Don Share is the editor of Poetry Magazine. Ahead of Washington’s biennial Split This Rock Poetry Festival in March, he talked with VOA’s David Byrd about what makes a good poem, how poetry is unique, and how it can help people protest wrongdoing.
BYRD: What makes a good poem? Are there parameters that would be a way of judging what a good poem is and what is not a good poem?
SHARE: You know, it’s such a good question and I am happy to say that there’s almost no real answer to it. I think it’s fair to say that it’s a good poem when it grabs you and something inside says ‘this is a really good poem’. So, of course, everybody’s going to have a different answer to that question, but I often say it’s a lot like music or food: in other words tastes differ. But the minute you get a sample of a good poem, a poem that’s good to you, you know that it’s good and it stays with you and you remember it.
DBYRD: Is poetry still a viable art form in very much of a visual age? We’ve got movies, we’ve got 500 channels on our television, we’ve got YouTube, and we’ve got all kinds of social media: how is poetry still a viable art form?
SHARE: I think it’s more viable than ever. For one thing, all of those kinds of media that you describe help us get poetry out into the world, into places it could never reach before. Poetry magazine is available in digital formats now and also on the web site and I’m on Twitter and Facebook, so we could get poems to places that our predecessors in print could only dream of.
But in terms of movies and popular culture and music, you find references to poetry in all of these places. Not a day goes by when you don’t see a movie or TV show that makes some reference to poetry and of course, you know, popular music around the world is always connected in some way or another to poetry. So I think we’re living in a great time for poetry.
BYRD: How do you think it differs from other art forms as far as its impact?
SHARE: Well, one way is that because poetry isn’t reliant on any of these media we were just talking about, because they sort of settle in the memory and get transmitted through traditional kinds of forms – like people just communicating with each other verbally, or writing things down and just preserving them in any way that’s available – poems can have a very long life and they tend to survive all the changes in technology and media so that poems can theoretically last as long as people are around to read and think about them.
BYRD: The Odyssey and The Iliad bearing witness of course.
BYRD: Is poetry a good vehicle for political dissent? What is its unique role as far as expressing that sentiment?
SHARE: I think it is. Even as we’re speaking today around the world, poets are speaking out. Not of course, just in the United States where they certainly are, but in all of the hot spots we hear about in the news – Ukraine, Syria, everywhere on the planet. Every continent, every nation has its poets who are standing up and they’re speaking about what they experience. And the value of that and the reason why it works is that we trust poets to say things that maybe we couldn’t say ourselves, either because we don’t find the right words for them or because we don’t have the kind of social position in which we are able to articulate things publicly. The poets go out on a limb and they do that, speaking on behalf of people who maybe are not in a position to speak for themselves.
BYRD: What about other forms – you mentioned music earlier – what about songs or rap music, I’ve heard that as the ‘poetry of the street, set to a beat.’ Do those things fall under the genre of poetry or are they kind of ‘kissing cousins’?
SHARE: They certainly are kissing cousins. But I think, if you talk to people who write lyrics, for songs – any kind of songs, not just pop songs, you know, serious art forms like opera or classical music that’s being written today, the sort of contemporary versions of those things – all of those lyricists I’m quite certain are people who have an interest in poetry. And it works the other way around, too: the poets are always interested in music. When you get a bunch of poets together, they’re going to start singing, they’re going to know a lot of music and they’re going to be talking about it. So, in a way they kind of go hand in hand. It’s just at some point, maybe ‘cousins’ is a great metaphor for it, they have slightly different personalities.
BYRD: How can my audience learn more?
SHARE: I think the best thing for your audience to do is to just start looking for poetry. In libraries, in book stores, the people down the street from you – you know a lot of times you can get the idea that poetry is a little subterranean because maybe people don’t talk about it very openly. It can be a very intimate experience. But if you talk to somebody that you have just met about whether they think about poetry or have any experience of it, I’ll bet they do. And before long you’ll find that you have a lot to talk about.
BYRD: And the iambic pentameter has not completely gone away. It seems like most of the poetry nowadays is more free form, or almost prose, but there are still some people who rhyme.
SHARE: There are lots of people who rhyme. We’re sort of born instinctively wanting to rhyme and to hear rhyme. And even in free verse you’ll still find all kinds of words that belong together and you can call that a kind of rhyming too. And then the flip side of it is that free verse is actually a lot older than people realize, it goes way back into antiquity. And so some people, obviously, want to read and hear and write in rhyming forms and then some people like to push the envelope a little bit and see what kind of sounds they can get that escape the forms.