Imagine you’re an aspiring poet. You’ve just handed an established poet a sheaf of your first poems. Are they any good? Are they “real” poems? And if they are – and you secretly hope that they are – how on Earth do you get them published?
Such is the scene laid out by acclaimed and prolific poet May Sarton in “A Poet’s Letter to a Beginner,” published in The Writer in April 1962.
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“You have a strong suspicion that you are a genius, and in your heart of hearts what you hope from me is an accolade. You do not really want criticism any more than someone bringing me a bunch of flowers, and saying, ‘I grew these myself’ wants it,” Sarton says.
Yet Sarton does offer advice, because she sees in this collection of poems the stirrings of a true poet: someone who thinks in images, not concepts, with an instinct “to move from the abstract to the concrete.” Here’s what she suggests:
Do not mistake a poem’s “signposts” for its destination.
The first draft of a poem comes easily. Some of these initial lines are “pure gold,” Sarton admits, but the majority will need to be reworked or tossed. These lines freely communicate to you, the writer, but they’ll need work before they can communicate to your audience. Use these initial lines as the signs that will guide you to the ultimate destination of your poem.
Study past poets deeply – even the ones you hate.
The only way to learn the craft of poetry is to study other poets. “Influence is not imitation,” Sarton writes. “It is more fertile and subtle than that, and less conscious. It comes about when we are driven to possess another poet, to absorb him as if he were a necessary food.” Don’t just stick with the poets you love, either: Those poets you dislike “will help you to define and recognize what you yourself wish to aim for.”
Relentlessly revise your poem until it can stand alone.
Test each line of your poem: Is it really conveying what you want it to say? For example, Sarton points to a “fire engine red leaf.” While vivid and unusual, it does not convey what the poet intends – the reader at once sees a large bright machine, not the color. Carefully weigh each word until “the poem survives all tests you can think up, and stands there, a complete singular whole.”
Revision should not be boring, toiling labor, Sarton says; it should be exciting, because this is when you discover the heart of your poem. “We know only when we come to the end of the poem – after perhaps thirty revisions – what it is really about.”
Be prepared to suffer – and to experience great joy.
Seeking publication is a time in which “you are bound to suffer,” Sarton admits. “Try to remember that rejection will not mean that your poems are no good, any more than acceptance will mean you are an authentic genius.”
Yet your poetry will also bring you great happiness: “The only reason for writing poetry is because you have to, because it is what gives you joy….So let me welcome you, dear poet, not into the company of the angels, but into the great company of those who work for joy alone, the poets,” Sarton says.
What company, indeed.
—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.