Before becoming a reader for the Coe Review, I rarely read contemporary poetry. In literature classes, I love reading the classics, by John Donne, Robert Frost, and Shakespeare to name a few. The History of English Literature class I’m taking this semester is one of my favorites because as I read through each period, I’m amazed at the fluctuating styles and developing literary devices used within the pieces. Each period appears to have a common theme and structure. This trend then begs the question: What characterizes noteworthy modern poetry?
When I read a poem, some of the elements I’m immediately drawn to are form and structure. The question of where always follows with why there. Even if the poem is choppy or difficult to read, upon first glance assume there is a reason why the poet decided break a line there. Upon second glance, ask if it works with the content and what the poet is trying to convey. Another key consideration to which I was introduced upon joining the staff is slam poetry. Some poetry may read choppy on paper but when read aloud could take on a whole new meaning and understanding.
Another element I pay attention to is rhythm and rhyme. Most of the modern poetry I’ve read typically does not focus on meter but rather on the rhyming of lines and stanzas. Sometimes rhyme can be overbearing, distracting the reader from the content of the poem. For instance, when talking about a serious subject, too much rhyme can give it an undesired playful and childish quality. Yet, a break in rhyme when placed correctly produces a profound effect and shift in ideas.
The most important component of all poetry is the imagery, language, and literary devices such as alliteration and metaphors. Poetry doesn’t need elegant and scholarly advanced words to convey a feeling or idea. The purpose of a poem is to take an abstract feeling and express it in written word which others can understand and relate to. So, if that means using occasional strong language, today it’s acceptable and influential. Description and a unique comparison which avoids cliché makes the reading audience think and a good poem makes an observer wish that he or she had written the piece him or herself. Alliteration also adds flow which eases the reading experience.
Although there are certain aspects one should look for in a poem, the best poems of any era are those that challenge the known and accepted structure. A poem should startle you and force you to look at the world or simply an everyday object differently. As long as a poem does this, the sky is the limit.