Step Away From the Book

Today’s dilemma: post no poem, or post a highly unfinished poem. There will be no poem today.

It’s been a long month here. My vacation/meltdown week set my writing back quite a bit. I thought I would recover enough to keep up with the daily blog, and I might have had I not come down with the virus that’s been plaguing our household all month. I thought I had escaped, since my daughter, granddaughter, and husband had all been sick, while I remained happily healthy. Then, last Wednesday, I woke with a sore throat. The fever, cough, sinus pressure and headache piled on quickly. Soon, every inch of my body hurt, so I retreated to my bed, staying there more or less until yesterday. Lucky me—I got a migraine on top of the lovely virus over the weekend. So, even though the fever had broken by then, the illness was far from over.

Yesterday was the first day I felt well enough to be up and about. I even dared to leave the house (which, after several days of migraine can be daunting—the light, the air, the relative humidity—all threaten to kickstart another round of pain). I spent the day in the yard with my granddaughter. We took pictures of my daffodils and tulips to help me remember where I need to plant more bulbs in the fall. We sat on the swing, and made iPhone movies of each other. I followed her lead and walked around barefoot. We waved to the neighbors.

I had tried earlier in the day to write. For the most part I stared at a blank page and drew little circles in the margin with my pen. I tried pulling up my Poems in Progress file to see if there were anything there I could work on, but I couldn’t get myself to engage with any of it. So, I wandered down to my Very Local Library (the name my granddaughter has given our office/book room) and pulled a book on writing poetry that I’ve been meaning to read for years. I carried it with me outside, but hardly touched it. I finally got around to it after the sun had gone down, and we were in for the night; after watching a couple episodes of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix with my daughter, and I was ready for bed. I left it as late as I could, then started to skim, not sure what I would find, or how I would react to it.
I read the first section, the basics, the “write every day even if it’s not good, but use strong imagery, not clichés” part of the book. Pretty much what I expected. One paragraph, however, stuck with me: “In poetry there is no real ‘good’ but there certainly is bad. Good is subjective. Bad is universal.”

There it was again—the same attitude I’ve let shut me down over and over in my life. My inner voice starts chanting, “Bad is universal,” pausing only to whisper, “You know which category your writing falls into.” Ugh. I thought I had gotten beyond all that, but no, here I am the next morning still ruminating on good versus bad in poetry.

I read the examples in the book of “good” poetry, some I agreed with, others I didn’t. That’s always been my problem (why do I think that’s a problem?)—I think bad is subjective. If I read a poem that is lauded as Good Poetry, but it leaves me cold or I can’t get through it or I just flat-out don’t like it, that’s a bad poem. To me. I don’t care that someone else thinks the imagery is riveting, if I don’t respond to it, I’m not going to categorize it as good.

Obviously, the language here is triggering my not-so-latent insecurities about writing (the same insecurities that have kept me from sharing my writing and kept me from writing at all at times). Good or bad. Nothing in between. Not well-written versus in-progress; not I-like-it versus I-don’t-like-it. Good. Or bad. The final judgement we all fear (at least those of us raised in religious households, who have steeped in this dichotomy since birth, whether or not we’ve rejected it intellectually).

As I’m writing this, another stream of thought is running alongside, wanting to be noticed: do you think there’s no such thing as bad writing? bad poetry? don’t you recognize when something isn’t well-written? don’t you want to improve your writing? Of course I do. I do. And, yes, I do think there’s bad poetry—I’ve written a lot of it. That’s one of the reasons I’m not posting a poem today, I don’t have anything written that meets my definition of good. I’ve got plenty bad stuff, bits and pieces that might work into something else, or might not. What I don’t agree with is the idea that bad is universal. What I call bad, someone else might like. What’s held up to me as the standard of good, I might reject.

Writing and posting every day is a challenge I set for myself. I want to write, I want to improve my writing. I want to write poems that I’ll still like in six months, in six years. I often post pieces that I’m not sure are done. I’ve changed things that I wrote years ago, and then changed them back. I’ve posted poems I love and gotten no response. I’ve posted poems I didn’t love and gotten tremendous response. I’ve come back after meltdowns and illnesses to stare at a blank screen. I’ve left notebook pages blank with nothing but circles drawn in the margins. I try.

Will I finish reading the book? Probably. I’m feeling that I need something to get me going again. Maybe I’ll do some of the exercises playing with form. Maybe I’ll look up some of the recommended reading. I’ll try not to shut down, not to read each line as a personal attack. I’ll breathe and stretch and drink more coffee. Then I’ll go outside and walk barefoot in the yard, and swing on the swing, and watch my granddaughter play with water and wind, dancing in the sunshine. And I’ll remember that she is my definition of a really good poem.