AMATEUR POETRY

amateur poetryIntroduction

Most poets today are amateurs, featuring in local anthologies or popular Internet sites. Perhaps only one percent stand any chance of getting into "serious" literary magazines, and many have no interest in doing so, not liking or even understanding the work there.

Amateur poetry has its strengths, and though this site is aimed more at professionals, it would be snobbish to overlook what gives pleasure to vast numbers of people. Amateur is not a reprehensible term, and if much amateur work fails to be good poetry, the same can be said for a great deal of professional work, however astutely dressed up.

Moreover, in a larger sense, practically all poets are amateurs since few earn their living solely through their writing, and even the top names usually have to supplement royalties with teaching, editing, reviewing, and the odd workshop or TV appearance. Amateurs may also be professionals in other walks of life (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.), and still be devoted to their craft, putting in long hours stolen from day jobs or family commitment. Nonetheless, there are certain broad characteristics of amateur work, which argues that different aims are being followed.

Popularity

Whereas professional publish in small presses that are lucky to have a thousand annual subscribers, amateur poets patronize site like poetry.com, poetry.net, ilovepoetry.com that boast visitors in the millions monthly.

Education

Professional poets may not have read literature at university, but they do tend in some part of their career to join university or adult writing classes, using the training and contacts to start the slow climb from a single acceptance in a small magazine to a collection brought out by a major publishing house. The background of the amateur poet tends to be the local writing circle, and often not even that.

Width of Reading

Professional poets do read widely, often in several languages, and are much more comfortable with literary criticism, both its practical terminology and the more abstruse aspects of theory. Amateur poets can usually remember their school poetry lessons, and will dip into popular anthologies, but will not usually put themselves through the labour of purposeful reading.

Understanding/Experience of Life

Amateur poets generally have a wider experience of life through their everyday occupations and careers. Professionals tend to be more bookish, viewing life through literature.

Subject Matter

Amateur poets write simply, seeking to express 'human interest' sentiments without too much intellectualizing or emotional shading. Sincerity is important, and their ideal may be a moving portrayal of the thoughts and feelings that are widely shared. Meaning is much less on the surface of work by professional poets, and direct appeal has sometimes to be traded for extending the boundaries of the sayable, for avoiding hackneyed sentiment and clichéd expression.

Focus

Poetry for amateurs is an expression of personal feelings. Professionals focus more on the audience, developing an individual voice by addressing wider concerns.

Support

Work of professional poets is taught in schools, universities and adult workshops, and there exists a vast network of societies, publishers and writing clubs to foster its appreciation. Amateur poets have to make do with local clubs and Internet sites.

Ambition

Professional poets seek a standing in the select media world that amateurs distrust, seeing it as a tiresome and possibly self-serving conspiracy of editors, tutors and newspaper critics. Professionals are therefore far more aware of who and what styles are 'in', and how the institutions and small presses rank in status. Amateurs are generally pleased with a few sincere words from fellow poets.

Limitations of Amateur Work

Professionals are more dismissive of amateurs in the arts than in sport or public affairs, and in poetry the usual epithets are hackneyed, insincere and technically incompetent. Equally damaging criticisms can be levelled at professionals — pretentiousness, obscurity, fashion-following and narrowness of theme — but here we look more closely at the supposed crimes of amateurs, using a few examples from the Internet.

Our first example comes from a popular poetry site. {1}

Passion's Flame

No words spoken between them
No promises to be kept
No lies being told tonight
No looking back - no regrets


Tomorrow bringing sorrow
A brief moment of shame
With the memory of this one night
A release from passion's flames

From Passion's Flames by Jeffrey Carter. Netpoets.com

What's wrong? Besides the stumbling metre, professionals would probably call this hackneyed and cliché-ridden.

In the first place, and against what would be said in many workshops, the poem may be entirely sincere. The implied speaker(s) may indeed feel shame the day after, and perhaps there are few of us who haven't been here. A professional poet might skirt clear of such difficulties, or make something more of the theme, but the amateur could retort: Why? This is how it was, and this is how I report it. Originality is all very well, but you're asking me to contrive something, which is the very opposite of many contemporary schools of poetry demand: unmediated expression.

That is true, we'd have to answer, but those schools aim for a telling vividness of actual speech, whereas you're using (and not very well) a style no longer in vogue. And if writers of open form and popular modernism often 'cheat' by crafting their initial jottings, they also spend years polishing up their writing skills to capture the freshness of natural speech.

Which leaves us arguing that poetry, like all the arts, is a matter of convention, of working within agreed practices and outlooks. Write in metre and you'll be judged by the rules of traditional poetry, which are onerous. Write in a more contemporary style and the standards are lower: you'll not fail so obviously, but perhaps not make something so moving as traditional verse at its best. We need to come back to cliché, but let's look next at this snippet from a popular site: {2}

BJ's Woodpile

As I watched from my deck one dark, quiet night,
I could see something moving, in the moonlight.
Shadows to one side of the small chunks of wood,
then another,
and another,
on the woodpile; there he stood.

BJ the chipmunk was stretching his neck,
to see what, I wondered, from out on my deck.
He scrambled to the top of that aging pile of rot,
then he looked,
and he looked,
squeaking about; (What's he up to I thought?).

I grab a handful of berries that I picked just today,
and walk to the woodpile, where I tenderly lay
them onto the soft ground in front of the door,
of BJ,
and Emily,
the chipmunks; I do so adore!

From BJ's Woodpile by Lori Kanter. 2003. Shadow Poetry

I quote the opening two and last stanza of this ten stanza poem. It tells a little story. The speaker notes first one chipmunk (BJ), and then its mate (Emily), and finally the young, which prompts her to lay out some berries for the animals.

There isn't much of a metre, but the rhymes just about work, and the action is believable. But has anything been added by the form? For me the piece works better as prose — except perhaps the last clause, which has been inverted to meet the rhyme:

As I watched from my deck one dark, quiet night, I could see something moving, in the moonlight. Shadows to one side of the small chunks of wood, then another, and another, on the woodpile; there he stood. BJ the chipmunk was stretching his neck, to see what, I wondered, from out on my deck. He scrambled to the top of that aging pile of rot, then he looked, and he looked, squeaking about; (What's he up to I thought?). . . I grab a handful of berries that I picked just today, and walk to the woodpile, where I tenderly lay them onto the soft ground in front of the door, of BJ, and Emily, the chipmunks; I do so adore!

And it's that last clause which gives the game away. The writer has to end the piece somehow, and has pumped in emotion belatedly by telling us what is evident in the lines anyway: her keen interest in these creatures. We don't need the rules of rhetoric to know much better it would have been to have closed with some matter-of-fact remark: something to add to their store, or the like. If we write in rhyme, then the reader wants more than everyday observations, and expects the words to interlink through the poem to achieve that.

The last mistake is not made by this piece, a sonnet, where I'm probably infringing copyright by quoting in entirety: {3}

Untitled

Gathering wood as a cold dusk descends,
A crisp October 'neath a powdered sky,
Carolina mountains, so the day ends,
Beside a fire you pause to wonder why.
Staring together at glowing embers,
Then both looking up at the milky way,
You look at her and hope she remembers,
After the embers have faded away.
For you know there'll be nights colder than this,
And shadows that thought cannot apprehend,
When the only thing you can do is miss,
Wondering why beside your campfire friend.
For hard work is part of all that is good,
And I look forward to gathering wood.

From Kill Devil Hill Poetry Gallery: Unattributed but possibly Becket Knottingham

The piece is unattributed, but is rather in the manner of Robert Frost: quiet observation ending in a little truism. None of it is bad, and three lines are excellent: For you know there'll be nights colder than this, For hard work is part of all that is good, And I look forward to gathering wood. Indeed it's the promise of these lines which is squandered.

Read them again. Theirs is a resonance missing from the rest of the poem, otherwise somewhat predictable, what film characters would do if the script had been written on an off-day: look at the stars and wonder about their lives together. Nights colder than this is more than a factual observation: it is saying that they (and we) will be tested. And hard work is part of all that is good is not a Sunday School homily but how we react to such trials: lose ourselves in work or do something mechanical. Sonnets are difficult. Whatever is said in the opening lines has shortly to be rounded off in the concluding couplet, and to the temptation of not wandering far from the conventional is added the sheer work of rewriting in strict forms. But poetry begins when line by line the poem is opening up possibilities and developing them in unusual and thoughtful ways. Strict forms are not straight-jackets, therefore, but devices to create the opportunities and then oblige the author to say something memorable.

But memorable doesn't mean outlandish. Here are the concluding stanzas of a long and popular piece of cowboy poetry: {4}

The Fence That Me and Shorty Built

The boss expects a job well done,
From every man he's hired.
He'll let you slide by once or twice,
Then one day you'll get fired.

If you're not proud of what you do,
You won't amount to much.
You'll bounce around from job to job
Just slightly out of touch.

Come mornin' let's re-dig those holes
And get that fence in line.
And you and I will save two jobs,
Those bein' yours and mine.

And someday you'll come ridin' through
And look across this land,
And see a fence that's laid out straight
And know you had a hand,

In something that's withstood the years.
Then proud and free from guilt,
You'll smile and say, 'Boys that's the fence
That me and Shorty built."

From The Fence That Me and Shorty Built by Red Steagall. Cowboy Poetry 1993.

Yes, there are things to complain about: uncertainty of metre and some contrivance in rhyme. But the characters are believable, the dialogue is convincing, and the moral something we can all agree with. Why is that? Because it has been properly led up to, and grows out of the story. It's not being 'up to date' or 'making it new' that's essential, therefore, but that poems create or enlarge a world we feel at home in.

Let's take a free verse example: {5}

Immigrant Smoking in the USA

Outside the airport on an overhead walkway
Amidst the cold, dry, summer night
Smoke pours, whiffs, then dissipates
As I inhale on a cigarette of dreams

Below the walkway a fire truck is nesting
Resting, anticipating, red lights turning
While policemen and firemen are conniving to themselves
Maybe to put out the flames of a burning desire
A better life, a nicotine escape
From domestic grievances
Of a third-world dampness

 

The policemen wave good bye
The firemen pack-up
A job well done perhaps, or a false alarm
I walk towards the inside with the hope to someday
See the smoke of dreams
In the Land of Milk and Honey, amidst the cold, dry, summer night
Up amongst the clouds

From Immigrant Smoking in the USA by Maurice Gaerlan. (Poetry.com's $5,000 winner in August 2001.)

The poem, from which I quote the opening and closing sections, is simple enough: a fire put out by the local firecrew is seen through the eyes of an immigrant dreaming of a better life. Smoke from the fire is connected to cigarette smoke and thence to life back home.

But this connection is somewhat tenuous. Smoking is a pleasurable activity, but inhaling the smoke of a domestic fire is not (unless we're a pyromaniac). We have the phrase 'pipe dreams', but that's too slight a connection to hang a whole poem on, and here cigarettes are specified.

A better poem could have been made with a little more work. Perhaps in his home country the immigrant did dream of a better life in the US, and thought of it particularly as he took a cigarette in breaks from exhausting manual work. We could see that if told. Perhaps a fire at the work cost him his job, forcing him to go north in search of work. We could understand why the fire evoked these memories, and how far away still the dream was. The opportunities are there, but the material hasn't been developed. Baldly stating a cigarette of dreams doesn't work, and the concluding See the smoke of dreams / In the Land of Milk and Honey is even less convincing. The requirements of rhyme and metre can get in the way of a narrative, but here the medium is no more than a curtailed but flexible prose. Poetry does not mean taking refuge in diffuse reverie, but thinking carefully in words used to their larger potential.

Much the same problem arises in this next snippet: {6}

Growing Acorns in Islington

We live through others' eyes
more than our own, and
over pigeon-slated roofs I gaze
and think where poet Leonard lies
in Islington - who loved the earth of Heath
and Highgate too - and my mind flies
into newer lives again
where one would nurture bonsai oak
like hope in face of direst traffic,
a greater growth than evil
in London's plastic life.

From Growing Acorns in Islington by William Oxley

Its author is a well-established poet, but what do we make of We live through others' eyes more than our own ? It seems very unlikely that we do. Then we have the jocular direst traffic. And finally comes London's plastic life. Life in London may be artificial and hectic and inconvenient and a dozen other things, but we need a more evocative word than plastic. Again, I suspect, the author has not looked at the piece from the outside, although the reader could be brought on board again with the smallest of changes: We live through others' eyes/as much as our own sometimes . . . like hope in face of growing traffic /that presses on us a more than evil/in London's scattered life. Or something better: the three replacements open the piece to new thoughts and possibilities, which is what we expect of poetry.

Cliché

Now we return to cliché, for which Christopher Ricks gives as the usual synonyms: outworn, hackneyed, fly-blown, on tap, over-used. {7} Professor Ricks demonstrates how clichés have been used intelligently by poets, but confesses that it's difficult to say much about them without using yet more clichés. In fact, there's probably no clear boundary between the acceptable and unacceptable. Phrases pass in time from the striking to the popular and to the outworn, becoming what we need for conversation, which of course introduces them into many contemporary styles of poetry. Yet the solution to the difficulty may be Rick's own 'on tap': clichés are not overused phrases, but those that come too readily in the circumstances.

Consider the With the memory of this one night / A release from passion's flames in our first example. It ends in a cliché, and is perhaps a mixed metaphor too, since we can't release things from flames, only recover or remove them. The author is not thinking, or not visualizing properly say manuals on style, which frown on the sin. {8} But of course readers vary widely in their capacity to visualize, and great poets have used mixed metaphors without ill effect, most notoriously Shakespeare. {9} But Shakespeare gets a lot out of his mixed metaphors, as do the metaphysical poets, whose far-fetched conceits were often 'worth the carriage'. {10} It is the work that words do in the poem that is important, which The New Critics unnecessarily restricted to complexity. Short-circuit the connection too much, (another cliché) and we don't pick up the supporting elements of the poem.

Here's another snippet that shows the problem in an extreme form: {11}

Zealously Errant Rodent Oligarchy (ZERO)

Only deception since W's Presidential inception.
Fake WMD's and other sleaze.

Medicare lapse, coming collapse?
Integrity in short supply, makes one cry!
Corruption eruption!
Exploding debt, financial threat!
Angry unemployed, slowly destroyed!
No child left behind, W says, 'Ebrythang iz phine.'
Declining schools, because of these fools!

From Zealously Errant Rodent Oligarchy (ZERO) by Mark H. Wilson. ilovepoetry.com

Clever, of course, but apart from the rhymes, what's connecting the elements of the poem? Not the argument, or the deeper meanings of words, which are banged out in a flat prose sense. Try repeating one of the punchier lines like a protest chant: Medicare lapse, coming collapse? We're being regimented into political positions — however much we may (or may not) identify with the sentiments. What is grievously missing is that undertow of thought and sentiment that engages with our fuller natures.

Engagement requires development. Here is a little poem that does achieve its modest aims: {12}

Earth

Does not regard the
Sparrow’s fall
Nor the call of a lark
Which tempts us.

It knows death without sin.
Birth without hope.
Imposes rules.
Permits some variations.
Endures especially the sadness
That we bring to the land.

From Earth by Harold Lorin

It works by consistency of tone, by avoiding the obvious, and leading up to the concluding line. Individually, the lines are not particularly distinguished, and the last two cry out for fuller development.

Sometimes themes involve not the outside world but literature. Dan Schneider underlines what he considers clichés in Ted Hughes's Song, which I reproduce in red: just the first two stanzas. {13}

Song

Song O lady, when the tipped cup of the moon blessed you
You became soft fire with a cloud's grace;
The difficult stars swam for eyes in your face;
You stood, and your shadow was my place:
You turned, your shadow turned to ice
O my lady.

O lady, when the sea caressed you
You were a marble of foam, but dumb.
When will the stone open its tomb?
When will the waves give over their foam?
You will not die, nor come home,
O my lady.

From Song by Ted Hughes

Are the phrases original? No, they're derivative: we think of other poems or sorts of poems in which such phrases occur. But that does not necessarily make them clichés, and I don't think that soft fire, eyes in your face, your shadow was my place, You will not die, nor come home are heinous 'poeticisms'. We could write an unexceptional prose with them: "You will not die," said her father, taking her hands and looking at her carefully. "And the eyes in your face, which have a soft fire, tell me that you will not come home. That you have found someone else." When she didn't answer, he went over to the writing table and pulled out an old drawing of the family. "Yes," he said, as she thrust it angrily back at him, "I will think of you, just as you did when I was away. When I was in prison, your shadow was my place. . ." A little novelettish, perhaps, but not offensively so.

Never to use phrases have been employed elsewhere seems an impossible goal, and one Dan Schneider himself does not follow. {14} Poems have always referred to each other, and Bakhktin's work only systematizes an inherent feature of language.

The conclusion? That we should consider how poems actually work, and be less categorical in handing down judgements on cliché and hackneyed theme. Amateur poems often fail, perhaps generally fail, but the reasons are those that serious poets can overlook in their own work: an affective understanding with readers.

Outlets

Amateur poets often publish at these sites, which range in quality and editorial intention:

References and Resources

1. Passion's Flames by Jeffrey Carter http://www.netpoets.com/poems/love42/1533001.htm.
2. BJ's Woodpile by Lori Kanter. 2003. http://www.shadowpoetry.com/members/collections/nakednature.html
3. Kill Devil Hill Poetry Gallery. Feb. 2004. http://www.killdevilhill.com/gallery.html
4. The Fence That Me and Shorty Built. Red Steagall. 1993. http://www.cowboypoetry.com/redsteagall.htm
5. Immigrant Smoking in the USA by Maurice Gaerlan. Aug. 2001. http://www.poetry.com/contest/pastwinners.asp?qsGPWinID=201945&Suite=.
6. Growing Acorns in Islington by William Oxley. http://www.dgdclynx.plus.com/poetry/poets/oxley2.html#acorns
7. Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry. (OUP, 1987) 356-68.
8. Reasonable and Unreasonable Worlds: Some Expectations of Coherence in Culture Implied by the Prohibition of Mixed Metaphor. Dale Pesmen. 1991. http://www.pesmen.com/metaphor.html. Excerpt from Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology (1991) edited by James W. Fernandez. Stanford Univ. Press.
9. He Words Us. James Wood. Jun. 2000. http://www.tnr.com/062600/wood062600.html. A review of Shakespeare's Language by Frank Kermode (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).
10. Abraham Cowley (1618-1667). http://www.hn.psu.edu/faculty/kkemmerer/poets/cowley/life1.htm. Samuel Johnson's Preface to Abraham Cowley.
11. Zealously Errant Rodent Oligarchy (ZERO). Mark H. Wilson. Jan. 2005. http://www.ilovepoetry.com/viewpoem.asp?id=64121.
12. Earth. Harold Lorin. Dec. 2004. http://www.wordswordswords.4t.com/lorin.html
13. This Old Poem #43: Ted Hughes’ Song. Dan Schneider. Dec. 2002. http://www.cosmoetica.com/TOP43-DES40.htm.
14. In Jenny, at Five, at Her Telescope. Dan Schneider. Nov. 1999. http://www.citypages.com/databank/20/990/article8241.asp?page=5 In Schneider's own poem, both A grace that no poet has ever limned and defeat the fates are more period phrases than Hughes's 'transgressions', though intended (Dan Schneider's email to me, 19 Dec 2006) to undermine Romantic notions with contemporary reality.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.