This post is not original. The original is in the recycle bin on my laptop. There's a copy in my 'Sent Items' and a proofread copy in my wife's 'Sent Items'. Oh, and there's a copy on my test blog, the place I tweak my posts before they go live. So, lots of other copies exist. I hope you don't feel that it's been any way diluted by being copied so often. I wonder what the literary equivalent of 'tape hiss' is?
My most popular poem is 'The Venereologist':
How sad to see the venereologist,
with his mistress tucked carefully
under his arm, emerging from
the doorway of her flat -
a rectangular orifice
exhaling ash and smoke.
The car door opens at the
turning of the handle –
a mechanical thing,
but less habitual
than what has foregone these lines.
His car moves away, down the street
like a germ in the bloodstream.
9 March 1978
It's certainly not my best poem. So, how can I make the statement that it's my most popular? How does one measure 'popularity'?
I can make that statement because it been published more than any other poem I've written, five or six times. Far better poems have only been read by my wife. It's twisted, isn't it? Of course the only reason 'The Venereologist' managed to get published so often is that I was young and ignorant. I had no idea that you were only supposed to send a poem out until it managed to be published once and then that was it, consigned to oblivion; no one would be interested in it. I thought it was a good poem and I wanted people to read it. As many people as possible. So I kept sending out into the big bad world.
Okay, all you poets out there, hands up those of you who don't want people to read your work. See! Not a blinkin' one of you. We all want to be read to have people tell us how good we are. It's natural. And yet nowadays virtually every time I read submission guidelines I come across the same old expression: IF YOUR POEM HAS BEEN PUBLISHED BEFORE THEN SOD OFF. Okay, they're usually a tad more polite than that but that's the gist of it.
The big question is what is 'PUBLISHED'? Now, that's where there's a little leeway but most say that if it's appeared in print or in an e-zine then it's deemed to have been 'published'. Others extend that to private forums and even personal blogs. And what they're saying is: WE ONLY WANT VIRGIN POEMS FOR OUR SITE. OUR SITE IS TOO GOOD TO PUBLISH ANYTHING THAT ANYONE IN THE UNIVERSE HAS LOOKED AT BEFORE WE HAVE. CAPICHE?
Okay, maybe that's not what they're saying but that's what it feels like. I would just like to find a magazine that wants to publish the best poetry it can. Full stop. Actually there are one or two out there like that but they're very much in the minority.
How many poetry e-zines do you think there are out there? I bet it's a silly number so I'm not even going to guess at it. And how many do you subscribe to? Probably not that many. A helluva lot less than you send stuff out to. My big question is: Just how many eyes are out their sullying our poems that we can't send anywhere else because they're now somehow tainted?
I know, I know, everyone wants to be able to say that what's they're offering is fresh. I mean a fruit stall owner wouldn't last in business very long if he sold used fruit: Honest madam, it's just got a wee bite in it and it was from a very nice lady from Broomhill. No, I'm quite sure she's not HIV positive. I doubt she's been sexually active for the past twenty years.
POEMS DON'T GO OFF.
They don't mature with age either. No matter how many copies you make, no matter how many people read that poem before you get to it, it is as pure as when the author put the last full stop – assuming he or she is the kind of poet who uses conventional punctuation – and sits back feeling warm and smug with themselves.
I have never understood this obsession with purity. A first edition does not read any better than a seventeenth. In fact the seventeenth is probably more readable because printing will have improved over the years. The first edition probably has yellow pages and has that old book smell that you feel in the back of your throat.
What I really don’t get are those people – stamp collectors are very bad for this – who think something is worth more because it has a flaw in it. If I started sticking the odd typo in a poem how many editors do you think would pounce on it slavering with excitement? A big fat zero I can tell you. A poem is not a Persian rug.
Question: What does it mean to be 'published'? Is this post 'published'? I would argue that it isn't. My logic is simple. There has been no editorial control exercised whatsoever. I can write whatever I want to and get away with it. There is no possibility of rejection. I am never going to send myself an e-mail saying, "Sorry, ol' son, but that one wasn't quite up to par." Nope, 'snever gonna happen. (See! See! I wrote ''snever' and there was no one to stop me.)
As I write this I've been asked to submit some poems to a themed collection. I'd say 'commissioned' but that sounds just plain pompous. What the hell, it's my blog: I've been commissioned to write some poems on a theme. I'm not sure that I'll be able to write as many as they want but I already have some that will do and one that is perfect. Yeah, you're ahead of me, the perfect one has been published before. And I bet, I just bet, that this editor will say that it won't do. Which I do not get. Because it is abso-bloomin'-perfect. Really. And it deserves to be read by as many people as possible and I don't get why I can't send a copy to every damn e-zine of the planet.
I may have mentioned that I have a fondness for the poetry of Philip Larkin in passing. Just think how many times 'Toads' or 'An Arundel Tomb' or 'The Whitsun Weddings' have been published over the years and they will continue to be published ad infinitum when you and I are dead and gone . . . because they are good poems and they deserve to be read by the next generation and the next. To my mind it would be criminal for them to get published just the once and then forgotten about. No, we don't want old crap. Give us new crap.
This has been something of a rant. It's been a while since I've let rip like this and it'll probably be a while before I do it again. I would simply like poetry magazines, both on and offline, to be realistic and think: "I probably have a readership of a dozen people discounting the poets themselves who probably only read their own poems to see if I've made a mistake in the HTML so why should I be so snotty-nosed about who I publish? The odds of more than a couple of readers discovering a poem in my 'zine and thinking to themselves, 'Hm, I'm sure I've read that elsewhere in a classier 'zine with a nicer font and cooler pictures,' are infinitesimal, so what the hell, I'll just publish the best poetry I can whether it's appeared elsewhere or not." That would be nice. I would like that. But it's never gonna happen, is it? No matter how much I rant. So why am I bothering?
If I had the time – which I don't so don't get me started – I'd put my money where my mouth is and start up an e-zine that only published pre-published poems. I'd call it Used Poems. It would be a home for all the waifs and strays out there who think that no one loves them any more. But I don't have the time, let alone the energy. So, if anyone out there feels like giving it a go then that's fine by me. Just tell me where I can e-mail my submissions and I'll send you 'The Venereologist' and 'The Pathologist' (which I think has been published three or four times already) and I'm sure I could rattle up a few more.
Let's face it most of my published poetry appeared before most of the people using the Internet were born. In fact most of it was written before the Internet was born.
I had the perfect poem to finish this article with but I can't use it because I'm saving it to see if I can get it published in a real magazine. It's a shame because it really would have tidied up this post very nicely. Ah, well. Sorry about that.