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Poets and Are Writers

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across writers who say, “I stopped writing poetry because I wasn’t good enough.” Why is this annoying? Well, not only is it unnecessarily self-deprecating but because it suggests that poetry is a form of writing elevated above all others, and that fiction, essays, scripts, or whatever, are somehow easier to write than poetry—a ridiculous notion, at best. You could say that perhaps what these writers mean when they say this is not that poetry is inherently more difficult to write than fiction, but that it was simply more difficult for them to master than fiction, or whatever, was, that they are not elevating one form over another. This might, in some cases, be true. Nevertheless, these asides often read or feel to me like some kind of surrender to a romantic definition of a poet, that is, that a poet is some kind of fiery pyre of passion, and not just a slob like the rest us slogging our way with words, hacking away at hackneyed phrases, whittling away the waste, worrying over every word. I can’t even look at the mainstream magazine Poets and Writers and not laugh at how the title distinguishes poets from writers.

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

5 thoughts on “Poets and Are Writers

  1. Oh, lord, this is really just the beginning!

    Part of the problem, I’d argue, is how “serious, literary poetry” (meaning an infinitesimally small idea of what poetry is) has been roped off and taken into the academy. You talk with many many academic poets, they talk as though it’s the Dark Ages, and they’re protecting poetry by sealing it off from the outside world. (In reality, they’re killing it.) Of course, they argue that “there are no readers, no one’s interested any more, no one will publish it,” etc.

    Meanwhile, they do next to nothing to actually promote their work, other than to other academic poets. And they do absolutely nothing to invite others to come be part of their community. (Of course there are exceptions, of course, but they are in the small minority.)

    Poetry is absolutely everywhere: music, prose, the visual arts, advertising, online, even more places. This movie just sold out four screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival:

    I haven’t seen it yet, but there’s some hint that poetry is popular. Kevin Coval and others here in Chicago did a fantastic job promoting the film and getting people to go see it—not to mention the fantastic work they do promoting poetry, and running programs with high school and grade school students, encouraging them to write.

    Of course, to many academic poets…stuff like Louder Than a Bomb isn’t Poetry! Nor are song lyrics, visual art that uses words creatively, performance art that uses words creatively, etc.

    Poetry is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult thing in the world. (And I’ve been saying for a while now that poetry is too important to be left to the “Poets.”)

    1. Didn’t Socrates say ‘poetry is too important to be left to the ‘poets?’

      ring, ring

      “Mandrake, today war is too important to be left to the generals.” – Dr. Strangelove

      We speak Kubrickian here!

  2. Interesting take, John — I actually don’t see it like that. I feel like when folks say that their poetry isn’t good enough, I see it as a frustration with form (poet as maker, not as vatic vessel of inspiration). It might assume a weak personal theory of the poetic line, of poetic structure. And I think the same thing goes with poets who don’t write fiction or drama — they aren’t used to the specific units of composition (The scene, for example. Or dialogue, etc etc).

    But, you’re right: _Poets and Writers_ is just an insane sounding title…

    1. Hey Michael,

      I hear you. If these writers were saying that their poetry wasn’t good enough, rather than that they weren’t good enough, then it wouldn’t be irritating. They seem to be pointing to their inherent failure as individuals rather than pointing to specific technical failures, suggesting that they are succumbing to romantic notions of what a poet may be.

      Perhaps the end of this sentence: “I stopped writing poetry because I wasn’t good enough”

      is not a period but an ellipsis, and it’s implied continuation is this:
      “…at diction, meter, rhythm, etc.”

      But it doesn’t ring that way for me whenever I hear it.

      And you know, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a poet say the converse of this, that is, “I stopped writing fiction because I wasn’t good enough.” They’re more likely to address the technical problems they’d encountered.

      1. True, true… perhaps I was trying to be overly sympathetic.

        I have to say that publishing some poems in _Fishin’_ magazine would be pretty cool…

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