Thursday, 6 September 2007

Say Yay for You Today

"I suppose the first thing I learn when I finish a poem is that I was able to finish a poem... I mean that I genuinely fear when I write a poem that that there won't be another one. I gather this is a very common experience, even among writers so distinguished and prolific that you'd never guess they had such fears. The second thing I usually feel is elation that the poem is a good one. I don't see how you can go on as a writer if you don't allow yourself this brief luxury of elation... That's a personal wisdom to strive for, apart from learning new ways with language."
~Mary Jo Salter

Rob made a post recently, talking about the need for humility in poets. As he said, it's necessary to promote one's own work and also necessary not to come across as arrogant when doing so. And there's a fine line between pro-active and positive, and attention-seeking and arrogant. The same arrogance is to be avoided in the writing process itself, of which self-critique is probably the main componant. This is something you learn quickly at PFFA, or end up in the dreaded Outside with everybody laughing at you. Rob outlined the following four statements to be remembered at all times:

1. "You are not as good as you think you are" (Scavella’s mantra).
2. "Never believe in your own propaganda" (John Peel).
3. Never dispose of a rejection slip.
4. When people, especially famous poets, say something nice about you, accept that with good grace. But listen even more carefully when people you respect criticise your writing.

I especially agree with number four, though I think you'd have to be superhuman not to be thrilled if a famous poet started praising your writing. And I do get rid of rejection slips, because for me it's part of the putting-it-behind-me-and-moving-on process. If I kept my rejection slips, I'd just sit and weep over them instead of trying again.

I will say, though, that, because of all the reasons why it's vital not to get arrogant, there seems to be a fashion in poetry communities for going too far the other way. We need to be aware that what we've written isn't perfect, is probably far from perfect, but that doesn't mean it's terrible. A sort of self-flagellation seems to have become trendy, to not only be encouraged but pushed onto people, probably because it's the perfectionistic, self-critical people who tend to make good poets. Being perfectionistic and self-critical to a degree is necessary in poetry, but take it too far and you never finish anything. What's more, it's seriously unhealthy. We need to congratulate ourselves sometimes, or we'll end up unbalanced and unhappy individuals.


Matt Merritt said...

I'm with you all the way - 1,2 and 4 sound spot-on, but getting rid of rejection slips is all part of the must-do-better-next-timed routine, for me.
Your main point is dead right, too. There are times when you have to go with instinct. A lot of good poems will take you weeks, months, even years to write, but occasionally one will come along much more quickly and easily, and getting too uptight about it might destroy it.
The problem, of course, is knowing how to recognise those times.

Miss Moneypenny on my dictation said...

Yes, coming across as arrogant isn't a commonality (if there's such a word) in poetry alone. I have read quite a few blogs and inanely written newspaper articles that essentially boil down to 'Look, I'm great'. Curriculum vitaes!
The point on rejection slips was not, I am inclined to suppose, for want-to-be-poets (the breed you belong to, I gather) -- but for established or quasi-established ones.
I too have seen many a potential good writer perish in his/her comeuppance owing to needless self-criticism and consequent loss of confidence.

Keep the blog rolling. It's good.