Clive James ‘Letter to a young poet’

I’ve sung the praises of on-line poetry magazines on here before. Another new publication, The Scores  went live ( think this is the correct term) this morning.  I haven’t had a proper look yet but the first issue contains  work by many well-known (in the poetry world) poets, as well as an introduction by Don Patterson  and an interesting ‘Letter to a young poet’ piece by Clive James.  I read Rilke’s original letters to a young poet some years ago, and am always interested in advice, thoughts  and ‘wisdom’ relating to poetry .

James’ piece begins with an echo of Rilke’s original letter. Basically, James suggests that unless you are dedicated to the point of obsession to writing poetry, you should give up. Unless you find yourself driven to it to the point where you can’t help it, do something else. James’ reasoning for this advice is that – ‘ the chances of failure are too high, and the disappointments are too cruel.’ I’m not sure I agree with the assumption that failure and cruel disappointment are the overriding experiences of the poet. Of course there must be many frustrated writers out there, but I have also met several hundred who’s lives have been enhanced and enriched by their involvement. Perseverance, dedication, and the occasional check on one’s motivations and expectations might be valuable.  I hesitate to suggest that one shouldn’t aim high, but it would be a good idea for a young poet to know the number of poets wishing to be published, for example, by Faber and Faber, as opposed to the number who actually are. If we are talking about ‘failure’ in terms of publishing (and it is not clear what James means by ‘failure’ ,) then I think it reasonable to believe that one can be published, firstly in magazines and later perhaps in pamphlet or book form.   James continues ‘  the average stacked shelf is not only more useful to society than the average poem, it is actually superior as a work of art. ‘  I suppose this statement too,  depends on a definition or definitions of  ‘average’, ‘usefulness’ and ‘art ‘ in relation to poetry and supermarket shelves.

James also writes

‘ Train yourself to care less about the praise. You should work your new poem to perfection not because it will please more people that way – it might please fewer – but because in its finished state it will prove itself an independent artefact invulnerable even to your own doubts. If the poem has its own confidence, the day will come when you can look back on it and wonder how you did it. ‘

This seems like good advice. If only it were  possible to ‘train  yourself ‘ to care less about praise. In my own experience, one becomes less concerned with both praise and negative criticism as time goes by. When starting to share poems with others , it is of course possible to be elated or deflated by their reactions. Only experience and time can develop confidence in the work (I like the idea of the poem having its own confidence.)  Another factor in how someone responds to praise is their temperament.  Some people will always be buoyed or swayed more than others by praise. For my part, although pleased by it, I’ve always found it a little difficult to accept, ( and here I hope I don’t sound ungrateful,)  of little use.

While I find James’ trademark laconic pessimism  (some might say realism)  a little too negative,  I did find aspects of the article enjoyable, and think the idea of inviting people to write such a letter is a good one.

The piece also contains an odd reference to Malcolm Muggeridge’s thoughts on how the contraceptive pill might effect the light in a woman’s eyes.  I found this off-putting and unnecessary reference, betraying, perhaps, some of  James’ generation’s  lack of subtly and sensitivity when approaching gender issues, or maybe illustrating a predilection for deliberately stirring up a little controversy with offhand sexist generalisation. James’ includes some thoughts on notebooks and how to organise work in progress, and some may find this useful.  Whilst a certain amount of organisation is undoubtedly required to keep work in progress accessible and orderly, I found the setting out of one particular approach a little prescriptive when applied to poetry. This may be because I am resistant to being told how to work, preferring to find ways that suit me best (although I am not a ‘young poet,’ and therefore not the addressee of the letter.) However, I believe there are  many ways of working, and individuals will eventually find what works best for them.

On reputation and career, James writes

‘If you start thinking about your reputation, or even about your career as a poet, you are in the wrong frame of mind. What matters most is the poem, not the poet. ‘

I’m fortunate in that the words ‘career’ and ‘poet’ have never appeared in the same sentence in my mind. Of course I understand why people use ‘career’ in relation to their poetry; either because it suggests a developmental path (which can be a comforting conception ) or that it adds credibility to their dedication to poetry, or perhaps they are referring to the fact that their writing is an intrinsic part of an academic or performance based life.  I am fortunate in that my poetry has always been largely separate from such concerns. As for reputation, maybe that, like beauty, is in the eye and ear of the beholder.

My  favourite line from Clive James’ piece is this.

‘If even a few people remember a line or two in a poem you wrote, you’re not just getting there, you’re there. That’s it: and all the greater glory is mere vanity’


The undulations of the poet

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.

sad dog
It is difficult to gain a sense of perspective.

Who are you writing for. Yourself (or selves?) Everyone? No-one? All of the above?  And why?

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,

Scarlet Macaw and pigeons roosting.


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.

Healthy writing, Uncategorized

Poetry, ego, success and rejection. A few thoughts and reminders to self.

We teach best what we most need to learn.
Richard Bach.

I have a freshly printed poem. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever set down these particular words in this particular order. I feel rather pleased with myself and that’s ok. But it might be worth reminding myself later that any poem I write is only partly mine. I don’t mean that I have deliberately lifted or re-written bits of other people’s poems. Rather, I am aware that this poem and all others I have written or might write are descendants of all the poems I have read or listened to. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Or, if you prefer a more fluid and less clichéd metaphor, my poems are merely waves on the surface of a deep body of poetry.

I want to talk about ego and poetry and success. That’s a lot of ground to cover and there are some complex relationships here but I need to start somewhere.  What I’m trying to establish is the idea that although our poems are unique creations, we need to be mindful of their place in the wider scheme of things. Yes, our poems can be important expressions of who we are. They may even be read by someone who miraculously will find some aspect of their own experience reflected there. And here, maybe I’ve stumbled upon what would constitute true success.

My new poem also owes a debt to those who have helped me develop my craft.  In a list that might read a little like an Oscar acceptance speech, I can think of writing workshop facilitators, writing partners, friends, mentors, editors. All have added something to my understanding, or helped me look at what I have written and see it in a different way.  Disagreeing with feedback and learning to stick to your guns can make you more sure of your work, and being able to explain why you don’t want to change a poem, at least to yourself, is as useful as realizing that maybe you could make suggested changes.

I haven’t had any formal feedback for some time, and am not part of any writing group, but I have recently benefited from the suggestions of friends. One might only suggest the possibility of changing a word. Another might offer generous but heartfelt (and very important) support and encouragement, which can never be underestimated.

So for these reasons, I could remind myself that my poem is not entirely mine. I am responsible for it, and it is ultimately me who decides if it is finished.By ‘finished’ I mean a poem which I feel fairly certain I can’t improve upon, a poem to which it seems no more can be usefully added or subtracted.

In order to have a chance of the kind of success I mentioned above, namely that of the poem resonating with another reader, it is necessary (unless you are happy to read your poem to an audience and leave it at that, which is also fine) to get it into print.
If I like my poem and believe (at least at the time of sending) that what I have written has captured something interesting and in such a way that it is worthy of sharing, I’ll send it out . Some of the poems I send out are returned. Others are published. So it goes.

If I sound blasé about this process I don’t mean to. Publication is important to me and I generally look forward to having a publication on the horizon. By circulating returned work and sending out new poems at regular intervals I do my best to maintain the prospect of publication as a constant backdrop to my writing.

Of course I will be pleased, (in some cases very pleased) if a poem is accepted by a magazine. If I have tried that particular magazine few times it’ll feel like I have got over some kind of hurdle. Which seems a bit ridiculous, but is understandable perhaps.

Obtaining publication is also part of the business of building a track record on your way to convincing someone to publish a pamphlet or book.  It is possible to view publication in itself, or winning a prize or being short-listed for an award, very simplistically, as ‘success’, and therefore, to view non-publication as its opposite.

By using the words non-publication I am skirting around the commonly used word ‘rejection’. I’ve written here before about rejection, and I’ve often thought the term ‘rejected poems’ could be replaced with ‘returned poems’. Most, if not everyone, to varying degrees, finds having poems returned difficult. And all published poets have at some time experienced it.

It might be helpful to look at the returned poem in the following way . If the objective of sending the poem off is to get the poem accepted and the poem has been returned, then all that has happened is that the objective has been delayed. It might help to view our ‘rejections’ or returns as delays on the way to the next temporary feeling of success. Unless of course the writer’s publishing success has been delayed for a number of years, in which case this might be a realistic indication that assistance is required to move the work forward.

I appreciate that it is difficult to think of the returning of a poem or poems as a delay.  But it is good, if you can, to develop a kind of resilience to the return of your work if you wish to continue to attempt to be published. There’s only one way to proceed and that’s to keep trying. The difficulty is not only in the fact that the returned poem frustrates the poet’s desire for the poem to be read, but in that it may be viewed (or rather felt) as the opposite of affirmation.

Affirmation (noun)

The act of affirming; state of being affirmed.
The assertion that something exists or is true.

I have a feeling that most poets suffer from a deficit of affirmation. Sometimes insecure or egotistical creatures, often an odd cocktail of both, many poets will equate the acceptance or return of their work to the value of their art or worse still, of themselves.  In the most extreme case a lack of affirmation may feed feelings of worthlessness. The need for affirmation might be one reason why some people write poetry in the first place. I’m sure there’s a research project or two in all this for those with the inclination, energy and resources.

To summarise, acceptance for publication can be seen to equal success in two ways. It is a positive, affirming and encouraging event, and it enables your poem to be seen and potentially achieve the (perhaps more meaningful) success of connecting with readers. For these reasons, acceptance for publication should be enjoyed and celebrated.

But the joy of acceptance and the accompanying affirmation are fleeting. They wear off. And it is possible, if we are over-reliant on this affirmation or in a rush for recognition, for us to hunger for the next confirmation of the worth of our work the day after the last acceptance. In an extreme scenario we might even forget to write as we perpetually wait for the next publication fix, or dwell bitterly on the latest delay in obtaining it.

There is probably no purer feeling of ‘success’ than the very first acceptance of a poem by a good magazine (quality of publication is of course important). But in my experience the intensity of this kind of feeling diminishes the more one obtains it.

How we understand and relate to publication success and rejection (or delayed success) can be healthy or unhealthy. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions associated with publication or lack of it. But if success is measured solely in terms of publication, most, if not all writers will never be able to get enough.

So how do we keep a sense of perspective and remember what is important? And what is important? Here are some thoughts I’ve jotted down to finish. I hope some of this makes sense and that this list doesn’t read too much like a boy scout’s pledge

It is important

To be kind and helpful and fair to others.
To be generous with what we have learned.
To absorb to watch, read and listen.
To notice what’s within us and without us.
To remember our lives and the lives of others, to honour and explore memory.
To be mindful of how we deal with ‘success’, ‘rejection’ and other temporary distractions.
To diligently purse new ideas.
To translate our learning into other words.
To use what we know, what we think we know
and what we know that we don’t know.
To accept praise and criticism with humility.
To engage with and utilize our imaginations and passions when we can.
To take our writing seriously, but remember to laugh at ourselves.
To forgive and be generous to ourselves. To rest.

Becoming a poet, Uncategorized

Becoming a poet

Some of the time you feel that your obvious talent is being ignored. Your ego pounds the table and shouts ‘not fair’ as you watch other (obviously less talented people) parading their successes. But your monstrous ego won’t always win out. You will feel genuinely pleased for other people too. The poet you met at a reading and had a good chat with, the poet who you went on a course with, the poet whose work you love, whose kindness and humility you remember. You will seek feedback.
'And do we want to know why a haiku is like a thong?'

Some of the feedback will annoy or upset you. The poem will be fatally wounded. You will abandon it. You will seek more feedback. You will ignore it. You will learn to listen. The poem full of holes is patched up. It floats. It is magical. You float in it. You begin to recognise and accept good advice. You know what to reject and why. You become a better writer. You argue for your poems. You justify your choices. With persistence and effort, you shall go to the ball.


But after a glittering occasion (launch, award ceremony, reading in a noisy pub ) you do not receive another invitation for a very long time. You feel like a fraud and wonder how you ever wrote anything. You are embarrassed to admit that you write poetry. You tell people you are a writer. You hope they don’t ask what you write. You wonder if you are a success. You wonder what success is; are you successful now you have a poem in ‘Third Ear Journal’? Or is it the feeling you get when you have written one poem you truly love, or better still, a poem you will still love in three years and maybe forever?  Poems arrive unbidden after periods of absence (I don’t use the term ‘block’ – sometimes we need to rest and regroup.)  The new poems are the best you’ve ever written. You are a genius and you don’t care who knows it. Some idiot who can’t write writes a review. He won’t understand your book. He will upset and anger you. He is an idiot.  Someone else will write a review. It will glow. There are things in your work you didn’t know were there. You want to share the review. You worry about showing off.  You feel ignored. You are generous to another poet. You are bitter and twisted. You are energised. Someone writes to tell you they loved your poem in ‘Mapping the Void’. You are happy all morning.
Happy poets
You receive a poetry magazine and everything in it is amazing. You are inspired. You want to give up. You receive a poetry magazine and everything in it is rubbish. Why don’t they take your stuff? They take your stuff. You wish you hadn’t sent it to them. The poem could have gone somewhere better. You write nothing of worth for three months. You find old poems and think ‘hey, that’s pretty good’.  The old poems don’t sound like you. You wonder what you sound like now. The answer is you sound like your next poem. Your next poem is a new departure. You doubt your work. You feel the editors who accepted your poems got it wrong, that the stuff they took is rubbish. You are anthologized but still no one asks you to open Glastonbury.

Poet cartoon

You are humble. You are boastful. You are sombre. You write a poem. You are heady with delight. You feel pride. You are surprised when you read one of your pieces and realise it is really rather good.  You will be amazed at the kindness of other poets. You will have your faith in human nature restored by their support and praise. You trip over someone’s ego at a reading. Their head blocks out the light. The lady in the post office thinks it’s cool that you are a poet. Nothing comes through the door. Your submissions have disappeared. Your e-mail inbox is empty. Your book has sold out. You buy a new stack. You travel a hundred miles to read your poems on a rainy Wednesday night. No-one buys your book.  Someone tells you they loved your poem about the fly.  You have never written a poem about a fly. The poem you sent to ‘Fraying Fringes’ has been gone a year and still no word. A friend tells you that ‘Fraying Fringes’ has folded. You become focused. You become distracted.  You give up social media. You feel isolated. You take up social media. Euphoria will come and go. Despair will come and go. Feel and do all this enough times and you will begin to recognise Groundhog Day when it comes around. This is the process. You might even be able to meet and treat those two imposters ‘success’ and ‘failure’ the same. You will put envy aside. You will find no-one to blame. You will write poems. You will be a poet.

See also this Maitreyabandhu article  in Magma magazine and other posts on this blog-    The Healthy Writer, Mice Nests and Parcels,  and  Submission, Rejection , Acceptance, Reward,