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.’