OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThinking about poetry – as one does – I recalled a statement made in one of the Paris Review interviews. I didn’t recall by whom; but whoever it was said that he thought a poet was probably destined to write only a handful of really good poems.

It’s a theme I’ve pondered often, probably because I’ve lived in a generation that has been exhorted to write a poem a day. It’s a theme I come back to again and again, because I feel there is a conundrum here, for both ideas, seemingly mutually exclusive at a first glance, are both valid.

I know the first is true from my own experience. Not as a writer! But as a reader, I’ve found that of the dozens or even hundreds of poems that my favourite poets have written, I would single out only a handful – which with my hands means about fiver or six – as being truly great. That remark immediately raises – hang on there a cotton-picking minute – the question of just what makes a great poem, and my answer has to be: one that I think is!

There’s a Wildean notion here, about unbiased opinions not being worth all that much where Art, or other human fancies, is concerned. The objectively great poem, I tremble to suggest, does not exist. Nor does the objectively great novel, short story, play etc etc. The fact that many of the same titles will crop up in almost everyone’s lists of greatness is beside the point.

The writer is doing only half the job remember. The reader, or hearer, of the writing has to do the other half – and our capacity for doing that greatly will be no more than theirs!

On the face of it that original statement might suggest that writers have wasted most of their time – good, very good, and very, very good not being great, and great being the only thing worth doing. Of course, good, and very good, and very, very good are well worth doing. And so are mediocre, not too bad, and pretty awful, if they lead you on up the scale – and perhaps, even if they don’t. We all have to do our apprenticeships, some longer than others, as both readers, and writers.

And that’s what brings us back to that other, contrasting idea about writing a poem every day. Like a violinist, or a bricklayer, one imagines that practising one’s art, or skill, on a regular basis, improves it. Ballet dancers, and weight lifters, watchmakeres and stand-up comedians: we all have to practice, and if you look at high level performers in any field, hours of practice will iceberg out their few minutes of performance. On the other hand, if you look at low level performers…..

Ah! There’s the rub-a-dub-dub. The low level performers often seem to mix the two up and nowhere more so than in those poem-a-day poems. The exercises, the essential practice, the apprentice pieces, are mistaken for the finished articles. Matching the lifetime outputs of a Shakespeare or a Chekhov every few years, we ask our readers to do their half of the work on pieces that should never have seen the light of the day upon which they were written – our stream of consciousness we take for a stream of creativity, and it may be one in which, I fear, any handful of greatness that does get written will simply be washed away.

I write every day. I try not to. Sometimes I try very hard. Occasionally I succeed. Of what I write, I finish fewer pieces than I used to. Of those I finish I offer fewer for publication or performance – especially where poetry is concerned.

The trouble is, I find I’m reading more. I’m reading every day! Sheesh!  

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