That fear of being embarrassingly bad

I don’t remember when I started writing poetry, but I was very, very young. I do remember writing poems in infant school, but they weren’t my first.

We were asked to write a poem about fire at school one day, and my effort was awarded an unprecedented six Smarties in the school’s reward-and-incentive scheme. My mother told me that when she came to collect me at 3.30 that day, the other kids in the class all clamoured round her, excitedly informing her, “Mrs Branton! Mrs Branton! Melanie got given SIX Smarties for writing a REAL poem – with rhyme and everything!”

Because I always wrote in rhyme in those days. Not the clumsy attempts at rhyme that most young children (and, for that matter, many adults) make – forced rhymes that don’t even make sense, eye-wateringly bad scansion. Despite the fact that I am dyspraxic and in most areas of life have a dyspraxic person’s sense of rhythm – I dance like David Brent at his daughter’s wedding – I have always instinctively understood beat in poetry. Like most children, no matter how many times the teacher told me “Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme”, I thought it did. Until the age of about thirteen or fourteen, I churned out rhymed poetry in regular, traditional rhythms, often light verse and for a child of my age they were eerily competent.

Then I became a typical angsty adolescent and two things happened: I discovered the power of poetry as a cathartic conduit for my feelings, and I decided that rhyme was so unsophisticated and last-century. I abandoned the old-fashioned, but creditable-after-its-fashion work I had hitherto been writing and basically started ranting about how I was feeling on paper and calling it poetry. Any  imaginative or original use of language went out the window, as I thought that the most important thing  – indeed, the ONLY important thing – in poetry was emotional authenticity.

This carried on until I went to university and one day attended a creative writing group, run by one of the modernist literature lecturers and enthusiastically supported by predominantly male students who wore black polo necks, read existentialist literature for light relief and had already been earmarked for PhD places. I read out one of my efforts and there was an embarrassed silence and everybody in the room avoided eye contact with me before someone trotted out some extremely carefully-worded blandness about my poem being “deeply felt”. I realised that I had made a terrible faux pas, that they thought I was a gauche moron who didn’t deserve to be in higher education, that my poetry was crap.

I pretty much stopped writing any poetry at all for about twenty years after that. I thought I had no talent, that I was woefully, toe-curlingly terrible at it, although I still loved reading poetry and, in my intermittent work as an English teacher, it was always the part of the course I taught best.

It was only when I joined a local community poetry group on a whim about ten years ago, as a hobby to give me a break from caring for elderly parents, that I started writing again. Even then, I stuck mostly to brittle light verse for a long while or writing poetry which was cerebral and theoretical rather than steeped in personal experience, terrified of being that oversharing, naive undergraduate embarrassing herself again, terrified of letting my emotion in.

Then, finally, I started doing slams, where confessional poems, revealing very private things about yourself, are often prized, and I finally felt able to put myself back in my poetry again, although this time trying very hard not to throw out the craft-baby with the bathwater.

In my experience, many people go through those same stages with poetry –

Stage 1: thinking all poetry must rhyme and have a regular rhythm and be narrative, rather than lyrical

Stage 2: thinking no poetry should rhyme and it should be entirely self-expressive

Stage 3: total confusion and self-doubt

Those who are lucky make it onto Stage 4 – mature poetry-writing, where there’s a balance of craft and emotional authenticity.

Even now, though, I fear embarrassing myself, doing the wrong thing, in a poetry scene which seems to be increasingly fragmented into different subgenres and schools where strict and often mutually contradictory rules seem to apply, where some audiences like you to bare your soul, while some would really rather you didn’t, where some “tastemakers” value spontaneity, while others value careful crafting.

I think it’s easier if you just pick a style and follow it rigidly and derivatively – you will find a home and a circle that loves you. Unfortunately, I don’t fit comfortably into any one poetic camp. As I often say, I don’t so much fall between two stools as lie sprawling between several entirely different items of furniture. And so the fear of being perceived as “doing it wrong” never goes away.


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