A few days ago I was reading through an anthology, one of those where somebody has put together a number of poems (this time it was one hundred) without any theme or other formal structure. It could have been titled "my favourite poems of all time" but wasn't. Most of the poems were from England and North America (including Canada) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Nothing wrong with that, only it did seem a needless waste of energy and resources. But even in all its glorious blandness, it made me stop and ask myself, "What is it about a poem that would make me take such notice of it that I would go back to it time and time again?" Some time spent ruminating and reading, checking my personal "favourites," led to the conclusions I'm setting down here.
Without analyzing the poems into destruction, I discovered some common threads, characteristics of poems that made them appealing to me. I found I could distill them down to three concepts.
One, the poem must transmit or transfer an emotion. If a poem deals with feelings I have never felt or don't find important, it doesn't touch me, doesn't work for me. This doesn't make it a bad poem; it's just something I don't go back to. Take for instance the difference between a love poem and a poem about love; for me a love poem is a sharing, an experience "inside," while a poem about love leaves it all sitting in space between the author and reader, "outside."
Two, the poem should, in its way, be rational. It should catch my mind long enough to force me to think about its subject, what it is trying to say or convey. It should not be like a lightning bolt, all instant flash and nothing left behind, but more like fine whiskey of the brain, with a growing glow and an insistent warmth that continues long afterwards.
Three, the poem should make me wonder, should expose a little of the everyday miraculous that takes special effort to bring to my awareness. This is the "art" for which the craft is practiced; this is the holiness of creation - the ability of words to extend me beyond my ordinary self.
So that's how a poem works for me. It should make me feel; make me think; make me wonder. And not all to the same degree. A poem that makes me wonder may not seem as rational or emotion-based as others; the same goes for any of the three concepts. I'm just trying to say that those three must be present in some combination to work as poetry. To work for me.