illustrated portrait of American poet Robert Frost

Robert Frost

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In “The Figure a Poem Makes”, Robert Frost names some key characteristics a good poem should have. What are they?

In "The Figure a Poem Makes," Frost names some key characteristics a good poem should have. The things he lists include wisdom, delight, originality, freshness, and content informed by experience.

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One of the most direct statements that Robert Frost makes about the characteristics of good poetry as he sees it is "the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other." He goes on to say that the limitations of the tools of language mean that more is needed to make each poem unique; it requires "context- meaning-subject matter."

The content that informs good poetry, Frost believes, comes from having deep and broad life experience. Without it, poems would have little of interest or import to offer their readers. Poems that have something important to say begin, Frost declares, with "delight" and end "in wisdom." The delight can be produced by image, sound, mood or topic, and the wisdom comes in the sharing of human experience that manages to be both relatable and originally expressed. The human experience, Frost observes, often surfaces on its own in the writing of the poem, unbidden and unremembered.

The best poem, Frost concludes, is the one that has the quality of carrying the poet along on its ride. Those are poems that retain their "freshness" because they offer meaning that "unfolded by surprise." Frost doesn't say that the best poems write themselves, but he does imply that they have unanticipated and unsought qualities that present themselves in ways that delight the poet before they delight the reader. It seems that intuition, inspiration and a sort of alchemy with words produces poems of the highest quality, in Frost's way of thinking and valuing.

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