Nakedness and Terror: On Publishing Poetry

Halfway through I discover that April is National Poetry Month.  I thought it appropriate, then, to reprint this guest post Nakedness and Terror which I originally wrote for Parvati K. Tyler.  It appeared on her blog on January 11, 2013.  I still feel naked and terrified about it.  By the way there is a four letter word (with ing at the end) in this article.  If you are offended by such things, skip to another article.

There is a certain nervousness with which people approach a poem, an assumption of horribleness that must be overcome before enjoyment kicks in.  I think this is especially true of poems written by women.  Men, as I see it, have a little more latitude when it comes to writing love poems.   Love poems are dangerous territory for a woman if she doesn’t want to be written off as sounding like a lovesick teenage girl.

There is little that is quite as humiliating to contemplate as the notion of being exposed as a bad poet.  The fear of humiliation extends to readers as well.  No one wants it to be known that she loves a poem that those in the know, the ones with English degrees, think is appalling.  Loving bad poetry can put you into the lovesick teenage girl category too.

Ode to a Minor Poet

O, minor poet,
In the dusty journal beside T.S. Eliot,
I have never heard your name.
I don’t know if scholars respect you
Should I open myself to you, O author long gone?
Might I discover I have fallen in love
With someone unworthy?
Forgive me, O ancient bard,
That I don’t trust my soul.

That is one of mine.

Poetry has never earned money for its writers and it has often had to be put out in flimsy chapbooks, by vanity presses and in tiny print runs funded by single admirers (sometimes by poet’s lovers).  This makes them automatically suspect.

If you’re working outside the supportive environment of academia, it is hard to know how your works might be ranked in the official scheme of things.  I write, generally, in free verse, which means that I have a certain doubt when I have finished that it is even a poem I have written.  Every one is a leap of faith.

I have admiration for those who master rigid forms and find creativity from constraints.  I just can’t do it.  It makes me want to tear my hair out when I have what seems the perfect combination of sound and thought and I cannot use it because of a poem’s convention.

Compare and contrast:

Sonnet on the Sonnet

To see the moment holds a madrigal,
To find some cloistered place, some hermitage
For free devices, some deliberate cage
Wherein to keep wild thoughts like birds in thrall;
To eat sweet honey and to taste black gall,
To fight with form, to wrestle and to rage,
Till at the last upon the conquered page
The shadows of created Beauty fall.

This is the sonnet, this is all delight
Of every flower that blows in every Spring,
And all desire of every desert place;
This is the joy that fills a cloudy night
When bursting from her misty following,
A perfect moon wins to an empty space.

-Lord Alfred Douglas

This is what it sounds like when I try to express the same sentiment in sonnet form:

My Sonnet

It’s fucking hard to write a sonnet
Rhyme scheme A and Rhyme scheme B.
How can this so fully stump me?
I will get this damn thing done yet.
I will take that poet’s bet.
That old Italian shan’t defeat me.
I have a rhyming dictionary
Dinette, hair net, Yes  Regret!

How can I write a classic form
When I never learned it in school?
Nor Latin, myths nor classic Greek?
The masters make my heart go warm,
Yet when I write, my pen goes cool.
You must build on bedrock in order to speak.

It’s not in pentameter because I suck.

So I don’t write these.  I revel in the luxury of not writing sonnets.

This, incidentally,  is my favorite limerick.  (Author unknown)

There once was a man from Japan
who wrote verse that never would scan.
When they said that the thing
didn’t go with the swing
he said, “Yes, but I always like to fit as many words into the last line as I possibly can.”

The themes of poems are often highly personal.  They invite readers to glimpse the poet’s view of the world without the comforting mediation of a fictional character to provide plausible deniability.  Publishing a poem is like running into a public space joyful and naked and shouting, “This is me!”  Most people offer blank, indifferent stares and then there are one or two who say, “You know, you could stand to lose a few pounds.”

I don’t have to publish poetry.  I am a reasonably accomplished author.  I’ve written more than a dozen highly commercial non-fiction books, a children’s book, and a novel that, although it has sold abysmally, has been very well reviewed.  I don’t have anything to prove.  I don’t have to risk literary humiliation by doing something as foolish as putting out a self-published book of poetry.  So why would I chose to?

It’s a form of madness.  I hope it means something.

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