Monday, 6 October 2008

Simply your best?

We're going away for a few days (it being school holidays here) but I wanted to leave you with something to think about (other than tears and graves and death). So here's a subject! Let's forget about literary critics (tiresome creatures) and let's be our own critics a way. Can we handle it? Are we tough enough? Are we brave enough to dare to suggest that we might, you know...have done something least once?

I was reading something last week that mentioned (partly in jest) how all poets really want to write brilliant poems. Even though this was mentioned as an aside I still think there is a lot of truth in it and that it's a topic we don't talk about much (well, I've looked at lots of poets' blogs in the past year, for example, and I haven't seen much mention of it...everyone's very cautious, very modest, very lighthearted...about their own poetry...on the surface at least). There is lots of recommending other writers, lots of talk about how we work, about how we feel about magazines or criticism or publishing...but there's very little mention of whether any of us might ever think that anything we write might ever be any good. It's a bit of a...great unsaid. Don't you think?

And it's a strange business - particularly if you're British and therefore almost allergic to the very idea of showing off ('show some restraint, man, we're not Latins or Americans or people who show emotion!') - but the ambition must be there somewhere or we just wouldn't write at all, would we? Poets might not manage it very often but there is, somewhere in most of them, the desire to come up with a work of genius (or several, if possible)...I think there has to be. The same is true of other writers too...if you didn't want to write the best novel, the best play, on some level...if you didn't want to try and emulate your writing heroes somehow...why would you bother? It's not the easiest life or the easiest way to earn a living! But in all honesty if you write anything...well, at least a little bit of you does want it to be really, really good, doesn't it? You want to write the best poem ever on... at least one subject...the best love poem, the most moving death poem, the most unusual alienation of modern life poem, the finest sonnet...? If we didn't hope somewhere in our hearts, minds and insecurity complexes that we were capable of writing great poems we wouldn't even try, would we?

So my question is this...and it's a bit of a painful one...what is the best bit of writing you've done so far? What is the closest you've come to a great poem or any other type of great writing? It might be a simple poem, it might be a weighty novel...but I don't want modesty...I want truth! What is the best you have done so far (in your own opinion)? And what more are you capable of?

You may wonder what my answer to this question is. That would be a fair expectation...but I'm not going to answer right now - I wrote about myself quite a lot in the last post! I'm going to think about it very hard and get back to you when I get home. It's the kind of thing that might take a while to think about (so please don't rush to answer – take a while, think about it, it's kind of a sado-masochistic kind of a way perhaps). So often we think about what OTHERS think of our poems and our writings...will people like them, will critics like them..but what about us? What do we think of our own writing? It's all a bit embarrassing, I know, but that doesn't make it any less valid an exercise. I know there are all kinds of different kinds of good or great or genius – but you're clever people, you know what I'm talking about. What are you proud of? A poem, a story, a song, a letter, an article (it might never have been made public...but you can still tell its story). But think hard! And provide links or examples or other details if you're feeling really brave. I'd love to see them! A little pride in our work...that's not such a bad thing, is it?

And if you don't want to think about that then think about this...Small Girl asked me yesterday 'Mum, where do our words go once we've said them?' Hmmm. She is so easily the most poetic being in the house...damn her!



The Weaver of Grass said...

Maybe our words hang about in cyber space like our blogs do. Although a friend always says, "Three things never return - the spent arrow, the lost opportunity and the spoken word."
As to the best piece of writing I have ever done - I don't think there is one - as you say,we English are too modest for our own good. But thanks for the idea.

Rachel Fox said...

You're is an idea. Watch it...feel it creep about your head over the next week or so! You might even remember a past triumph...long-forgotten...


Rachel Fox said...

Plus you make art don't you..textile art? Maybe your best is up on a wall or lying on a sofa...not closed in a book or spoken into the air? Just a thought.

hope said...

Yikes, bragging on yourself...don't we give up that right when we begin writing? [You have the right to remain silent, any bragging you do on yourself will get you censored]. :)

Honestly, the piece I'm most proud of I put in my blog last November. "The Bracelet" is a story that's nagged at me since I was that confused 12 year old. It haunted me until I put it in writing and it was almost published...until Pres. George Bush the First declared war on Iraq, and then it was declared "untimely".

Last year I posted it on a forum; my annual tribute to Veterans. And then my curiosity stepped in. Short version: I located the son of the man who's name I'd worn around my wrist as a MIA. I don't know if it was the story or writing about what happened when I returned the bracelet but it was the most self satisfying work I've ever done.

So if you get curious you can go back and look for a couple of posts prior to "For Greg & Natalie".

Enjoy your holiday!

Marion McCready said...

I think it's important to believe in your own work, I really do want to write the best poem that's ever been written!
As to my best piece, I tend to think the last poem I've written is the best I've done! (of course I might think it's not so great a year down the line!)I've certainly written my best poems by far this year, something eventually clicked in my writing that I've been working towards for a long time.

Colin Will said...

I think there are maybe 3 or 4 poems of mine that nobody else could have written, so in a sense I'm proud of them (although I've no idea where the inspiration came from). The things I'm most proud of in my life are my family, my career (which was pretty distinguished), getting a PhD in my own time, and my associations with the Scottish Poetry Library and with StAnza. I've been lucky.

Rachel Fox said...

Hope - will be reading your piece soon.
Sorlil - still...a favourite poem so far? One (or more) where you feel it really does something special?
And Colin...which poems? Will you tell?

Wish us luck travelling in the rain and strikes!

Rachel Fox said...

Colin...lucky...and very hardworking (and good and fair no doubt too!).


Colin Will said...

The poems - The Legacy (from Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Highlands), On Saying Goodbye To A Brother (from Seven Senses), Advice To A Novice (from Mementoliths), Tick (from Sushi & Chips).

Jim Murdoch said...

A couple of people have called my poetry 'extraordinary' in the past few weeks. I'm never quite sure how to respond to something like that. Poems are collaborative things. If someone thinks a poem of mine is extraordinary then, unless they have a really poor grasp of the English language and they mean 'crap', who am I to disagree? I have seen a grown man cry after reading one of my poems. I really can't argue with a response like that. Do I consider that my greatest poem? Probably not. The poem I have been best pleased with was one I wrote in 1981 called 'Common Denominator'. It became the first in the 'Sweet William' series of poems. Every time I look at it I have a did-I-write-that? moment. I think I'm writing some of my best stuff your years right now, different and yet still clearly identifiable as mine.

Will 'Common Denominator' be my 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud'? I don’t think so. I pretty much think I'll be forgotten within a generation. So I'm not looking to write something that will inspire generations to come or even thinking about the generations to come. I doubt Wordsworth was either.

hope said...

Hope you have a wonderful trip!

To save you some time, the actual story on the blog is dated Nov. 9, 2007, with the Capt's picture the following day. Nov. 4 & 5 are sort of a lead in to explain how things worked out.

Kat Mortensen said...

Shameless self-promotion? I don't mean it to be. I write mainly to entertain and any opportunity to share with new folks, I'm going to take it. Here are the two I consider my best to date:

(I really seem to have a preoccupation with death and dying. It might be the cemetery behind my house, but it might not.)

By the way, I find punctuating poetry a real bear, so if anyone has any tips - please share!


Body Count

Snow Upon Snow

Jim Murdoch said...

@Poetikat - If I can let Philip Larkin answer on my behalf: "A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration."

hope said...

poetikat, although poetry isn't my forte, I appreciate it when the poet writes something I can read aloud and mentally know when to pause or go on. Does that make sense? I want to "hear" the poem the way the poet meant it to sound, so I appreciate the occasional period to allow me to take a breath. ;)

Your offerings were very interesting and not morbid...the first one made me laugh. Then again, there's a cemetery behind my house so maybe we see things differently that others.

Kat Mortensen said...

Jim, Thanks for the quote. I try to stick to traditional punctuation, but it's the semi-colons and elipses that mess me up.

Hope - glad you enjoyed them. If you laughed, then I did my job. I find living in close proximity to a cemetery very relaxing. Some folks wouldn't dream of living anywhere near them, but I like it.


Frances said...

A fair but difficult question, Rachel. I have a few things I'm reasonably proud of, but I suppose I hope that I am still improving and that the best is yet to come. And if it isn't - well I prefer not to think about that.

MJ said...

This actually reminds me of an online friend of mine. She's still in high school over in New york, and she's won competitions, been published and even helps publish a poetry magazine.

However, she often comments that her own work is not good, or nowhere near good enough. She seems to have amnesia when it comes to her acheivments.

As for my own work, I find it hard to choose. There are peices I really like, but I know that I learn a lesson with each one, so the next one should be better. This makes me hold back from thinking of any as my best.

Rachel Fox said...

Hello MJ and thanks everyone for your comments on this. We are just back from our trip so I will be getting something together for tomorrow...I'm going to try and read all the pieces some of you have mentioned too.


Art Durkee said...

I think it's important to make a distinction between self-promotion or bragging, and self-confidence. If you don't have any self-confidence about the merits of your own writing, you're doomed to always need the approval of others. You balance that against watching yourself against ego-inflation. And honest self-assessment is a learned skill. But too often people think that honesty means only negativity. It also means being honest about what you're good at. So this is a good prompt for reflection, and for becoming aware of one's own strengths.

I can say with self-confidence that I've written numerous poems I'm pleased with and proud of: they were the best I could make at the times they were made. Whether or not they all stand the text of time isn't really up to me, so I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. I choose to spend my energies on making the next piece of writing the very best i can do, and continuing to evolve and improve. My two favorite four-letter words in all my creative work, not just in poetry, are DONE and NEXT. Somebody once asked a Canadian filmmaker known for his innovative and experimental work what the secret of his creative process was; he just gave the interviewer a look as though it was the most obvious thing in the world and answered, "Do the next thing."

I've written a few dozen haiku (out of hundreds) that I think can stand up to the masters', or at least to what they said to strive for in one's haiku. I think the poems here and here and here are among the best poems I've ever written. I have a series of poems I wrote in the mid-1980s that I later collected into a chapbook that I am very fond of; perhaps it's just that I've lived with them so long that I've become used to them, and who knows if they're any good. But I think they are. They certainly tapped into something that's stayed with me all this time.

I find myself completely starting over now, though, after some major life-changing experiences, and I find that it also changes my art. You learn a lot about yourself in those circumstances, and when you take it back into your creativity, you realize that you can drop every single mask you used to think you had to wear, mostly to please other people, and just be true to yourself. It's also a process of discovering who that self is, because you don't any more. You've changed, so has the world, and you're both re-inventing and discovering yourself and your process.

So what I'm writing now is often surprising even to me, and I have no clue if it's any good. Some of these newer poems have received extreme responses, positive AND negative, from the same poem at the same time! That tells me two things: trust my own instincts over others', at least for now; and, I must be doing something right, in order to simultaneously piss off and please so many people. LOl So at least the new poems have some kind of energy to them.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for joining in with this, Art. I like this sentence
"If you don't have any self-confidence about the merits of your own writing, you're doomed to always need the approval of others."
It's very true. I was reading yet another article yesterday about an artist (a visual one) who quite literally couldn't live with his lack of critical success (relative to some of his peers). Some get critical success, some don't and if any of us worry about that side of it too much it can only have negative effects. So you're right some self-confidence in our work is doesn't need to ruin us, it just needs to be there, keeping us going (if that's what we want to do).

I enjoyed reading your work. That Big Empty looks amazing - and what a name. I have been to Central America and Canada but not the US. One day!

Dominic Rivron said...

The best thing I've/we've ever written?

I'm reminded, for some reason, of the Marxist Zhou Enlai's comment when asked for his assessment of effect of the 1789 French Revolution. He said "It's too early to say."


Favourite is easier than best. When I was at primary school I wrote

I was walking in the park
when I felt a drop of rain,
so I turned around
and went back home again.

I wanted to leave it at that, but my teacher (wrongly, in my view)thought I should write a bit more, so I added:

When I got in
I made myself a sandwich.

I liked sandwiches very much at the time.

Rachel Fox said...

It was only 'best so far'! I think this matter has been on my mind this year particularly with having put the book out. By getting it together and spending the money on it I must (at some level) be saying that I think I have done something at least a little bit good...or why would I expect anyone else to want to have/buy/read the book. But then no one really ever says that - at least not that I ever hear. So I was interested to hear what others had to say...what they thought they had done well. That's not to say we can't go on to better things too! Bloody hell, I hope so!

I love your boy poem. I love simplicity done must be the quaker in me! I like your first draft most but I do like sandwiches too so I'm torn.