Carl Leggo Guest Poet Post: “Evaluating writing: What is a poem good for?”

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Carl Leggo, a poet from Vancouver, B.C. Please enjoy his post!

Evaluating writing: What is a poem good for?

My students ask, “How are you going to evaluate our writing? How do you know what is good?” I reply, “Good writing is writing that gives you pleasure, and/or that gives another person pleasure.” I remind my students that everybody is different. Everybody is starting where he or she is.
There is no doubt that I like some students’ writing more than others, but why should I be the arbiter of taste in the classroom? I am liberal with praise in evaluating students’ writing. My students tease me about how often I use splendid or encourage them to celebrate their accomplishments. I don’t think that I can evaluate writing according to a standard measure. While it is possible to invent a yardstick by measuring the distance from a king’s nose to his big toe, and enshrining that distance in a bar of gold forevermore, writing has no such standard measure.
What is good writing? The answers are multiple, and dependent on the eye and spirit of the writer and the reader. Good writing is writing that people care about, writing that gives pleasure, writing that touches hearts and minds and souls, writing that desires readers and nurtures desire in readers.
I always begin writing classes by focusing on poetry. I propose to students that poetry is the most capacious genre of writing because poetry tells stories, expresses emotions, calls attention to the earth and living experiences, addresses philosophical issues, and promotes social justice. I claim that there is no topic or issue that poets don’t address. Then, I also tell my students that I no longer ask, “Is this a good poem?” Instead, I now ask, “What is this poem good for?”
One reviewer of my last book of poems called me lazy. He also thought I peddled clichés of the heart, and concluded that I was a better story-teller than poet. It was a nasty review, but perhaps the reviewer is correct that I am a better story-teller than poet because I don’t even know where one begins and the other ends.
Still, I am left with a simple question: “Why would anyone savagely attack a book of poems? Or the poet whose name is attached to the book?” Another reviewer called me wry and self-absorbed. What’s wrong with being wry? I think a world run by fundamentalists and corporations and corrupt leaders can use a lot of wry poets. I think the wry poet is a kind of prophet.
Regarding the complaint that I am self-absorbed, I am a postmodern poet who denies the existence of an essential, phenomenal self in order to explore identity and multiple subject positions. So, I doubt I am self-absorbed since I don’t even acknowledge a self to be absorbed in! But I see little value in arguing with critical reviewers. They apparently are convinced that they know “good poetry.” I suspect they don’t even ask a question like: “What is this poem good for?”
So much of my poetry emerges from traditions of story-telling, performance, comedy, music, and psalms. My attitude toward language is significantly oral. I love the sounds of words. I often seek to emulate one of my favorite poets, Dr. Seuss—to know the joyful, rambunctious, ebullient music of language. I am often an alliterative audacious auditory author. I am often more Rubenesque than Audenesque—voluptuous, spilling over, fleshy, flashy—excessive, exceeding, spilling limits, straining against seams, bursting belts.
I don’t want to write poetry like other poets. I want to write with my own voices—whatever they might be. I like to write narrative poetry, and confessional poetry, and spoken word poetry, and language-centered poetry. Sometimes I write prayers and rants and songs. Sometimes I write lyrical poetry. I am frequently eclectic but, according to some reviewers, apparently seldom electric!

Carl and His Inspiration


But I keep asking: “What is a poem good for?” I emphasize playing with language. I am now a grandfather to three granddaughters who are leaning into language, and learning with me the ceaseless joys of rhyme and rhythm and punning and alliteration and…. We become readers and writers by engaging with the spells and mystery of language. We ought to emphasize the mystery rather than the mastery of language. None of us ever masters language. We can never rest assured there’s nothing more to learn. If we embrace the mystery, the playfulness of language, then we remain humbly and joyfully open to imaginative possibilities.
Perhaps a problem with my poetry is that I keep expecting people to respond to my writing so I can rest assured that it has acquired legitimacy, even a little gravitas. But my calling as a poet is to write the poetry and to share it, and to send it out into the world. If it’s not responded to, if it’s rejected, if it’s not liked, that’s not my responsibility. My responsibility is to work with the words.
I want to get used to the experience of no response or severely critical responses. Even if my poetry does not give anybody else any pleasure, I know I have never sent a poem into the world that didn’t give me some pleasure, either in the process of making it, or in the action of releasing it. So, when I ask, “Is this a good poem?” I also need to remind myself that if the poem gave me and/or someone else pleasure, then the poem is good, definitely good for something, for somebody.


Carl Leggo is a poet and professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. His books include: Growing Up Perpendicular on the Side of a Hill; View from My Mother’s House; Come-By-Chance; and Teaching to Wonder: Responding to Poetry in the Secondary Classroom. Integral to his creative and academic life, Carl is a happy grandfather to three darling granddaughters with the magical names Madeleine, Mirabelle, and Gwenoviere.
His submission for Alive at the Center is the poem “Cars.” It emerged from the rhythms of attending, in the midst of business, to the poetry that infuses every moment of each day—seemingly so simple, yet poetically so complex. You can watch him perform a few poems here.
“Cars” will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Vancouver edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.