The world was shaken by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This poet, too, has been unnerved by the discovery of creative relativity: E=MC2 (Excellence = Merit X Criticismmultiplied). For me, the first handwritten draft of a poem always releases a burst of endorphins: that my thoughts and feeling have actually made it onto paper. High on postnatal elation, indeed, I tell myself, the poem is beautiful—even perfect—in its newness.
Once the poem is keyed into type, I relax. Best, before mailing it for publication, to have a second glance “just to polish a possible spot or two.” Conscientiously, I pull out my standard list. Is the language precise without being overly tight? Is the thought development easy to follow? Will the meaning, so obvious to me, be equally clear to others? I even read it aloud to listen for clashes between sound and mood and for lumps in the rhythm.
The more I scrutinize each stanza, the more uncertainty creeps in. Is this image weak, or that one straining too hard to be fresh? Are such line breaks surefooted enough to flow the theme forward? Maybe the whole poem should have been written with a longer line...
I grow dizzy with doubt. By the third revision, my initial joy completely reverses. Now I see only the problem areas: that clattering third line, the awkward ending, the inexact last simile. I even detect a cliché! Five revisions later, tired, impatient, and with a deadline pressing, I convince myself, “Oh, it’s not bad now at all.” Besides, I need one more poem to pad my submission to a literary magazine.
Two months later, the Editor replies rejecting all the poems except that filler, about which she raves. My heart leaps. Yes, I decide, the poem is fine indeed. Why did I ever worry? Four years later, I happen to be leafing through that same literary magazine and stop to reread the poem. “Yech!” I gag. “How could I ever have published that?” From then on, I hide the magazine at the back of the bookshelf where no fellow poets will ever see this embarrassing example of my weaker work.
The moral? Never send new writing out for publication until you’ve had a minimum of several weeks to wrestle with your seesaw judgment of its value. But don’t be surprised, even years later, when your self-assessment still wobbles. As one writing friend noted, “At least, your poetry must be getting better, if you can recognize where it used to be worse.”
Still, the dilemma haunts me. How to determine a poem’s ultimate value? Some days it feels like trying to catch a butterfly blindfolded.