Specific Imagery: What Makes a Poem Good?
So what makes a poem good?
According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (please, never just call him Sam) the definition of poetry is "the best words in their best order".
Fine. But what exactly does that mean?
It means that good poetry is about much more than just matching rhythm and rhyme. What elevates any poem above its peers is the specific choice of words to match the poet's intent.
Say what now?
Think of it this way: our chosen words are our color palette, and the way we combine them equates to brush strokes and blending. Strong words equal bold hues, while overused and cliché terms are a lot like faded watercolors. You want your hard work to stand out, not blend in, right?
Of course I do!
Then my biggest piece of advice is this: choose your words.
What do you mean? I always choose my words; I'm a writer, after all!
What I mean is, do your best to choose the most appropriate words with which to frame, present, or support a specific piece (or a series) of imagery. Not because they rhyme, or sound good, or make you look smart, or because "everyone uses the word 'heart' in a love poem".
Okay, now you've lost me.
It's simpler than it sounds. Imagery refers to those elements in a poem which evoke one or more of the traditional five senses in the mind of the reader.
The five senses? But I want to share my thoughts and feelings!
And the most effective way to do that is to provide your audience with a situation in which that feeling or idea is (most likely) called for. It's something we do in real life all the time. "Remember how you felt when your best friend got engaged? Or when your first pet died? Or just before that big test?"
Your ultimate goal as a poet is to take the pictures and sensations inside your head and communicate them to your readers. And your best tools for the job — your sturdiest and most versatile brushes, as it were — are concrete nouns and verbs.
Concrete nouns and verbs?
Concrete verbs do something; concrete nouns are something. By contrast, abstract nouns and verbs (such as 'love', 'vertigo' and 'believe') are much harder to picture.
Why does that matter?
Because 'harder to picture' means 'harder to communicate'. What love means to you, for example, isn't the same as what it would mean to the matriarch of a four-generation family, or an abandoned child, or a young teen in full hormonal flush. Because terms like this aren't nearly as precise, you probably don't want to keep them at the top of your toolbox.
Then what are my other options?
Use concrete terms to frame (set the scene), to present (describe the scene), and to support (place the scene within a context, and/or link scenes together).
Framing is a lot like choosing which colors to use, and the canvas material. Shorter and simpler words could imply that your narrator is somewhat childlike; vulgarity and slang, streetwise or emotional; clean language without contractions, self-censoring and perhaps a bit innocent; unusual or uncommon words, intellectual or having a smarter-than-thou attitude. Rhythm and rhyme imply a direction toward a conclusion (as well as adding their own level of challenge) while open verse adds a layer of unpredictability.
Presentation is the imagery you use to support your theme. A good poem starts with an idea; you communicate that idea most effectively, NOT by telling your reader what they should be thinking, but by evoking those feelings in them. If I just say 'sadness', you have no real reason to be sad; if instead I went with 'three-legged puppy', how would that make you feel?
Support is the overall tone of the poem. A three-legged puppy may not fit with the theme of your work, or might be the wrong sort of emphasis. Maybe you'd prefer a rusted axe to symbolize abandonment, or a keening wail to represent suffering.
Or perhaps the puppy grows up happy. And your piece turns out to be about overcoming adversity, or giving love to get love. It's your call; that's the beauty of poetry.
That's all well and good, but I notice you haven't said anything about adjectives and adverbs.
Good point. Adjectives and adverbs are like paint thinner; they should be used only as much as necessary. Remember that adjectives pair with nouns, while adverbs are meant to modify verbs, adjectives and even other adverbs. In general, always try to favor a more-specific word over a general one: 'whisper' rather than 'speak softly'; 'tome' instead of 'big heavy book'.
So when should you use adjectives and adverbs? When they make sense. A childlike narrator wouldn't call a textbook a tome. Words that rhyme with 'whisper' are hard to come by. (Lisper? Crisper?) Or perhaps repetition may help drive home your point. ("Softly, softly, softly.")
What else should I keep in mind?
Word choice should always be your primary tool; but remember there are plenty of other techniques to add to your arsenal. You ought to have at least a basic understanding of rhyme and alliteration, rhythm and meter, since how a poem sounds will often affect its interpretation. Feel free to play and explore; it's the best way to learn what works best for you.
And realize that some terms have become so overused as to have lost their impact. Black hearts just aren't all that black anymore. Crimson tears, tattered souls, and all the other clichés: as the old joke goes, they're a dime a dozen, so avoid them like the plague.
Which brings me to my final piece of advice: Don't be afraid to change what isn't working. If a clever rhyme or an unforgettable image doesn't fit with the rest of the poem, cut it out and set it aside to use another day.
Thanks! Any last thoughts?
Have fun! Writing is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, even if it can get a bit intense at times. Regardless of whether your poetry tends toward the impassioned or the introspective, remember that if you get to the point where negative emotions are leading you toward self-destructive behavior, a few decades from now you could well wind up looking like Coleridge. And that's probably not a good thing.
Now, armed with your new knowledge, go forth and create!