How You Know A Poem Has Failed

I’ve been doing major writing housekeeping, sorting through poems from the last fifteen years and deciding which to keep, which to keep working on, and which to put away. Facing up to all that failed work is a relief. Stapling the drafts together, taking them out of the current circulation section, putting them in a pile; just the physical actions feel like a victory.

Some good reasons for retiring a poem:

  • My tone of voice was too smug.
  • My conclusion was overly simplistic and not “earned”.
  • My references were all internal mythology and therefore too obscure. (Note: this doesn’t seem to stop some very successful poets. 🙂  )
  • Lazy anthropomorphism. Given how much I tend to write about “nature”, this is a big problem in my writing. You would think that the North American seasons were a set of sitcom characters walking around in my head.

I think what it comes down to is that I was too darn clever. It’s as if I thought the poem was a puzzle, and I was terribly pleased with myself when I made it fit. When I read them again, they don’t excite me; they make me annoyed with myself.

There are other ways of failing that are more frustrating. Like when the poem Fails To Arrive. It’s draft that has a worthwhile beginning, is honest, but just trails off. It doesn’t get where it was headed for.  Sometimes these poems go back in the “worth working on” pile. But I’m getting better at letting these efforts go, knowing I’ll come back to the themes that have that provoking energy. I’ll either write a better version of it in the future, or I’ll keep generating more, better, failures.

Finally, there’s the poem I put away because I just plain hate it. Like, if it reminds me too vividly of certain moments in my life. Like, unrequited-love-for-inappropriate-love-objects moments.

Lizzie Siddal contracts pneumonia
“I am half-sick of resembling every other Waterhouse model,” said the Lady of Shalott.


You get the idea.

An Attitude of Grumpitude

This week has been classic Pennsylvania winter.  By which I mean that the sky and landscape are at Grey, 20%, and seem uninclined to change.  I don’t even need to take a picture to show you.  This is what it looks like:

Grey 20%
Grey, 20%.

Not enough detail?  Oh, okay.  Here:

Grey 20%, With Sad Tree
Grey 20%, with sad tree.

Note the tiny frozen sun.

So my mood has not been super cheery.  But I am trying to practice some gratitude.  Here’s two good things:

I went to the libray Monday and had an incredible run of Library Luck.*  I found 6 (six. SIX!) books I wanted to read:

  • Discord’s Apple – Carrie Vaughn
  • Shiver – Maggie Stiefvater
  • Spider Bones – Kathy Reichs
  • The World Has Changed; Conversations with Alice Walker
  • The Best American Poetry 2010
  • Lighten Up – Peter Walsh

Can I just say how much I love poetry anthologies? Looooooooove. All the inspiration with none of the boredom.  There’s even a John Ashbery poem in there that I could partially make sense of.

Second good thing: When I was driving home at twilight, the light was blue.  Blue, I tell ya.  The way it gets only when there’s a lot of snow cover.  It was just ethereal.  I feel like I spend a lot of time writing poems where I try to describe the quality of light, and I never can capture that winter blue.


*Library Luck = When you go to the library and spontaneously find two or more books you’re totally excited to read.  Six is a pretty impressive number for my small library.