Add to the Beauty
by Susan Plett
This is Susan's fourth column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.
At some point in almost every class I teach, one student or another will ask to have a private word with me. The question that is eventually stammered out is some variation of: "Is my poetry worth pursuing, I mean, is it good enough to publish?"
There is no uncomplicated answer to this question. On one level, what the student is asking is “Do you like my poetry?” because they have decided—for whatever reason—that I am in a position to judge what makes a good poem, and what doesn’t. That answer is easy. If you have been brave enough to show up at the page and take careful note of what has shown up, I love your poem. I love it because it is evidence that whatever else is going on in the day-to-day business of living, people are still answering the call to create.
The original question, however, is more complicated, and is, in fact, a two part question. The first question is, “Is my poetry worth pursuing?” The second question is, “Is it publishable?” I’ll address these separately.
1. Is my poetry worth pursuing?
The answer to the first question is always “Yes”, especially for Christian poets, and here is why. In his excellent book on creativity, Scribbing in the Sand, Michael Card says that creativity is a road to Christ, and creativity is—at its heart—an act of worship. “God is,” he writes, “His beauty demands a response that is shaped by that beauty, and that is art.” I would go a step further and say that even our roughest efforts are beautiful, because the finished product is, initially, beside the point. Michael goes on to make the point that creativity is not about who we are, but about an appropriate response to who God is. No matter what it is that we create, or how polished it is, our creative efforts are our response to the God who created us.
This begs the question; what about the times that we show up at the page and what appears is ugliness? Who we are and where we’ve been informs what we write, and we live in a fallen, imperfect world, and that comes to the page. Abuse, neglect, anger, hurts, wrong and sinful choices—right there in black and white (and sometimes, in really clever poems, shades of grey). Where is the beauty then?
An oft-quoted line of Keats comes to mind, “Beauty is Truth, and Truth beauty." ("Ode to a Grecian Urn") The poetry that resonates most deeply with us is poetry that finds an answering echo within us, that names something for us we know to be true because we have experienced it. Not all truth is kind and clean, but “Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces”1
One of my favourite poems is Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s "Stillbirth." I have written it in cards to bereaved friends, and I can quote it by heart.
The Spirit blows where it will.
Life moves among molecules, touching
the baby waiting to be still
born with the same love it lavishes
on the ancient priest whose life
has been sacrifice and celebration.
The Spirit breathes in all flesh.
Love is not long or short.
Every heartbeat adds a note
to a song only God can hear;
when one heart stops, another
takes the melody. We sing
even in our sorrow.
Marilyn’s exquisitely tender poem addresses a profound tragedy—what could be worse, we wonder, than carrying a baby who will never draw breath?—and introduces, ever so gently, the possibility of some small redemption, of song in the midst of sorrow.
We live in a fallen world, and ugly things happen all the time, to all of us. Poetry that “adds to the beauty” is poetry that attempts to wrestle with the question of where God is in the midst of the complicated tangle of light and dark we live in.
Is that worth pursuing? Published or not, how could it be otherwise?
2. Is my poetry publishable?
The short answer to that is sure! Maybe! There are so many variables outside the poet’s control. It is important to research your target market, to know what kinds of poems the publication you are sending to publishes, and to follow submission guidelines. These can increase your chances of a sale, but there are no guarantees. Yours may be the seventeenth poem about the last time you saw your father the editor has read that week, and even if you have built a clever correlation between stocking shelves in a supermarket and how much he loved you, there just might not be room for a poem on that subject in their next issue or issues.
There are, however, controllable variables, and that comes down to craft. Craft is learnable—there are many books and courses and resources that address craft. Perhaps the question should be, “What does it take to be a good poet?”
Work. We tend of think of writing as some kind of unattainable magic that only the gifted possess, much like the savant who plays a concerto by ear the first time he sees a piano… but the truth is, it’s work. Sometimes it’s fun work, and on the best days, it even feels a bit like magic, like the Creator we are worshipping is involving Himself in the process, but it is work.
Before craft, and before work, however, there are two essentials: a love of words, and the ability to pay attention. The love of words is necessary because they are your primary tool—you don’t find many knitters who hate the sensation of yarn slipping between their fingers, for instance. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with them—it helps to have a fondness for them.
Paying attention is a learnable skill. Part of my own journey as a poet has been to carry a notebook with me everywhere, to take notes. What I scribble is not profound – it is primarily cryptic scribbled notes on the juxtaposition of things, possible connections between seemingly unconnected things like, for instance, caramel macchiato and infertility treatments.
As I write this, it occurs to me that the poetry that speaks most to me requires a third skill—the capacity for emotional bravery. This is not something that can be taught, but it can be learned. It begins with the ability to be honest with ourselves about our feelings, and moves to being willing to clearly communicate those emotions, both negative and positive, through poetry.
(Editor's note: For more detailed information on publishing your poetry, see our resource, "How Do Poets Get Published?")
My advice? Keep at it. Whoever you are, wherever you are, learn your craft. Keep answering the call to the blank page. Enter into a dialog of worship with the great God of universe.
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Copyright ©2010 by Susan Plett
1. Sara Groves "Add to the Beauty"