How do you know when a poem is a Poem? This is a question I have found myself asking since I started writing poetry seriously (with an idea to becoming established in it, to occupying this mode of thought and being as much as possible) and to which I’ve only recently begun to form an answer.
How do I characterise a poem with a capital P? Well, as a successful poem, a published poem, one that is of value to those who read it. The reason I began to question it was not due to any perceived qualifying ‘literariness’, or lack thereof, but mostly because of the reactions I received in my workshops at Sydney Uni and in general, elsewhere. Many of my classmates had been published and the tutor, Judith Beveridge, is a celebrated and successful poet.
Some poems I’d submit, thinking they were middling, only to have them received with delight. Other poems I’d submit, thinking they were brilliant and revealing, only to have them received with disinterest. Which ones are the true poems? Which ones do I keep?
I remember asking Judith, quite earnestly one afternoon, this very question. ‘How do you know which ones to keep, which ones are great?’ And she sort of shrugged, with a bemused look in her eyes.
‘You don’t,’ she said.
‘Do you ever throw any away?’ I said, and she laughed.
‘Oh, god, yes. Thousands. See behind you?’
I turned, and behind me was a bookcase stretching from the floor to the ceiling, an easy two metres of shelving packed to bursting with large folders and boxes, all of them on the verge of letting loose their paper prisoners.
‘That’s what I like to call my Wall of Failed Things.’
I’ve never heard or seen anything so intimidating. There must’ve been thousands of poems, a staggering amount. After my own initial dam-burst of some 15,000 words of poetry (mostly spoken-word), I’ve since staggered to a stand-still, finding a continual release only through micro-poetry. As such, my appreciation for her work, for that idle revelation, only grows every day.
Thankfully, I do have micro-poetry, which is so difficult to do well, especially on Twitter; the level of precision required is incredible. Of course, by and large, most of them are forgettable. I do it mostly just to keep myself on my toes, so that even when I’m not producing as much as I’d like, I know I’m keeping the tools in my shed sharp and ready.
So, while intellectually, I’ve known for a while that other people’s reactions are not what makes the poem – even though without a favourable one, you won’t get published to begin with – it’s taken some time for that truth to settle in my gut. See, there are two kinds of truth, the kind that floats in your mind, and the kind that has to grow within, the kind that broadens your interior landscape. For me, the turning point has been two-pronged. The first is simply from reading poetry more widely, specifically collections by a single author. In them, I see what I’m beginning to think of as the ‘public’ and the ‘personal’, although the former doesn’t come close to capturing what I’m suggesting.
All I mean is that sometimes, some poems aren’t very good (to me), but they’ve been purposefully included in the collection. I think each of us will always have poems that only work for us (and perhaps the odd person here and there), alongside poems that have broad appeal. One for me, one for you. Regardless, however, it’s important not to change your approach or your methods around the reactions others have to them; you should always be satisfied with the finished product, always be writing to the highest degree possible, to the brightest truth before sending it off.
So that’s my promise to myself. To write for myself, as truthfully and powerfully as I know how, and to hope for the best in the interim. And to my damnedest to build my very own Wall of Failed Things, every bit as tall and every bit as wide as Judith’s. To fail is to learn, and I’m learning to appreciate every fall, every bruise, for the lessons they leave behind.
Some Recent Twitter Poetry:
What if the sky is an ocean
& the stars deep-sea divers
grasping for pearls, light
glinting off their helmets?
What if we are shipwrecks?
They said, there’s plenty
more fish in the sea. I said no,
I’m done with water. I will cast
my net into the sky next. #micropoetry
I can hear parrots in a eucalyptus tree
raining epitaphs down on us in song.
We met under an apple tree.
They were small and sour
but so were we. Later, filled
with the tension in a stem
ready to snap, we fell #5lines
P.S Sorry I fell off the blogging-wagon a bit. Let me summarise the past two weeks: life kicked me in the guts, and little writing was done. A few poems, several micro-Twitter poems, and fragments of short story but that’s about it.