You can’t fire me…; or, the Challenges of Overcoming Self-Doubt

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary poetry, hot off the presses kind of stuff, from well published, lauded, awarded, fellowshipped, granted authors. And I have NO IDEA what is going on in these poems. NO IDEA. And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected left and right; I’m clearly COMPLETELY OUT OF TOUCH with the contemporary poetry world. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.

Then I encounter a poem coming through my email here, shared over Facebook there, a book handed on, and I find poems that make me think wow. That is good stuff. I am loving this work. Wow, how did that poet do that? And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected; there is NO WAY I can write work as good as this. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.

My Inner Voice kindly says nothing in the wake of these outcries. I do catch, however, an eye roll. What. WHAT? She turns on the vacuum cleaner, mimes an inability to hear what I’m saying. I know she’s thinking this too shall pass. Oh, shut up, I say to Inner Voice, into the din of the vacuum. You missed a spot.

In her provocative essay “American Originality,” Louise Gluck writes, “As American poets increasingly position themselves against logic and observation, the American audience (often an audience of other writers) poignantly acquiesces…The literary art of our time mirrors the invented man’s anxiety; it also affirms it. You are a fraud, it seems to say. You don’t even know how to read.”

I certainly have felt this with these books. That I am at fault, and ashamedly so. If I only learned to read better… But the other part of the equation Gluck presents is that the writers themselves are deliberately resisting connection with the reader. Is that true?

In what is so far a lively telling of the relationship between Rodin and Rilke, Rachel Corbett in You Must Change Your Life, in an aside, briefly outlines shifts happening in their era in thinking about the brain, art, aesthetics, psychology. She describes the new premise this way: “The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.” She discusses the idea of an empathy between the artist and the observer: “When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body.”

So I must believe that I am lacking in the requisite empathy as I encounter these poems. I am insufficiently open to and sensitive to what is being expressed.

But does the creator also have a role in the empathic relationship? If the sentence above about the effectiveness of art is true, doesn’t it suggest that the maker must take some responsibility for the observer’s/reader’s/listener’s response?

As a maker, I resist that. On the other hand I do believe that I must fully feel my own response to the world in order to create work that will engage you the reader in that response.

On yet another hand (octopusishly, now, as I believe I’ve run out of hands) as I said, many of the authors I’m reading have been published/awarded. So SOMEONE is “getting” their work, someone (and important, fellowship-judgish someones at that) are responding empathically.

So again I must conclude that I might be able to respond to this work if I tried harder. But I also conclude that I am creating my own work, in my own response to the anxieties of my world. So if I must have empathy with someone, let’s start with me.



9 thoughts on “You can’t fire me…; or, the Challenges of Overcoming Self-Doubt

  1. Refreshing candour here, Marilyn. I subscribe to 4 lit mags and the vast majority of the poems I encounter there leave my scalp raw from scratching. Then I go back to the poets I love – Billy Collins, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds – and know that there is work that reaches me and that doesn’t require an advanced degree in Physics to decipher.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thank you for this, Marilyn.
    I often sit with what I think is the same paradoxical understanding of what it is to “be a poet”. So much, that I have really tried to focus on poetry as an activity rather than an object to be labeled as such. Doesn’t help much most days. About as effective as vacuuming, I’m afraid.
    When I used to go to international festivals, the audiences would cheer and give flowers to the poets who wrote about martyrdom and “the fight” or the struggle or the pain. Sometimes I got polite applause for my white woman’s somewhat lyrical poems. And I thought – wow. Okay. Nothing “timely” or “relevant” or “important” in my personal universe. Why am I writing? It’s not my turn, or my time. And I stopped for a long time.

    I’ll read what I love. What speaks to me. And I try not to intellectually judge my gut’s response. I try to trust my sense of empathy and not judge myself for it. I will just write what I know is true, and try very hard not to censor myself. I’d be lying if I said I do that well.


  3. Pingback: The Wisdom of Old Men, And – Ren Powell

  4. I have read many current, well-received and published poems that make me just…. stare. I’m pretty sure they’re in English, but other than that I have zero clue what is going on. Not only no idea what is going on, I can’t even glean a particular feeling or emotion out of them. But the awards for them fall from the heavens.

    I have also read many poems that make me go ‘WOW. How do *I* do that?’ and I touch the page those poems are printed on and whisper the words and taste them on my tongue and sit in wonder.

    I think that’s true of any art. There’s going to be the stuff that people love that makes you raise an eyebrow and scratch your head. There’s going to be the stuff that you find yourself fawning over.

    I’m finally beginning to be a bit more gentle with myself. Just like YA editors are sick of seeing vampire fiction because everyone tried to imitate what was selling, I need to stop trying to be a certain type of poet that ‘sells’ (haha) and just be me. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn a lot from those I do admire. But I don’t have to strive to author the stuff I don’t understand, just because other people like it. If I don’t like and understand what I am writing, how is anyone else ever supposed to?

    Why is it so gosh-darn hard to be nice to OURSELVES as artists?


    • I’m thinking about keeping a file of poems that blow me away, so I can revisit them all in a group when I get too overwhelmed by my “hunh??????” response and need to touch the base of my love of poetry.

      Liked by 1 person

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