Modern Poetry: What Makes a Good Poem Great

I’ve always liked poetry and have even written a few in my time. Today I’m excited to welcome back Maria Johnson, who has written a fabulous article on Modern Poetry for you. Enjoy!

How do you write a good poem these days? Always before there were rules that needed to be followed; a strict meter, a defined stanza length, a set rhyming pattern, and the poems seemed to contain more of a narrative. These days everything is the opposite. Rhyming is frowned upon, and stanzas have become loose; writer-defined lengths and meters. I struggled with this once. After reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost in University, I decided to try writing my own version of the fall from grace in a more modern style, yet keeping the original perspective – Satan. Here is stanza 2 from a poem that takes just over 2 pages.


My eyes swept across the land, encompassing

The outer edges of Paradise, and

The band of Cherubim guarding the gates.

I leapt off the mountain, landing gracefully

At the Western edge of Paradise, my six

Wings flaring as I bounded over the wall

Of rock at its lowest point.

The sun shone down at its zenith, bathing

The land in its warm glow, turning

Everything a glittering green-yellow as

It filtered through the foliage of the trees.

I walked past the roses, red as fresh blood,

Refusing to inhale their heady scent,

Past the trees which lie at the centre

Of that garden, the smell of one so familiar,

The scent of home, the apples of Heaven,

The Fruit of Life, my heart ached at

That fragrance, and I grew cold.


This is a bad example of modern poetry. There is too much narrative going on here, and it reads like prose cut up into lines. Prose can be a good place to start, to get the idea in your head if you struggle to write poetry, but you don’t want to be bound by this early attempt. It is also too literal, poems these days have hidden meanings; you don’t want to spell it out for the reader, you want them to discover the meaning for themselves – that way it means more to them since everyone will read a piece slightly differently. Also you never want to start a modern poem with capital letters. In a modern poem, capital letters follow the prose rules; they are for the first line only, unless you have a full stop in which case you have one on the next word.

I gave the poem another attempt, this time disguising the theme of Original Sin within a modern setting.


The path glittered beside us

yellow, green as we lay

on a bed of pine needles.

My blood pumped hard

through my adolescent body.

I caressed her strong muscled thigh

in the late afternoon sunshine.


The plucked red rose

rested on her bosom,

blood petals strewn around her.

She inhaled its heady scent;

enchanter of the woods.


The apple from the hidden tree

lay discarded and broken.


Need to return her home,

past Sunday curfew,

she just lies there free

from the rules of society.


My lips brush this unadorned Venus,

savour the taste

of that apple on my lips

and wish I could have it

once more.


This is a good example of a modern poem. There are only capital letters at the beginning and after a full stop, the stanza length is uneven – specified by the poem and the individual sections, and the meaning is slightly veiled. There is still a narrative here – which I think is needed, though not everyone will agree – but it no longer reads like chopped-up prose. The trick to modern poetry is in the images. Do not tell the story, show it to them and let them work it out for themselves. Do not tell them “She lost her virginity”, show them “The plucked red rose/ rested on her bosom, /blood petals strewn around her.”

Although I updated the setting of this poem, I still kept the integral parts of Paradise in there. They are still surrounded by nature, there is still a hidden tree with an apple; however these have become symbols and the apple, as it always has, represents her innocence and her virginity. You need to try and find new images to show something which is why I used the image of the rose. Yet this is a double meaning line, many people will read it simply as a rose, so I included the short stanza below with more traditional imagery to reinforce the message “The apple from the hidden tree/lay discarded and broken.”

Each poem will be unique. Don’t try to force it into a mould, let the mould flow around it. Each of my stanzas are determined by the imagery, the sections of the narrative. I did not decide in advance what the format would be; I told the story and let it fall where it was meant to.


WOW! Thank you, Maria. This really does show how modern poetry can be interpreted in imaginative ways.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you love it? Hate it? Does this make you want to explore the creativity of it? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Maria Johnson has a BA Honours Degree in English & Creative Writing. She was nominated for International Young Poet of the Year in 2008 while still at university and has had her work published in an anthology. These days, she’s a freelance editor and proof reader and writes when she finds time.

Follow her on Twitter:

If you’re looking for a great editor or proof reader, contact her here: maria7627 AT hotmail DOT com



4 thoughts on “Modern Poetry: What Makes a Good Poem Great

  1. True, but I also let my writing draw a picture of words and give freedom to my poems. A lot like Ellen Hopkins, when she brings a poetic, story telling type of writing. Maybe that’s why I’m a liberal writer lol.

  2. I only have to know yet what makes poetry from a text without rhymes and rithm, mainly if you do not use (or use sparse) poetry tools like symbols (here you use: apple e.g.), metaphore, imageries, set-offs (antagonisms), enhancements, omissions (concealments), repeats, paradoxes or questios only to mention some. Excuse me for my not perfect English.
    Your example is a prose splitted into short rows, and as I can sea and hear it makes no verse (poetry) if you split your rowws that short. The other thing: if you split your rows some random style like this:

    The path glittered beside us
    yellow, green as we lay
    on a bed of pine needles.

    how this carriers a more meaning than to write it in one row:

    The path glittered beside us yellow, green as we lay on a bed of pine needles.

    Or what makes the difference by your opinion from this:

    The path
    glittered beside us
    yellow, green
    as we lay on a bed
    of pine needles.

    Is this another poem? Or this is a badly splitted poem against your right? Anda again: these questions – I think – are independent in modern poetry from the language but I apologize, because my language is not English.

    Sincerely of yours:

    • The lack of rhyme and rhythm is deliberate – it is out of style at the moment for anything other than children. As for the use of poetic tools, the entire poem is symbolic of the story of the Garden of Eden.

      “how this carriers a more meaning than to write it in one row:
      The path glittered beside us yellow, green as we lay on a bed of pine needles.”

      Written like this, it is poorly phrased prose. The genius lies in breaking the lines where the most emphasis is needed, since the first and last words on a line are often more heavily stressed. Your other idea of:

      “The path
      glittered beside us
      yellow, green
      as we lay on a bed
      of pine needles.”

      would also work. Modern poetry is intended to be read aloud, to be short, and to be heavily image laden.

  3. Ok. So, modern poetry lack in rhyme and rhythm, but do not lacks rhythm anyway, as you have written. What the heck is the emphasis in the beginning and on the end of the lines if not the rhythm itself?
    So: poetry IS differentiate itself from prose at least by rhythm (the edited places of emphasises or press).
    And: I cannot speak (and write) English well, but as I can see (and hear) “path” and “beside us” are rhyme, and similarily “green” and “needles” are also rhyme (but not at the end but et the beginning of the words in the later) – not to say “beside us” is also an inner rhyme (side and us) (and again at least for my ears trained not in the first place on English).

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