Friday, January 22, 2010

What Makes A Good Poem

After last week’s posting of Li Young Lee’s The Gift several people asked what makes a good poem.

This is a wonderful question.
There are several ways to answer it and doing so might take a few posts.I thought I’d start by reflecting on the first poem I loved.  It was written by W.B. Yeats.

I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!
We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;
And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,
Has awakened in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.

A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;
Ah, dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes,
Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew:
For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!

I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,
Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;
Soon far from the rose and the lily, and fret of the flames would we be,
Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!

. At first reading, I had no idea what this poem meant, but I liked it. The rhythm and rhyme are appealing, are they not? This observation led me to ask why I liked the rhythm and rhyme. For one thing, it seems to hold the poem together, English teachers call this cohesion. In fact, after I read the again, it almost seems as if they rhythm of the poem suggests the rocking of the sea waves, the rhyme their graceful curving ends. And so, after all, the form, part of which is rhythm and rhyme, help create the poem’s setting and meaning.

I also liked the images created. To me the best are: “flame of the meteor” and “the flame of the blue star that lingers,” the “fall of the dew," the “wandering foam,” the “rim of the sky”—what a lovely way to say what I’d stared at in wonder so often. I guess I like all the images! Why? They leapt up as pictures in my senses. I had seen birds on the crests of waves, I’d touched the seafoam, I always thought the morning star looked blue. So I my mind and heart connected to the images— they were familiar enough and yet expressed in a way that awakened me to seeing them better. This makes a good and loveable poem.

For a poem to be good, it must be loved, admired and understood. The language and rhythm alone made me love it. If I could understand how it was put together and what it meant, I might admire it.

Just reading it, I could identify certain reoccurring ideas in the poem. This is, of course, shown in the poem's refrain-like request that he and his "beloved" become white birds "on the foam of the sea." It seems a precarious place to be-- nothing definite and that idea is original and compelling.  The poem’s speaker ached with desire to be away from life, from the dangerous or elusive things in life “meteor,” “blue star at twilight” and most poignantly tedious things in life, perhaps the unfulfilled dreams. I see this in the idea, “A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose.”  I had always liked dreaming, but I can see from this poem's perspective that the pull of dreams, when unfulfilled can feel like chains.

But what was meant by lily and rose? It didn’t make sense that the actual flowers were dreamers, though they were dew-dabbled. I looked them both up (remember I was a very young student of literature at this point and was not confident of the references or allusions). Now I ask students, what comes to mind when you read, lily, or rose? What did the lily stand for in church or literature or history? What I discovered in research, many people can name just by thinking about it. The lily was used as the symbol of the French royalty, in Spring we have Easter lilies to celebrate the resurrection, and our culture uses the cliché “lily white” to suggest purity. Can one flower, one image mean all this in one poem?


The rose suggests love, maybe also, if one thinks of the War of the Roses (I know there was more than one), it could suggest heritage or family honor and duty. All these things, royalty, resurrection which is the basis of the Christian religion, purity, history, love the poet suggests are found in dreams perhaps including ambitions. The dreams weary him, I think, because he cannot grasp and experience them.

The flames in the first two stanzas, first “the flame of the blue star at twilight,” then the “flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew” (the dew falls in morning, so the morning star), suggest the daily cares of life. Of these the speaker “tires,” finds them tedious as daily tasks can be. And in the end of the poem, the speaker finds the flames to be fretful. His frustration with the realities and the ideals of his culture make him want to flee.

Where will he flee? He mentions the islands… in fact, he’s haunted by them. Of course I had to look up “Danaan Shore” and found that in Irish lore (Yeats was Irish and proud of it), there is a myth of an island of “young people” where mortals do not grow old.  This place "Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more," these numberless islands where he might find this magical eternity are not quite the desired destination. So the poem could mean that the weight of his culture's myths, the threat of eternity is also what creates the desire for escape.

It seems as if the poem’s speaker wishes to flee with his beloved, not to an alternate life, but to a weightless freedom.  It seems life and the details of society-- mundane and grand--are what binds him. It is freedom and companionship in freedom that he desires. This idea is created by the lines that echo the last, “were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea.”

The poem is good because its form helps create the meaning. And the meaning is important, universal, difficult and touching.

The images are beautiful, imaginative, sensory and complex. The references to culture and meaning fit—without titillating offense—the poem’s dissatisfaction with human life and society. No chopping off of body parts in this work of art! The things that dissatisfy are beautiful, they are noble, even dew-dabbled (morning dew—morning is the start of a new day, suggesting renewal, new life… dew suggests the magical sustenance of life that the Earth gives), but the speaker’s longing for escape, for eternal peace and freedom surpasses even these achingly lovely, treasured things of Earth.

So, I love and admire this good poem. What do you think, dear reader?


  1. I am a fan of Yates, I'd love to better understand poetry. I need a good place to start reading I think the internet is too full of bad poetry and I never know where to start really. I think Yates is probably a good place though... I might go pick up a book of his work. Thanks so much.

  2. I think you have been craving your classroom a bit. Thanks Mrs. Nebbia, for another great lesson in poetry. As always, they make us love it all the more.

  3. I think the lily stands for death.

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