Failing To Cope Well With Failing

I’ve always thought I was a reasonably good loser, but more and more lately I’ve not been, and I’m trying to work out what that’s all about.

I have never entered a slam not intending to win it and I always feel painfully disappointed if I don’t, but usually I’d like to think I hide it well and get over it quickly. There have been a couple of times when I’ve been a bit arsey (well, actually, one of them, fuelled by far too much alcohol, I was very arsey, which I’m still mortified about two years later), but on the whole I am Not That Guy. Either the judges wouldn’t know good poetry if it slapped them in the face, in which case their decisions are no reflection on my skills and thus not worth getting upset about, or they do know good poetry when they see it, in which case the sensible response is analysing what the higher-scoring poets did better than me and doing it next time, not throwing a tantrum and sulking. Usually, if I leave a slam angry and upset, it’s at myself for fucking up, not at anyone else.

Similarly with journal submissions: yes, rejection is never pleasant and we’ve probably all regressed to toddlerhood and grumbled, “Well, I wouldn’t want to be in their stupid magazine, anyway! The stuff they publish is shit” at least once in our lives, even though that is a patently illogical, sour grapes response: if they really do publish shit, why did you submit to them in the first place? And if it’s a prestigious magazine and the poetry in it seems rubbish, the chances are there’s something about it you’re missing, so it’s either so stylistically removed from you that you and they will never be a good fit, or you’re not as good as you think you are and don’t even understand what the properties of quality page poetry are.

But thinking uncharitable thoughts is one thing – actually contacting the magazine and telling them that you wouldn’t want to be in their stupid magazine, anyway, as they publish shit, is putting on the T-shirt with the “I Am An Arsehole” logo emblazoned across it and, thankfully, I have never done it. Yet.

Then there’s gigs I’m turned down for, lukewarm reviews, lukewarm audiences….

I used to think that the more I got used to the poetry scene, the less failure would hurt and the more mature I would be about it, but, actually, the reverse is the case. When I started out, I expected to fail. Failing is what beginners are supposed to do. I expected it to take a few years to get to the stage when I was Good Enough and had earned the right to success, so there was absolutely no shame in failing right at the beginning. Now, though, failure at things I was failing at three or four years ago feels like lack of progress, especially when I see people who took up poetry later than me succeeding at them. It feels like it’s not just lack of experience and the need to work a little bit harder – it raises that possibility that I don’t want to think about: that I might not, actually, be that good.

Increasingly, I find myself taking longer to get over disappointments, feeling childishly jealous of my colleagues and friends (and then I feel the double pain of both the jealousy AND the guilt of being resentful and disloyal to people I genuinely love and admire, as well), whining to my friends about it all, being uncharitable and sour grapesy. I think it’s a response to fear that I’ve plateaued, that I’ve reached my ceiling, that this is as good as it gets, that actually I’m a good amateur, rather than a nascent professional, that I’m an also-ran. “It’s not fair! Why has he/she got that, when I haven’t? They’re not as good as me!” is  more ego-protecting response than, “I’m scared. I’m not asgood as them and that means I might not be good enough.”

But then I look around at friends and it’s the ones who don’t give into these kinds of feelings who are succeeding, often against the odds. Friends who remain resolutely chipper (at least, in public) in the face of setbacks, who use them as educational exercises showing them where they need to improve or as helpful career pointers of the kind of poetry that’s not for them, who try not to compare themselves to others, but just concentrate on ploughing their own furrow, are the ones who are making career progress.

I’m feeling frustrated about a couple of goals in poetry that I keep missing and don’t appear to have moved substantially closer to succeeding at over the last year or two. I know that there are only two mature ways forward with them: either keep going and work even harder to hit them or accept that that area of poetry is not one of my strengths and give up, to concentrate more on areas that are.

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When your best work isn’t…

A friend recently said to me, about my recent book (£8 + £1.50 p&p from Oversteps Books. Ideal Christmas present for single, pissed-off, middle-aged women!), “I really enjoyed it. But why did you put all the best poems at the back?” This stumped me, as I didn’t think I had. In fact, I had deliberately put what I thought were my best poems at the front.

Another thing that happens to me quite a lot (and I don’t think I’m alone in this – it’s a bit of a poetry cliche) is that I send off a submission to a journal, include three or four pieces I am really, really proud of, that I slaved over and crafted, that I privately think might go down in history as groundbreaking classics and be included on ‘A’ level syllabuses in fifty years’ time, and then I stick in one bit of any old crap, just to fill up the envelope. And it is always, every single time, the “rubbish” poem that I threw together in five minutes that gets accepted (by journals which say in their submissions guidelines that they are looking for poems with signs of craft!), while my prized creations get spiked.

I’m certainly not complaining about this (I’m glad to get anything accepted, at all), but it does mystify me why what I think are my best poems are often what other people think are my worst poems, and vice versa, and I’ve been pondering possible explanations for this phenomenon:

1. When I think I’m writing well and crafting my language, I’m overwriting, trying too hard, self-consciously being “poetic”, which is always cringey. In particular, I know I have a weakness for overembellishing with puns and (often mixed) metaphors. Just saying what I have to say seems to me to be cheating and not really poetry, at all. It’s too easy.

But poetry is about saying something in the most concise, concentrated way, not about overworking language or constructing a cryptic crossword clue. When I do this, at best, I sound stilted, at worst, what I think is clever ambiguity means that my writing is so impenetrable, nobody other than me can work out what I’m going on about.

2. Sometimes the poems I like are good, but the subject matter is judged too obscure by the editors and unlikely to resonate with their audience. Poems about e.g. history, mythology, linguistics etc can sometimes be difficult to place, especially if they assume knowledge thereof on the audience’s part, and can even piss editors off as “elitist” (there’s a whole other blog entry in this, but, while I can totally understand an editor thinking a poem on an obscure topic is not for their audience and rejecting it, I take issue with the attitude that I am being snobbish, pretentious and deliberately trying to exclude people by writing on an “intellectual” topic. Poems about science and rap music and football and married family life go totally over my head, but that doesn’t mean people who do know about those topics shouldn’t be allowed to write about them. No poem is really for everyone.)

I didn’t rate the poem I was surprised got accepted because I judged it to be “too obvious” or “on a boring topic”, but familiarity can sometimes be good. People like poetry that “speaks to them.”

It’s always a hard one, riding the line between accessibility and cliche. I don’t see the point in telling people things they already know and which everybody and his dog has already written about, in language so bald it has all the poetry of a shopping list, but I can also see why that great poem I wrote about the declension of the definite article in Old Norse, using a complex series of extended metaphors about early 16th-century courting habits, wasn’t as big a hit as I’d hoped.

3. The poem that got rejected was one of those wafty descriptive poems that’s vaguely “about” something, but doesn’t clearly have anything concrete to say. I used to write these a lot when I first started submitting to (and being rejected by) journals – poems about my feelings, poems about my cat, poems about the weather, poems about places. They were interesting exercises in using language and definitely helped me develop as a writer, but they didn’t go anywhere. They painted a very vivid picture of my cat, but they didn’t, ultimately, convey anything more urgent than “I have a ginger cat.” They were elaborate doodles.

Good poems tend to move on from “This is how I feel”, “This is what X looks like” to tell a story or to draw some universal conclusion that can be applied to something other than my feelings or my cat. I find poems that have a strong, but elliptical and concise, narrative tend to do very well, even if the language is a bit flat.

4. This is maybe a subsection of 3, rather than a point on its own, but the “good” poem didn’t have a strong ending and could have done with a subsequent redraft. It was potentially a better poem than the “bad” poem, but the “bad” poem was more coherent, more complete, and ended on a bang.

5. The poem that got rejected wasn’t born of genuine feeling. It was clever, it was ingeniously constructed, but my head was in it, not my heart, and it showed.

6. It’s not me, it’s them. By this, I don’t mean they’re idiots who don’t recognise great poetry when they see it, but just the style of my poems that got rejected and their journal are not a match. It happens. Just as Shostakovitch doesn’t get played on Radio 2 and you don’t tend to see Pam Ayres in Poetry London, my “good” poems will not fit the house style of some journals, while my “bad” poems will. Send the “good” poems somewhere else, and they may get a much better reception.

And similarly, maybe it was just my friend’s taste was different from mine.

The Pity Of It

As I am running out of things on the spoken word/poetry scene to moan about, I may start an occasional series where I discuss poems I love. The following example, by the mighty Thomas Hardy (yes, the same one who wrote all those brick-sized, gloomy, 19th-century novels, like The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles), is an anti-war poem written about the First World War, but is also oddly topical for Brexit.

I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”
“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.

Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between kin folk kin tongued even as are we,
Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”

 

This poem takes the classic form of a Petrarchan sonnet: an octet (8-line stanza) with an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme describing something the poet has observed (in this case, the dialect spoken in the most isolated rural parts of Dorset and how it preserves old Anglo-Saxon pronoun and verb forms which Standard English lost centuries ago, making it freakishly similar to German, the language of the people England is currently at war with) and then a sestet (6-line stanza) with a CDCDCD rhyme scheme commenting on what he has just observed (in this case, that whoever instigated the war between the England and Germany has done something so unnatural, almost fratricidal, in forcing nations so closely related linguistically to fight and kill each other, that he hopes that they forever have an ugly reputation and that their descendants all come to a sticky end.)

As aficionados of my poetry will know, I am obsessed with linguistics, in general, and grammar, in particular, and studying the mediaeval Germanic languages which eventually gave birth to English formed a large part of my BA English degree, so this poem is right up my street.

I find this poem so clever in its construction, from Hardy’s pointed choice of an Italian sonnet form (rather than the English alternative) to discuss his outrage at the discord which has fallen between the English and their Continental European neighbours, to his use of words of Anglo-Saxon origin, such as “loamy”, “kin”, “folk”, “brood”, “shun”, where Latinate synonyms might have been more obvious, alongside Norse- (“gangs”, “ugly”, “slaughters”) and French- or Latin-derived words (“ancient”, “glory”, “sinister”, “lurid”, “lineage”). The irony of the fact that he describes Germanic-derived words  as “many an ancient word/of local lineage“, when “ancient”, “local” and “lineage” are not words of local lineage, but borrowed from French or Latin, is almost certainly deliberate. Everything about the poem is subtly pointing to how huge a contributor Continental Europe has been to our culture, language and history and how we cannot extricate ourselves from it and stand alone without damaging the very core of ourselves.

The imagery works on so many levels, e.g. his metaphor of the Germans attacking England’s “loins” (genitals), expresses both how vulnerable England has made itself in this most painful of wars, but also makes the war between the twin nations sound as monstrous and unnatural as incest. His choice of the obscure verb phrase “gird at” (meaning “mock” or “jeer at”) is interesting, because he is punning on the common phrase “gird one’s loins”, where “gird” has almost the opposite meaning – to encircle or protect -again highlighting that the natural, obvious thing for these nations would be to protect each other, not to mock and attack each other.

His description of the warmongers as “gangs” is evocative – the authorities are depicted as chaotic and anti-social, while the ordinary people are civilised and responsible.

The sound structures are amazing – in Hardy’s use of “f” alliteration (“field and farmstead”, “flung this flame”), you can almost hear him spitting with anger.

I’m aware I have virtually written an ‘A’ level poetry unseen here, but I hope it’s given some idea of why I love this poem.

ETA: forgot to say – the poem is called “The Pity of It”.