What Makes a Great Poem?

By Evan Mantyk

Depending on who you ask, the answer to the question, “What makes a great poem?” may be quite different—or even completely opposite. Poetry is a highly subjective pursuit in this day and age and can be rather confusing. Nonetheless, as a judge in the Friends of Falun Gong Poetry Contest, I’ll offer you a few insights into the poems we selected last year as winners. There are also some helpful links below. Hopefully, this piece helps you and gives you confidence. Good luck!

A Poem of Fact (2017 Friends of Falun Gong First Place Winner)
by Josh Lefkowitz

You think such things could never happen here,
Where (for the most part) people get along,
But tilt your head far Eastward – lend your ear
To China’s persecuted Falun Gong.
A peaceful practice of the mind and body,
Whose members grew 100 million wide.
This did not please the Chinese Commie Party,
And so they snuffed out all these folks (or tried).
Torture. Prison. Labor camps for months.
Organ harvesting (that’s true, I checked).
How crazy, you might think. But think too: once
Power corrupts – well, what do you expect?
So can one poem of fact help turn the tide?
Doubtful, thought the poet, as he tried.

Mr. Joshua Lefkowitz’s poem is, first of all, musical. He is using the Shakespearean Sonnet form, meaning that it is a fourteen-line poem, with iambic pentameter (about ten syllables, or five hard syllables per line), and a specific rhyme pattern made famous by Shakespeare about 400 years ago. You’ll notice that the rhymes only meet together in consecutive lines in the last two lines (or couplet), which gives a magnificent finale. You can read more about sonnet writing here and you can read more about using meter and syllables in poetry here.

While maintaining this musical, rhythmic feeling, his meaning and language are easily understood and related to by readers—a very difficult feat. His words present a convincing reflection from an ordinary and intelligent American upon the human rights crisis in China. The words seem so simple, but they get to the heart of the matter and end with a reflection upon the hard reality of a single human being thinking he can possibly influence the largest country in the world on the other side of the earth. This creates a self-fulfilling irony should he win (which he did) since he is, in fact, acting as a loud voice supported by human rights organizations here in the United States. Interestingly too, the most famous English sonnet, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, ends with the opposite sentiment, stressing the powerful and immortalizing power of poetry. Mr. Lefkowitz’s reversal quite genuinely captures the artistic impotence and degeneration of our times and subtly and amazingly undoes it.

Buyer’s Remorse (2017 Friends of Falun Gong Second Place Winner)
by Lorna Davis

How long are we allowed to close our eyes
To who produces what our money buys?
How can it be that goods made by a slave
Are justified by how much cash we save?
The cargo ships that crisscross every sea
Are loaded high with human misery,
But products can still be produced in hell
As long as buyers buy what sellers sell.
In Chinese prisons, helpless Falun Gong
(Imprisoned for their faith, they’ve done no wrong)
Are murdered for their lungs or heart or spleen,
New “products” offered on the global scene.
The seller’s crimes become the buyer’s shame;
The buying half must shoulder half the blame.

Ms. Lorna Davis has also used the 14-line sonnet form with a simple and effective rhyme of each two lines. You can hear the music when reading the poem aloud. Within the lines, there is also the enchanting music of repeated words, for example, “As long as buyers buy what sellers sell.” In terms of meaning, the title itself is ingenious. “Buyer’s remorse” is a popular term that is being used throughout society today. It means that you have bought something new but immediately regret it. With these simple two words, Ms. Davis has already connected with most readers and summoned a visceral sense of commercialism and regret.

The poem then goes on to expand on the idea of remorse, something that feels terrible and takes us to the very edge of terribleness. We are introduced to the idea that there may be evil behind some products. First, the poem tells us it may be peaceful people imprisoned for their beliefs who created the products. As the poem progresses, we find that products created from their misery may also include their very own organs. We end with a completely new understanding of what “buyer’s remorse” means and the depth of the evil that is taking place in the world right now.

To Faraway Friends (2017 Friends of Falun Gong High School Winner)
by Noah Hale

Though there be crosses staked into the ground,
And holy scriptures mass produced and bound,
The church does not burn like infernal fire.
No–The land of the East builds that pyre.
There is a silent crusade of China’s men,
Who wield the blade of no pope nor nation;
They wear the fauld of the three truthful words:
Blue Zhen, Green Shan, and White Ren now downwards,
Yet the East looks up to the Red Star Men
To someday break free of the chains within.
Falun Gong shall ever live long and free,
And, if not, take my hand and burn with me.

Mr. Noah Hale is a high school student whose poetry is beyond his years. While mostly maintaining the musicality of simple rhyming and iambic pentameter, he brings us a fascinating comparison between the Christian faith today and in the past and Falun Gong. His argument seems convincing and goes something like this: certainly, Christians have faced persecution, but there is none so cruel and large-scale existing today as that which is faced by Falun Gong; we, therefore, should stand with Falun Gong practitioners and oppose anyone that seeks to perversely kill peaceful people of a spiritual inclination. Although somewhat cryptic in his use of symbolism, his use of the colors blue, green, and white do, if nothing else, provide a vivid contrast to the “Red Star” that is synonymous with communism.