To Young Poets

O Poet! on your poet's soul, do not write with ease!

Write in blood with gritted teeth; write from on your knees.

Earn a Muse's visit on a dim-lit, toiling night

by memorizing fifty poems for every poem you write.

 

Yon a dancer stumbles, clad in bloody shoes and sweat,

From her thirtieth rehearsal—the most demanding yet—

Of sixty to prepare her for some secondary part. 

Can you look her in the face and claim you work to make your art?

 

Don't write so casually, I say! Take a little care!

A million lives were sacrificed upon the altar where

you toss a bite of candy bar, and fancy that you pay

such homage as did Sappho, Shelley, Cummings, or Millay.

 

Only, on your poet’s life, do not write with ease!

Write in blood—and spare your words! Do not write to please!

Learn your poem is bad, and try to see that it’s absurd,

and weep—but under every tearstain, find a better word.

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Comments

I’d really like you to read this.

This could have several other “genre” tags: angst poetry, rant, review, essay. It’s my New Year’s resolution, and an expression of my artistic insecurity and frustration. However, I chose “community action” because it’s also my spittle-flecked denunciation of what frustrates me about this site. 

I do admire the idea of “building a generation of better writers” by encouraging us to think of ourselves as writers and getting us to practice writing and critiquing. I am glad there isn’t a culture of nasty sniping and trolling for puerile conflicts. 

But sometimes I think we’re too nice.

Every time I visit the site, I see casually effusive compliments given to poems which don’t seem worthy of publication: poems which seem not to have been revised at all (and are proudly labeled “scribble"), poems which repeat old poets’ ideas less eloquently than the old poets did. I don’t want to encourage cattiness in commenting on others, but I want us all to be more self-critical. I want us to respect our calling to “keep civilization from destroying itself.” I want us to read great poets, recognize that we don’t measure up, and get to work raising our standards. 

Excelsior, Young Poets! Risk a little lifeblood! When we truly expect more from each other and ourselves, we will improve. Show your best work, and accept the polite feedback that it isn’t good enough. Be brave enough, care enough, to sweep up your ego and sit back down to work.

 

P. S. If that’s a little too harsh for your vulnerable, earnest, sensitive inner poet to handle, I’ll happily exclude present company with cordial apologies. But try to think about it.

P. P. S. I know this piece is not particularly good itself. I wanted to get it out there in New Year’s Resolution time, but this is only a seventh draft. (An earlier version contained an exhortation to write five hundred drafts before daring to name a piece a poem.) If you see something you dislike or roll your eyes at, please point it out.

Hmmm...

Margo's picture

While I like what you say, in the spirit of the point you make, I must disagree on a certain point.

You say, “I see casually effusive compliments given to poems which don’t seem worthy of publication: poems which seem not to have been revised at all (and are proudly labeled “scribble"), poems which repeat old poets’ ideas less eloquently than the old poets did.”

Allow me to make my opinion very, very clear: Every poem deserves to be published.

As Geof Hewitt says, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” If you takes five hundred drafts to be satisfied with allowing it to be become derelict, that’s wonderful. If it takes you two, that’s wonderful. Poems are for expressing something, right? They can come with lowercase I’s and grammar mistakes and no spelling errors. They can come in a perfect sestina or a Shakespearean sonnet with perfect iambic pentameter. They can have five hundred drafts and be amazing or they can have one or two and still carry a strong message. The number of mistakes in or the number of hours spent on a poem shouldn’t determine its right to be read or complimented. Many drafts do not make us “writers”. Our bravery to put words to a page and share it with the world does.

Really, I like what you say; I do think that expanding your reach creatively is vastly important. The poem, too, was intriguing (loved the diction). I'll apologize now for such a long response.

 

 

- Ciel  (YWP Uber-User/Mentor: ask me anything!)

“As long as we don't die, this is gonna be one hell of a story.” 

Ciel: I sheepishly grant most of your points.

First of all, thank you for your thoughtful, earnest comment! I was hoping for just such a spirited reaction.

My prejudice against “scribbles” is, like most prejudices, unjust. It’s certainly possible for a person with interesting thoughts (i.e., a person who is or has been alive) to communicate them well, even without knowledge of language, let alone punctuation rules. There is no objective measure which can distinguish “good” from “bad” poems, including number of drafts.

I was thinking of the kind of publishing which involves printing and royalties and professional critics’ attention and the death of many trees, which is a high bar. I agree that everyone who cares about something enough to poetrify it deserves a chance to share it.

I have no objection to nonstandard punctuation or usage (I just lauded Cummings), but I do think that writers are better for having drunk at least deeply enough of Great Language to know what the rules are.

I can’t think of any defense against Hewitt. I plead guilty to assuming without proof that poems have a “finished version,” the one that is shown to the readers of future generations after the poet’s death. But shouldn’t it be good enough to honor her signature by the time she sets it aside?

I’m walking a fine line, because I really don’t want to discourage anyone from writing. The more people have the bravery to share their words with the world, the higher our chances of collective survival.

But writing is a craft, not a game. It deserves our greatest respect. Innumerable brilliant people have given their lives for it (an observation I stole from Tolstoy). When you read my poems, you aren’t reading Shakespeare’s sonnets or Whitman’s "Song of Myself" or Psalms: therefore, I owe you a lot.

I don’t think that I am so interesting that I can jot down a thought which is worthier of your time than Wordsworth. (I don’t think my twentieth-draft pieces are worth it, either, but I’m willing to accept your gift of time and attention on them.) I’m not saying that you or other young poets aren’t that interesting or intuitively eloquent, but it’s simply not likely. Wordsworth was just too good, and he worked hard to develop his gift for his entire life.

Thanks for mentioning the diction. I hadn’t thought much about it, even though I can see now that it’s oddly elevated. I guess it’s in the sputtering voice of my inner uptight Victorian.

Keep writing and thinking and thinking about writing!