Yesterday, I talked about how to evaluate a poorly written poem (or what standards to use when critiquing any poem to help evaluate the poem you are reading). I think that it is only fair to do the opposite and look at how to evaluate a well-written poem. The textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., Kennedy) calls this type of evaluation “knowing excellence”. The Editor doesn’t say too much on the subject, “in judging, we can have no absolute specifications.” He states that judging a poem is not like inspecting a toaster, there isn’t a check off list of what it should happen, instead he says that it is more important for a poem “to be judged on the basis of what it is trying to be and how well it succeeds in the effort.” (page 256).
But I do believe that when you read a poem of quality, you know it right away. It lights of some part of your mind with a feeling of “just rightness”. It gives illumination to a world that was previously dark to you, or conversely speaks a great Truth about a world that you know quite well. Somehow, it touches your emotions, sparks a beautiful and poignant image, or at the very least is able to connect you to a moment that feels as vivid and alive as it did ten, twenty, one hundred years ago. The Editor speaks to this in a manner when he speaks of a poem that “shines with emotional intensity”. If the poet has adequately expressed her emotions, it should resonate with the reader; a well-expressed emotion will be felt right away.
But this is not to say that it is that quick and superficial reading that yields the most meaning. A good poem will stand up to multiple readings instead of falling apart at a second look. The second look is where the inexperienced reader will find all of the flaws, and the blemishes of the poem will become painfully obvious. It is why the poet should always put his work aside for a while and look a second time with fresh (objective) eyes. And take heart if it does not stand up to that second look, sometimes it can be saved, re-written, made more resonant (more alive) to the issues that you, the poet, are currently worked through, and sometimes, it’s better to learn from your mistakes and move on to the next project. There should always be a next project.
Despite the fact that the Editor claims that there is no checklist, I contend that there are guidelines. The Editor lists them. They’re listed as Thomas Aquinas’s three qualities essential to beauty: wholeness, harmony and radiance. Yeat’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”, meets these three qualities.
So, for the first criteria, wholeness, “Sailing” works because all of it’s parts come together as a cohesive whole. Every stanza feeds into the theme of art as eternal and nature as transitory (and how the former can make you immortal while the latter wears you away). And the entire poem feels whole instead of pieced together
The second category is Harmony. Each stanza feeds into the next and all four work together to create the different themes (“dying generations” “aged man” “singing school” “artifice of eternity”) that feed into the one meta theme of the poem that I mention in the former paragraph. The parts create a more perfect whole (word choice, metaphor, word sound and meter). The first stanza seems as if it is unlike the rest as it speaks of life here on earth that “is begotten, born and dies”, but he does mention the “monuments of unaging intellect” which is a hint of the immortal living with us here on earth. But the first line, “no country for old men” will be repeated thematically throughout the poem. Life here is tough, but life among the gods is eternal bliss, as the repetition of joyful singing is repeated throughout the poem. Each stanza progresses toward a heavenly bliss, until the poet is a singing angel made of gold (okay, he’s a bird, but a divine bird) on golden bough in the Emperor’s garden. Could the garden be a Garden of Eden? Or a garden constructed from some divine hand?
And the third criteria is radiance. The book states that it “shines with emotional intensity.” And you can see it. The ennui of the first paragraph, they are young and beautiful, but they are “a dying generation” and the neglect “Monuments of unaging intellect.” And an excitement in the third stanza “O sages standing in God’s holy fire..Come from the holy fire, perne the gyre,/And be the singing-masters of my soul.” He is in ecstasy to see the sages of old and begs them to make him eternal, or at least let him share in their immortality. And in the fourth he is transformed by some ephemeral hammer into something shining and beautiful, something immune to rust and wear and he can sing in golden tree for all of eternity. (Or his poetry can.)
Is this a perfect poem? It’s hard to say. For me it is a little cold and intellectual, I would prefer my passion in my poetry, but I don’t say that it’s bad or that I don’t like it. But there is my opinion. Unfortunately, excellence is more subjective than poor craftsmanship, perhaps that is why it is so difficult to achieve.
Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosiac of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.