So you think you can write poetry: noetry and constructive criticism

So you want to be a poet. When you desperately want something, it’s difficult to get past the wanting, and look into the mechanics of achieving that thing. It’s not enough to want to be a poet, just like it’s not enough to want to be a dancer. Dancing requires grace, agility, athleticism, rhythm and unwavering dedication. The tall, gawky kid with two left feet hiding out at the back of gym class might have early fantasies of being discovered on So You Think You Can Dance, but those fantasies probably disappear in their late teens when reality kicks in.

Unfortunately, in the case of poetry, the requisite talents are not so clear-cut. If only there were an equivalent So You Think You Can Write; we could all just turn up at the cattle call audition and have our hopeful hearts broken by a Simon Cowell-esque judge wielding a quill and a dictionary. Even then though, there’d be those few tragics left staring forlornly but defiantly into the camera whining: ‘What would he know? He wouldn’t know a decent poet if they smacked him in the face with their next manuscript. My MUM and all my mates LOVE my writing, and they should know, they’ve read it ALL.’

Noetry is one of my pet hates. I write noetry a lot. Probably sixty percent of what I write, I’d consider to be noetry. I don’t mean poetry that people don’t like. I mean bad poetry. I mean Oh-no!-poetry.

I don’t particularly like Sylvia Plath’s poetry: I think most of it is angst-ridden self-indulgence. But it’s not really bad poetry. I mean, it has literary merit and I can see why other people might like it.

But what if you’d like to be a professional poet and you’re just not up to it? What if all you write is noetry, and you desperately want to be a published poet?

Do you have critics brave enough to tell you your writing sucks, and are you ready to hear it?

Are you going to insist your poetry is misunderstood genius, self-publish your work and force your (secretly bewildered) family and friends to buy all fifty copies?

With time, and workshopping, and honest writer-friends and editors, I’ve become more able to recognise my noetry. I shelve it, trash it, burn it and delete it. I cross out line after line, cringe at keyboard after keyboard and curse a lot. And I’m starting to write noetry less and less. (Uhhhh … I think.)

But sometimes people ask me to read their poetry and tell them what I think. And sometimes … I lie. I know, I know. I shouldn’t. I’m not doing them any favours.

But what if someone you know quite well presents you triumphantly with a notebook full of poetry that they’re convinced is sheer genius, and looks at you with hopeful, expectant eyes waiting for you to confirm they’re the next best thing since Shakespeare? Can you take the ‘well … it’s a matter of opinion …‘ route and weasel out, or are you going to break their heart?

When I was studying poetry at university I had the pleasure of being taught by Alan Wearne, poet and verse novelist extraordinaire and one of Australia’s all-time poetry greats. During my time as his student, I workshopped a poem called ‘Slogan on the Moon’. It was probably the first political poem I ever wrote. It was about something I read in the newspaper about Pizza Hut wanting to laser beam their logo onto the moon as a marketing stunt.

When it came time to talk about that particular poem, Wearne grabbed at his head, clearly in pain, and told me (in front of the class) it was ‘Just awful … it’s hard to believe the person who wrote those other poems wrote this I mean it’s just SO bad.’

I wasn’t devastated, but furious. He obviously just didn’t get it. It was one of the most insightful poems I’d ever written. Just because he didn’t like it, didn’t mean it wasn’t a brilliant poem. After all, that was just his opinion.

I found ‘Slogan on the Moon’ recently in an old writing portfolio. I wanted to shrivel up and die. It is, quite possibly, the worst poem in the history of mankind.

When the voice of noetry reason comes to visit you, will you tear out its vocal chords, or swallow your pride and listen?

Cross-posted from Slam up.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

More by Maxine Beneba Clarke ›

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  1. “I found ‘Slogan on the Moon’ recently in an old writing portfolio. I wanted to shrivel up and die. It is, quite possibly, the worst poem in the history of mankind.”

    And that’s why the judicious use of drawer time is as important as any other skill in writing. We all love our words when we birth them–why would we write them first place otherwise? Great article, and I like ‘noetry’. Totally stealing that for use in the future. (:

  2. Old poems in drawers can offer up spinach-in-the-teeth, it’s true, but sometimes gems, too.

    Tricksy, to be the judge of such things.

    “It’s known that she shut herself in her father’s house and that she eventually produced 1789 poems, most of them secreted in that locked chest of drawers.” – Lyndall Gordon ‘Lives Like Loaded Guns (Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds)

  3. Worse is when you don’t leave what should be left in the drawer in the drawer, instead, sending around the place to expose the spinach in your teeth to all and sundry!

    Great stuff – thanks Maxine.

  4. Thanks for this post. I struggle with this every day too. Determining the quality of ones own work is incredibly hard, as the stuff one writes makes sense to oneself but may not make sense to anyone else. The problem with today, when a lot of both good and bad poets have blogs and engage in social networking, is that the traditional circle of “I showed this to mum and my dog and they loved it” expands to “Ten people who I don’t know read my po-uhms and they say I’m vury talentid”. I’ve seen some people who have disabled commenting, others refuse to comment people’s stuff because they don’t want people’s feedback on their own poems to be reciprocative… For my two cents, I usually pay attention to critique from people who I think write well themselves and make changes, often even when I may not initially agree with changes being made. It’s easy to “stand ones ground”, but I don’t think it’s healthy. There are limits of course, as with everything….

  5. I agree with the comments already made and as a ‘would-be’ poet I have not yet been brave enough to put any one my stuff on my own blog. But one day soon, may be even tomorrow it may happen. Gotta start somewhere, and then just keep getting up after you knock yourself down time and time again:):)

    Words and powerful – sometimes cruel and sometimes soft and caressing, coccooning even, but always there!

    Have a good one –

    My own little blog is at :

    if you feel like checking tomorrow to see if I had been brave:)

  6. “Noetry” is not the best way to conceptualise so-called “bad poetry.” I believe Maxine Clarke is aware of this particularly when she writes that “[p]robably sixty percent of what I write, I’d consider to be noetry.” If we consider what this statement surely means we find that there is an intimate connection between what Clarke calls “noetry” and “poetry”; that is, the writing of “noetry” appears to be necessarily a part of the writing of poetry.

    I would suggest that we avoid substituting “noetry” for “bad poetry,” for after all even bad poetry is poetry. “Noetry”—at best a joke at worst a horrible neologism—appears to suggest that it is not poetry, or even worse the very opposite of poetry.

    I believe that “bad poetry” is mostly the result of lack of experience, both in writing and reading poetry. Having said that I agree with Clarke that there is a fuzzy terminator between bad and good poetry, and even that we can distinguish good poetry amongst poetry we don’t like. Nonetheless bad poetry has its role to play in poetry, for even the best poet is often bad—at least sixty percent of the time.

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