Am I Any Good?
Or rather, are my poems any good? (And how can I tell?)
My old friend, fellow-poet and frequent collaborator, Jennie Fraine, recently came from interstate to visit me for a few days. (Here we are lunching in town.) Some of our conversations, of course, were about writing and poetry.
At one point I confessed worriedly, 'I think some of the poems I post to my blog are a bit ... er ... slight.'
'Nooo!' she exclaimed in shocked protest. But then, 'Well, if you're writing to prompts and writing a poem every day....'
Jennie has done a lot of work in schools, inspiring kids to make poetry. She said she tells them, 'If you write one poem a week, it might be a good one or not, but if you write seven a week, there are more chances for some of them to be good.'
That was reassuring. It suddenly gave me permission to write some poems that aren't as good as others – whatever 'good' means, and however it's determined. (Perhaps I should let my readers judge.)
I don't write every day, though sometimes I do, e.g. in April Poetry Month. I do write most days. Last year I wrote 257 poems that I kept (I just counted). Mind you, some of them were very short; but others were not. I guess, with that kind of output, year after year, I needn't worry about a few duds. Or even a lot of duds.
I also realised that 'slight' poems might have their place. After all, I like to try a variety of forms and styles; they don't all have to be big and important! And some of those which I consider slight, or ordinary, or lacking in some way, seem to please my readers.
I think of what I myself enjoy reading. Yes, I love the ones that knock me out with their assured craft and stunning language, the ones that are incredibly beautiful and/or deeply moving, and those that pull no punches with their powerful utterances. (I find plenty of examples of all of these on your blogs, dear colleagues – just in case you're wondering whether yours are any good.) But I also enjoy the humorous pieces, the wordplay for its own sake, the domestic vignettes, the celebration of the ordinary, the efforts and explorations of those still learning their craft (hang on, isn't that all of us? I mean, the learning doesn't stop).
When it comes right down to it, a poem is a one-on-one piece of communication. Even when it is read by a lot of people – even when it is heard by a lot of people – each person apprehends it individually. If you're looking to posterity, you will need a consensus of enough people over time saying it is good; but here and now, that is a decision for every individual reader/listener. You can only ask, 'Was it good for you?' and they must all decide for themselves.
The question, 'Is it any good?' in general terms becomes meaningless.
'I liked it,' someone comments, or even, 'I love this'. Or perhaps, 'That really made me think'. Or, sometimes, 'LOL'. All of those mean that poem was good in that moment, in that interaction; it was good as a piece of communication.
They often also mean it's good as a work of art. Someone might love what a poem says; someone else might thrill to the way it says it. Ideally, I guess, the two can't be separated. It's poetry; our medium is language. Even when we're writing with the focus on the language itself, in ways that fracture, complicate or layer meaning, still we are communicating something. We succeed when our readers – or some of them – get it, whatever the 'it' may be in the particular instance.
I've been thinking aloud here. Have you followed me so far? Did I reach a valid conclusion? What's your opinion? How do you personally cope with the inevitable self-doubts? (They are inevitable, aren't they?)
Feel free to share your thoughts.