You are not your poem

One of the most difficult concepts for my freshman writers to grasp is the necessity of separating their self-worth from their grades. I tell them, over and over: I grade the writing, not the writer. Until a writer is able to dissociate himself or herself from criticism about his or her work, the work itself will remain cramped, twisted, verbal bonsai. Once students are able to separate their self-worth and their human craving to be loved from their writing, they begin to see where the writing needs their own tender care–and, as they learn to accept criticism, their writing and their self-confidence improve exponentially.

Whether the criticism comes from the city editor, the workshop, or the reading public, rejection sucks. It hurts not to be told that we are geniuses, that we are wordsmiths of the first order, that we are important. Just because some of the writing–not all of it–failed doesn’t mean that you have failed as a person.

All writers write “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott puts it. The trick is to move beyond the first draft or even the earlier drafts. The only way to do this is over time.

A talented poet I know was upset about a supposedly “bad” review. Caught off guard, unable to accept that the work was flawed, the poet responded by attacking the intelligence of the reviewer. I read the review and I found it to be, sadly, spot-on–in ways that the poet did not actually address.

The problem with the work wasn’t a lack of passion, nor some personal character flaw on either the poet’s or the reviewer’s part, but simply a lack of due diligence in revising.

What constitutes due diligence in poetry?

First, there is the ever-present rush to publication. Rereading Donald Hall’s essay “Poetry and Ambition” is an excellent tonic.

Second, every poet has the sworn duty to excise every cliché from every line of every poem. The ratio of clichés to any given moral indignation can derail the noblest venture. Of course, one can make a poem out of nothing but clichés–but that implies the poet is conscious of what constitutes a cliché in the first place.

Third, the particular headline of today is not the universal truth of tomorrow. The story behind the headline may contain some larger truth, but neither of those is itself poetry. Suffering, especially the suffering of others set to linebreaks, is not in and of itself poetry.

Fourth, resorting to the personal attack may make one feel better (in a small, petty way), but it won’t change a substantive criticism. Defensiveness is the surest sign of insecurity. The best cure for insecurity is the woodshed: back to the basics. Identify the place(s) where the poem breaks down. Look for patterns of problems. Investigate how other poets solved those problems. Try and try again. Revise.

This semester, Beth Gylys’ workshop is examining some of the ways in which university workshops can buck Hall’s “McPoem.” An interesting corollary observation is that the McPoem is alive and well outside of the university workshop. It’s easy to get caught up in the PoBiz gerbil wheel. It’s hard to figure out what to do to make that clunker from five years ago sing.

When we publish a poem, or a book of poems, we lose control over them. We cannot make everyone like our work. Write the poems. Send them into the world. Write newer, better ones. Use what you’ve learned from less-than-flattering reviews about possible flaws in the work. Accept that your words may not have conveyed the message you had intended–and figure out why that is. If you have the strength to do this, then you will be a great poet.

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