Now into my sixth decade of life and my fourth decade as a writer of poems, my life as a “poet” remains what it has been from the start: exhilarating, depressing, titillating, frustrating, enlightening and blinding. In other words, something unpredictable. Gratifying and yet often unsatisfying. Something a reasonable person might choose to avoid. While saying so may seem flip, I couldn’t be more sincere. Once the young writer comes to understand the hard truth of Oscar Wilde’s observation that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feelings”, the task of finding language and a voice that resonates both internally and externally is an ongoing struggle—especially if one has the good sense to compare his work to poems that have stood the test of time and not merely to what appears to be the current fashion in journals. While the younger poet may find virtually every poem he or she writes to be a “keeper,” the longer one writes the shorter the distance between the desk and a the trash can. As Mark Twain famously said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
To put it simply, the writing of good poems is hard rowing. One must learn to accept and strangely enjoy the process itself—the continual wrestling match with language, the pot-holed roads of ideas and their detours and the nearly uncertain destination regardless of inspiration or lack thereof. In short, it’s often a recipe for failure. For even when the writer somehow manages to get one poem to a place that satisfies, there’s always the next poem and the poem after that which may likely lead to a dark street in Bangladesh when you were hoping to arrive in Times Square. Consider the work of the masters. After a lifetime of writing, what survives the scrutiny of time is usually no more than a handful of genuine keepers. Should you seriously devote yourself to a lifetime of writing poems, you must do so with the understanding that the vast majority of what you’ll write will be highly forgettable, even by your own generous standards. And guess what? That’s the good news.
The bad news? That’s the business of poetry, which in the case of poetry is not really a business as it has virtually no commercial value. No, the business of poetry is finding an audience for your work, finding editors and publishers who will respond and embrace your best efforts. Having published in dozens of journals over a long period of time, I can assure you that there’s very little guidance to be trusted in terms of what’s likely to appear in those pages. Occasionally, you’ll find a great poem. Sometimes you’ll find a good poem or two. Most of the time, you’ll find mediocre poems and journeyman poems, many similar to those you kept or tossed. Even worse, you’ll find poems whose only reason for being present anywhere is either their political or social message or the constituency they hope to attract or represent. Editors are often like adolescent children, conformists in their desire to be viewed as nonconformists. They will tell you to read past issues for guidance, but more often than not, you’ll likely come away knowing more about their inconsistent standards than some well-defined ars poetica. If the editor happens to be a poet, you may have a leg up. You can read his or her work if it’s been published. But then, there’s yet another quandary. If you find the poetry lacking and the editor loves your work, how is that going to make you feel?
But let’s move ahead. Let’s imagine you’ve persevered, you’ve worked diligently, read extensively. You’ve even written some pretty decent poems. You’ve attended several well-known writing conferences and received some valuable input and encouragement not to mention making some very good connections. You’re on a roll. A growing number of journals have published your work, although the only people who’ve heard of them are people who submit to them. But who cares? You’ve spent long nights and countless months crafting those poems into what now appears to be a complete collection. A collection ready dazzle publishers near and far.
Which brings us back to the understanding that poetry has no commercial value (unless it’s written by Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, the latter of which, her Pulitzer Prize aside, is now often dismissed by the literary inteligensia). And because publishing poetry is not a moneymaking venture, commercial publishers will have zero interest in your work (unless, perhaps, Billy Collins submits the book for you—but damn, you weren’t thinking about that when you met him at the writing conference). Which leaves you three or four other choices. You can submit to small, independent presses that publish a couple of titles each year from the hundreds of manuscripts received during their open reading periods. You can enter the endless list of poetry book competitions listed in Poets & Writers as long as you can afford the $25 entry fee and recognize you’ll be one of up to a thousand entries. Or finally, you can self-publish your book with a vanity press or with one of the on-demand publishers so long as you can give them the names of a hundred people guaranteed to be guilted into buying your book and thus cover the publisher’s costs.
If you think for a moment that I’m being some kind of smug, above-it-all smartass, please let me set the record straight. Mine is the broken heart made of steel that a life in poetry demands. I’ve published nearly two hundred poems in journals and have received rejection slips more than ten times that number. I’ve been lucky enough to publish three collections and have seen my work included in more than a half-dozen anthologies. And do you know where that leaves me? Nowhere. Nowhere except at my desk, fighting the same fights I’ve fought for 40 years, trying to conjure language into something that feels genuine and resonant while I chastise myself for my lack of talent, commitment, inspiration or whatever else would enable me to up my ratio of keepers. Despite whatever previous success I may have had, the poems I submit to journals have no better chance of acceptance than yours.
Well, so be it. That’s what I signed up a long time ago. And I’ve written a few keepers along the way and hopefully there’ll be a few more to come if I’m lucky. Because for most of us, that’s what a life in poetry is all about. No money, no glory, no predictable success, no Chair at Princeton, no Presidential Medal for anything. In the end, it’s just the poems and the time and sweat it takes to write one that’s worthy of the paper it’s written on. And if that’s not enough, and it really never is, better to get out while you still can. And leave it to the rest of us sissies to carry on.