The Hard Work of Poetry

By Salli Shepherd

Poets are constantly crippled, creatively. It’s the way it works. You write a line and, just now, right now, it seems like it’s the best line in the world to date. It’s a shiny, beautiful line, a thought, an image so remarkably profound that you are in awe of yourself, or (if you are a seasoned poet) in awe of that angelic being which sits on high in your mind and occasionally drops little scraps of poetic manna into your head. Now, you only need to write a poem around it.

And fail.

Because the poem takes over,  sprouts a million legs and scurries in directions you had no real intention of it going – and now the Wondrous Line of Glory and Poetic Win doesn’t fit. You have to either change it or take it out and save it for another poem. Or make it a haiku-like short poem on its own, so all those other words don’t assault it again. If you’re an experienced poet, you’ll probably just store it in a .txt file or on a post-it note somewhere and lament it until you’re old and nothing matters any more.

Or you take the poem and break all of its legs, and put it into forced labour to serve this tiny god of a phrase or line, which it does unwillingly and badly and the poem is just shite as a result, and you go sour on the idea and scrap it, or worse – post it up as your latest bit of genius and consider all criticism of its glory a kind of drooling madness that people really ought to be cured of.

It’s really important, as a poet, to take the approach of the closed fist VS. the open hand. It’s an old Buddhist thing, grasshopper, which goes something like this:

“If your hand is closed tightly around one coin, it is not open to receive a fortune. If the hand is always open, everything will fall out of it. Be flexible. Open and close your hand, as necessary.”

Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch so aptly put it: “Murder your darlings.”

Clinging for your life to these bits of brilliance you write and so admire, or to the one style of poetry you feel ‘fits’ you, is to kneecap yourself creatively. I see it in a great many inexperienced poets (and not at all infrequently in better ones and worse, in myself) and it can become a vast stumbling-block in one’s progress as a writer.

This is not to say that those styles, ideas, lines and phrases that we so adore and are excited about need be thrown out for creative poison – I don’t believe we must literally “murder” our darlings. What I mean is: be flexible. Let go of your genius, try something daring. Hold a beginner’s mind, let yourself see that your Emperor of a poem is wearing no clothes (except, perhaps one shiny and incongruous silk scarf).

It can be crushing to admit that your style doesn’t suit your idea, that your image doesn’t gel, that your phrase is out-of-place – that all the elements of your shiny, new poem simply are not working together as they should to make it the Very Good poem it ought to be and – in your head – is (albeit, sadly, nowhere else). It can be depressing. It hurts, sometimes a lot.

That’s why the majority of poets are terribly emo, and why they’re all so arrogant on the outside— we criticise ourselves so often and so thoroughly, it’s like twenty lashes to hear someone else say it. The arrogance is really prophylactic against the pain we feel in our freshly-salted wounds.

But all the very best poets (aside from being dismal masochists) know that they have to get past that very damaging and limiting layer of self-protection and grow creatively, by letting go of all their rigid habits, and ideas, and opinions. Not all at once (that’s a ticket to a padded room, if ever I heard of one) but as they come up, possibly over and over, in increments, one at a time.

It’s not easy, and may lead to bouts of depressive mania in which one is likely to delete all former work as tedious rubbish and then drink a bottle of absinthe while listening to Muse and weeping into a hanky.

Then, when you sober up, if you’re smart, you scrabble to recover the files or sticky-tape together all those torn pages, get over yourself a little and get back to work with the intent of learning why the poem isn’t working, and admit that maybe all those people pointing out the faults of the piece are not evil bastards trying to destroy your poetic soul but are right, and trying to be helpful, and really you knew, deep down, anyway, that it wasn’t working. But perhaps something can be salvaged.

Or perhaps not. I recently went on a rampage of reading through five years’ worth of poems and have not laughed (nor snivelled) quite so much in ages as looking at my early poems through the eyes of hindsight. What utter rubbish they are! And worse— how I once defended them, coddled them, clung to them, my precious baby darlings, the apples of my creative eye. And now I am, myself, one of those horrid people who see, and poke sharp sticks at, all their flaws. It’s tragic.

It’s hilarious.

There comes that point where you realise that in order to fix your poor, kneecapped poem perhaps you ought to take a few weeks (months, years) to study the mechanics of sonics, meter, enjambment and so on, and read tons more poetry written by Very Successful poets so you can see how they made their poems work. And then rewrite the thing, from scratch if necessary. Or simply leave it for dead and move along to the next effort.

It’s what I call “the hard work of poetry” – precisely because that’s what it is. You are not perfect and never will be, and neither will your work be, so accept that— and view every piece you write as a tiny, tiny, stepping-stone to somewhere better, and nothing more.

You’ll be a happier (and better) poet for it. Hopefully.



Salli is an Australian poet who has had her work published in various journals including Magma, Mimesis, Umbrella, The Chimaera and, most recently, The Flea and The Centrifugal Eye.