A friend recently wrote to compliment me on a poem of mine he’d seen in a magazine. It is always lovely to receive positive responses to work, either from people I know or from those I have yet to meet.
The rest of my friend’s e-mail explained that, with regard to his own work (he is a fine and highly productive poet) he was feeling rather low since there was no prospect of publication of his pamphlet on the horizon. My friend’s predicament is not unusual. There are many poets, some of whom have in fact achieved a great deal of ‘success’ who feel lost and ignored. It is easy to dismiss this as indulgence, but people who make art of any kind are susceptible to dips in self-esteem brought about by perceived invisibility or worse, ‘failure’.
Aspects of what might be termed modern ‘competition culture’ might contribute to feelings of inadequacy. If a poem entered in a competition did not make the short-list and the poet had high hopes (and who would part with an entrance fee unless they felt their work stood a chance of winning) their internal response might range from thinking the judges were fools to concluding that the poem was rubbish and they should give up.
Alternatively, they might read the judges report and see that of the five hundred and twenty-two entries, over seventy were considered to be excellent. They might read how the adjudicator struggled to long list the poems, never mind picking the winner. They might remind themselves that another judge, on another day, might have awarded their poem the prize. Or they might eschew competitions entirely, although, as I’ve said elsewhere, some of the same odds and conditions apply when submitting work to the editor of a poetry magazine.
And there is the issue of the relative nature of ‘success’ and the fact that feelings of elation following publication or prize-giving wear off, and probably diminish in proportion to their occurrence. An extreme example might be the case of the accoladed and jaded poet who suggested that where a commendation was once cause for celebration, it now felt like a disappointment.
A publication in a good magazine is a wonderful thing, but hardly a life changing event. Even the summit, the holy grail that is publication of a pamphlet or book ( undoubtedly a culmination of great effort and a defining event for the writer) may not lead to reviews (favourable or otherwise), readings, applause or sales.
Despite learning and knowing how the odds are stacked when it comes to getting your work noticed, and perhaps even while experiencing the high of writing well, it is almost inevitable that poets will experience dog days.
If learning about poetry and what it means has become part of who you are; if you keep getting drawn back to try to find out what it can do; if attention and dedication to poetry has become almost intrusive in your life; if you are open to possibilities,
heaven or hell- bent on poetry, then poetry will reward you.
This reward will not come in the form of prizes, publication, ‘likes’ on social media or polite applause, although all of these may help you sustain yourself in your struggle to believe. When the real reward comes there won’t be cherubs bearing laurels or a physical manifestation of the muse; there won’t be an attendant audience of red-cheeked acolytes. They’ll be a poem. A poem and you.