What Makes a Poem Good?

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Anyone who went to school in the United States can probably tell you who wrote this poem and what its name is.  For those of you who need a reminder, it’s called Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, written by Robert Frost in 1923.

I remember first hearing this poem most likely in junior high school. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really impressed with it then. I read it, heard the speculations the teacher made as to exactly what was a metaphor for what, and almost forgot about it.

But apparently it wasn’t a forgettable poem, at least not entirely. The other day I was thinking about this very poem and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember a single line, save for the last four. These I couldn’t forget:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

So I looked up the poem online and read it again. Turns out I could throw the whole poem away if it didn’t contain those last four lines. Blasphemy, I know. I mean, what do I know about literature or poetry? Probably not shit. Or maybe I do?  The beginning three verses of that poem are just a set up, just a stand to display the crown jewel. And that crown jewel is precisely the last four lines of this poem.

Those last four lines are quite possibly the darkest and most beautiful lines ever written in a poem.

It’s been at least twenty years since I read this poem, maybe more.  Even then I thought the ending was good, but I didn’t have the perspective to see it for what it truly was. I don’t know if any sixteen year old kid can.

Twenty years of living have allowed me to appreciate this poem for what it truly is: a masterpiece. Each of the four final lines are perfect, particularly down to the repetition of the last line. I could conjecture all day as to what the woods represent. Escapism? Death? A return to nature? Shrugging off responsibility?

It doesn’t matter; it’s all those things and none of them. What matters are the feelings I get when I read those lines. I’m not sure words can do it justice. Isn’t that the frustrating irony of a writer?

So what makes a good poem? It’s so subjective, who can say? I think much of it is about timing, being in the right frame of mind at the right time to really feel what the poet was trying to convey.

And it’s probably as much about ignoring pretentious bullshit as to what you’re supposed to feel and getting busy feeling what you really feel.

Timing and honesty, really.

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4 Replies to “What Makes a Poem Good?”

  1. For me..what makes a poem good…is precisely what you have said. If it touches something inside of me and resonates….that makes it good in my world.

  2. Love Frost.
    I like Road Less Traveled, personally… But this one is very deep too!
    Funny how later in life all these start to become much clearer. I guess we really just don’t care about anything when we are younger…

  3. I haven’t read Road Less Traveled…heard of it though. I’ll have to check it out. Age does bring perspective, for better or worse.

    I’m convinced from my own experiences that appreciation and evaluation of poetry, like any other art form, is purely subjective. Your opinions seem to support this notion. I wish my English teachers would have mentioned that rather than focusing on mostly bullshit and often arbitrary rules. Spelling and grammar are mostly function and writing is more than just function. I respect and appreciate the rules but to me that’s not what it’s all about, that’s all.

  4. All poems are good but there are some which are extreme good enough. I would like to make applause on your skills cause as poet needs to bow his head sometimes to upheld his provoking attitude.

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