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9 poets on what makes a great poem stand out

When you're reading hundreds of poems and trying to choose the most compelling, what do you look for? We posed this question to some of the Canadian poets who have helped determine the longlist for the CBC Poetry Prize.  

"Reading is an investment—of time, of attention, of energy—and a poem is compelling if it is worth a reader’s investment. When reading these poems, I looked for which poems I found most rewarding to read (and reread), which paid the most attention to the world, which I could most admire for their craft, which were most interesting, and which were (gasp) most fun to read." 

"I look for work that exudes an original sense of vision, that is utterly free from cliche, that changes me in some small way." 

"When I read poems I look for arresting language; I look for familiar words deployed in such a manner that new life is breathed into them. And I look for syntactic poise and semantic wealth. I am not a fan of the ambivalent descriptive, ‘prose poetry.’ This is because it could be an excuse for a linguistic degeneration away from the supposedly arresting language of poetry. However I am aware that there are writers who manage that conundrum greatly and perform a necessary scission between the unequally yoked twins, ‘prose poetry’ and liberate ‘poetry’ from ‘prose.’"

"This quality is easier to see than describe, because it differs so much from one poem, and one poet, to another. But it’s an individuality of voice and language. There’s a music in it—I can hear it. The poem has an uncluttered feel to it, an assurance of where it is going. It is not derivative."

"Vigorous language, compelling imagery, a strong voice, a strong concept or engaging narrative."

"Feeling. That's it. I want to feel something. I want the author to speak to me, to hear that voice. I want to know there's a person behind those lines. If I feel something, then we can talk about rhythm and lining and syntax and word choice. For me, it's very much what you're saying, not how you're saying it."

"I look always for what calls me into it, my attention and focus, what keeps me reading it: fresh language, the opening of an insight, energy, good rhythm, imagination, risk. I look for a poem that unfolds with each reading. And I look for crafting that does not draw attention to itself, that is organic to and with the content of the poem." 

"Incredibly interesting language. For example, 'incredibly interesting language' would really fall flat in a poetry submission. It needs to be something that is musical, familiar, and yet startling original. It has to sing on the page. That’s just for the first impression. After that, I look for poems with layers of meaning. Poems that can speak to the ambivalence of life, poems that can express tenderness and horror in the same breath." 

"I listen and feel for authenticity. Authenticity is achieved, I think, in no small part by a skillful use of poetic tools, not the least of which is a broad and individual understanding of How a poem works." 

Photo credits: Jane Kerrison (Sarah Tsiang), Jerry McGrath (Carmelita McGrath), Janine Tschunky (Katherine Bitney), Julia MacRae (Barbara Klar), David Zilber (Elizabeth Bachinsky)


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