Monday, August 27, 2007

The Poetic Ego

We all have an ego and we all need one. It’s a strange irony that ego is necessary to achieve anything that involves other people! An ego-less poet might compose verse, but would never think to display it publicly or seek an audience. The minute a poet sends off a submission to a magazine, or creates a blog/website, or stands up to read in front of anyone, the ego is at work.

Publishers clearly appreciate poets who create an audience for themselves. As Tony Frazer says in the submission guidelines to the Shearsman Press (not a press associated with commercial populism!), “It is very unlikely that a poet with no track record of publication in magazines in either the UK or North America will be accepted for publication, as there is no obvious audience for the work. We do have to sell the books.”

Other publishers also publicly emphasise the importance of the poet’s role in promoting and selling their work. It’s not as though small poetry publishers can do it all on their own.

However, there is a fine line, easily crossed, between self promotion and arrogance, and if you slip onto the wrong side of that line, it comes over very badly indeed. It’s often tricky to know exactly where you are around that line. That’s the worst of it. You might think you’re doing a good job of promoting yourself and your poetry, and yet other people think of you as a desperate, needy individual with only a moderate talent and an immoderate sense of your own importance.

I am Scottish, born and bred in Glasgow – it’s hard to think of a city that has less sympathy for prima donnas. Often that part of the Scottish psyche can be destructive – anyone who shows an ounce of creativity and the willingness to display it will soon have it knocked out of them, an attitude Kathleen Jamie effectively lampooned in the title poem from her collection, The Queen of Sheba. I am naturally reticent to push myself forward, but since The Clown of Natural Sorrow was published (note the self-promotional link!), I’ve tried hard to sell copies, to network both in real life and on the Internet. But I am always conscious of that fine line…

How to avoid stepping onto the wrong side of the line? Suggestions are welcome. So far, I’ve come up with four:

1. "You are not as good as you think you are" (Scavella’s mantra).

2. "Never believe in your own propaganda" (John Peel).

3. Never dispose of a rejection slip.

4. When people, especially famous poets, say something nice about you, accept that with good grace. But listen even more carefully when people you respect criticise your writing.


Harry said...

No-one is right all the time. Not you, not the people who love your work, and not the people who hate it.

Ben Wilkinson said...

Very true about never throwing away a rejection slip, Rob: I have a great many of those tucked away in a folder with the few, diamond-in-the-rough type acceptance letters praising my work. Though the latter have thankfully increased as I've slowly improved in my writing, the many rejection slips help to keep things in balance, and most importantly, any chance of my ego inflating well within check.

Anonymous said...

1. I wouldn't go for the fatalistic negative, but rather the more tricky approach of "Know how good you *actually* are" -- because this may change over time, and is more of a spur rather than a brake. Knowing is then the crossroads between an honest self-assessment of one's own work and a true reading of the work of others ... and, in equal measure, the absolute forgetting of all this verse-envy and self-flagellation in order to peddle on regardless.

2. Better not to broadcast any in the first place!

3. Nah -- throw them away and forget about it. Let's not get too Calvanist here! Editors are not pseudo-parents: we don't need to re-live their dim views of our achievements ad infinitum. And there's no victory to be won in proving them 'wrong'. Petals under the bridge, as the Buddha might say. The road is long, as the Hollies might say.

4. Yep. Which is an essential addition to no.1.

Bearing in mind that the ego balloons in direct proportion to a sinking self-esteem (let's call it The King of Nowhere sydrome), I would add:

5. If poetry is the One Law (in the inner or outer court), you're f****d.


Cailleach said...

I'd second having a sense of humour and having the ability to laugh at oneself - self-deprecation?

Having an ego is like having a dog, it needs regular exercise, feeding and grooming.

Rob said...

Thanks everyone.

Harry, I like the balance in yours.

Ben, I still have all my rejection slips too.

Andy, I like your reformulation of number 1.
I agree there's nothing to be achieved by proving editors 'wrong.' And the image of the 'King of Nowhere' is excellent.

Barbara - yes, humour is vital.

Anonymous said...

Broadly, everyone needs a sense of positive status in life, i.e. in relation to one's peers or family or workmates or whatever private means.

I think the trouble with ego begins when something as elusive and abstract and un-popular as poetry is the primary source of self-esteem: it's fundamentally unreliable, both in relation to the writer and the public.

Self-esteem is bound to be compromised in this situation ... there's no getting round it. The only choices available are how you deal with this.

If resentment kicks in, then the ego goes on the rampage in order to compensate ("I'm better than so-and-so and yet I'm not getting a slice of the pie").

If, on the other hand, self-esteem is not wedded entirely to poetry & its public engine, you have a broader base to stand on. More capacity for equanimity, and not so much dog-eat-dog.

Same as any work-life balance, I guess. Or any relationship with anything / anyone. If the one Thing generating self-esteem breaks down, you've got no backup ... and no recourse to humour with which to deal with it, since the ego is caught in a series of death-thoes. And that's not funny. It can only (re)assert itself in a desperately exaggerated manner in order to 'survive'.

So yes, Barbara's comment says it all, really. Everything in proportion. An aspect of the core, not the core itself.

I imagine that it's a similar bind for struggling actors, having known a few. The difference being that the public reward (if achieved) is more tangible and easily recognised. We can agree what Success is, even though we're not actors ourselves.

'Success' in poetry is as relative as the work itself. No one can quite agree what it is ... not poets, certainly not the public ... and so self-esteem has nothing solid to satisfy itself with.

Wasn't it T.S. Eliot who declared, at the end of his days, "I don't know whether I've written anything that's really any good"?


Anonymous said...

I grew up a household where the principle forms of communication were verbal abuse and neglect. I also don't have a particularly resilient temperament, so I'm much more inclined to think what I've written is worthless rather than wonderful.

I only bring this up because setting your ego against responses is a problem that cuts both ways. There are plenty out there for whom the last thing they need is to be taken down a peg.

Rob said...

Andy, that's a really sound approach, and I love the TS Eliot quote! Thanks.

Anon, that's a tough one. I say that because, in poetry, you're always liable to be taken down a peg. To get better, you need honest feedback, which may not always be painless. If you try to make your poetry public i.e. by submitting to magazines, you're bound to encounter rejection. And that's only the start! If you become well-known and start getting reviewed, some reviews might stick the knife into you. Your poet peers might do the same at times.

I guess people, even those with a low self-esteem, develop their own ways of dealing with this. I think it's possible to steel oneself, so that rejection and criticism isn't seen as the end of the world, but part of a natural process. What ABJ has just said in this comments box is also a vital factor.

I guess if that steeling is impossible, it's best just to enjoy writing and not try to 'get anywhere' with it.

Although perhaps there are other ways of coping in these kind of instances.

Dave said...

Funny, just yesterday I was writing about the necessary role of ego in creating and publishing poetry, too; if i'd read this first I would've linked to it.

I'm also interested to hear that "anyone who shows an ounce of creativity and the willingness to display it will soon have it knocked out of them." I always suspected that folks here in the Appalachians got that trait from the Scotch-Irish, but I wasn't sure.

Anonymous said...

What I'd be interested to pursue is the idea of poetic ego as compared to (for example) oil-and-pastels ego or dog-show ego or body-building ego.

Are we just talking about the way people are, or is there something in the poetry/public axis (as I suggested above, but not entirely sure about to be honest) which makes it different?

Maybe a kind of infectious egostism which is peculiar to folk who share a similar set of values or aims, and which then somehow validates us as a part of that group?

You know, if we're frothing at the mouth over the latest National Poetry Comp winner's inelegant line-breaks, is this something inherent in the creative process or are we unconsciously aping the other poets we know who do the same thing?

Do we pick up bad habits, in other words. And can we chose to settle the enchafed ego or not.

The issue of childhood experience is a separate one, I think, and obviously extremely difficult to alter by choice in most cases.


Rob said...


Very interesting, Andy. Let me think. ..

Rob said...

Oh, and Dave, I saw your post. There must be some kind of cosmic conciousness on the poetic ego going round the blogosphere.

Ms Baroque said...

Rob, re 1., I think there is a balance to be struck between one's inner self-confidence - which is about the work, and is a quiet thing - and modesty, which is about one's standing in relation to other people. This is a sort of breakdown of Andy's sage notion of simply knowing how good one is. There's no need for false modesty, but a quiet confidence in one's work will help all round.

This confidence, btw, shows in the work (or doesn't) - no need for fireworks.

This ego business is difficult: as I've said before, the world doesn't need us to write poetry; the world doesn't even particularly want us to succeed, because every successful person who got off their backside and did it is a walking reproach to everyone else they know. You're either a reproach to those who never tried, or a taunt to those who failed, or a threat to the more successful ones.

It's hard - because we all want to be understood, and loved, and for everyone to adore our imagery and line breaks. All you can do is keep your head down and plough on with your own stuff - humble in the face of what you are really trying to do artistically, and realistic in worldly terms.

Andy, if it's me complaining about some prize-winner's inelegant line breaks you can rest assured that those line breaks are really bothering me. I've been broadening my scope lately and trying to be much more open about line breaks. No one seems to want to discuss them very much, but I find them a bone to be chewed over and over, forever.

What makes a line break really satisfactory? Can it even be separated from the rest of the line (or the next one)? How is it related to, or dependent on, caesura? Arghhhh, don't get me started.

Rob said...

"I think there is a balance to be struck between one's inner self-confidence - which is about the work, and is a quiet thing - and modesty, which is about one's standing in relation to other people."

Good distinction, Katy, and some true, but disconcerting, words later on too.

On line-breaks, it might just be that poets obsess over these things because they matter, much as we might also all argue with passion over a semi-colon. Sometimes it becomes more life-or-death than it ought to be, but that's the nature of art.

Of course, it can also just be egotistical sniping, but I think the difference between bitterness and passion is usally easy to see.