I have had a few conversations lately with my poet friends exploring this idea of writing “bad” poetry. We cannot help it. To get to the good ones, we must be willing to flub, over complicate an idea with too many words or images, try to make the trite into something profound, in other words, write a not great poem. The more I write, the easier and more aggressive my editing has become. This is good. But sometimes all the editing, shaving words, restating, changing the thrust, the order, the voice, the ending, still results in a poem that just barely hangs onto its seat.
For me, if a piece makes it to the printer, and therefore becomes a part of my master book, I will keep it, I will even include it in lists of things to be published. I sometimes cringe a bit when I see them in print later on, but I take myself by the ear and walk myself down the hall for talking to. I think of my pieces like people think of their children. It is the same when writing those annual Holiday letters, we are wont to exclude those less shining examples of things that have happened in our families. Just for future reference, I would love it if you would all leave them in, rather than scrubbing them, burnishing them up into something shinier than they actually were. I can relate more and they are much more fun to read. My life has a long list of spectacular failures and they live right up there in importance to my successes.
We are none of us without the stumbles, the lesser moments, cracks and repaired places in our lives. I like to think of Robert Frost having a stinker between the glories, or Mary Oliver writing something that I cannot fathom. Don’t mistake this for not caring or striving to write the best one I able to do, but more a nod to authenticity and owning our process. None of it is bad if it gets us down the road to more work. Spit those bitter, slimy ones out, clear the palate and get on to hosting the next really good one.
In my books you may find a poem here or there that seems a lesser beast. No need to point that out. I know. But my tribe of poems, like with a Christmas Letter, comes with the occasional errant son or sibling who, rather than graduating from Yale, spent the last year in lockup for making really dumb decisions. No matter, it is my tribe, they are mine. I own them. We all sit for holiday dinners together, no shame allowed. It doesn't matter so much if I am a great poet. It does matter that I am a poet.
I think the following poem speaks to some of this. No embarassment. More laughter. More joy in being able to write ANYTHING! Let’s just have more words on the page please.
The Great Poem
by Lawrence Raab
The great poem is always possible.
Think of Keats and his odes.
But we shouldn't have to be dying,
What I'm writing now is not
the great poem. After a few lines
I could tell. It may not even be
a particularly good poem, although
it's too early to decide about that.
Keep going, I say. See what happens.
But trying hard is one of the problems.
since it shows in the lines as a strain
or struggle that reminds the reader
too much of the writer, whereas
most readers want to listen alone.
The great poem, I think, will arrive
when I no longer care. Perhaps
I'll have abandoned art altogether,
and I won't even want to write
the poem down. But then I'll remember
what I once would have given
for this moment, and I'll go back
to my desk. And I'll write the poem
as though I were another person,
someone I will never be again.