and haggling between editors.

It is also important for writers to understand what is probably the hardest part of an editor’s job having to reject “good” poems. Even after all of the best poems were selected and vetted down, some of them still did not make it into the final volume. The principle applied here is the same one that dictates what poems make it into a chapbook or fulllength poetry collection. All of the components must work together effectively. An author sometimes has to make difficult decisions to cut a poem out of a collection, and similarly a magazine editor must at times reject “good” poems if they simply do not work in the overall scheme of the publication.

     The Gasoline Sportcoat
     Stephen Dunn

                 Slow? He so fast he run through hell
                 in a gasoline sportcoat, and live to tell about it.
                                         Cassius Clay on Sonny Liston

     At parties, women with skirts
          slit up to their thighs
     have been known to touch it,

     and men of all kinds turn suddenly alert
          in its presence,
     seemingly envious or wary.     

     I call it my gasoline sportcoat,
          my livetotellaboutit
     antidote to what’s shy in me.

     With it on, I’m able to challenge
          those who Jesus us
     beyond all sympathy, laugh at others

     who, in the glare of daily atrocities,
          say it’s hell
     having this ache, this head cold.      

     Without it, when I walk into a room
          it’s as if Anonymous
     has preceded me and stolen the spotlight,

     his amazing fame on everyone’s mind.
          A man like me needs help
     to get through a day and the long slide

     into evening. Which is why at home
          I push its hanger
     deep into the closet as if it might gather

     strength there, in darkness, be ready
          for a next time.
     It’s mingling now with my ties and shirts,

     it’s influencing the sweaters on the topmost
          shelf, it’s becoming
     its story, the story I’m now telling.