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The Art of Story Writing : CHAPTER X The Writing of Poetry

by Nathaniel C. Fowler, JR   

CHAPTER X The Writing of Poetry

IF it is difficult, if not impossible, to formulate general rules or directions which may be followed for the composition of the novel or other work of fiction, it may be said that it is "more than impossible " to present even the semblance of directions for the making of poetry, other than essays on the diction and forms of verse, which may be found in several textbooks, including rhetorics.

It is not the province of this book to produce printed instruments for the weighing or measuring of feet, meter, or rhyme, but rather to make a few suggestions, which must not be considered directions, and to comment upon the market or commercial value of that ever-growing and overspreading plant, poetry, or, more popularly speaking, verse, among whose luxuriant and often seemingly worthless foliage there occasionally bloom the fairest flowers of literature.

Judging from the present crop of verse or rhyme, little of which shows poetical temperament on the part of its writers, versification is growing more rapidly than the most prolific weed in the most fertile soil, and is far more difficult to subdue. Aptitude for versifying is very common, the jingle of words pleasing, and the sport of turning a clever phrase absorbing. Besides these temptations, every man and woman is at heart a potential poet, the deep experiences of life move to stately measures, and the ideal of thought seeks to clothe itself in the ideal of expression. For these reasons, the annual output of verse, per capita, is much greater than the annual output of prose. Besides, verse may be brief, and a transient inspiration may be given short shrift before the mood changes.

The facility shown by the average producer of verse is purely mechanical, and quite on a level with the common ability to dance or sing. Just as there is an infinite chasm between mediocrity and genius in singing and in dancing, so there is a like chasm in poetry. That the average person has some facility speaks well for the race; it is of no moment in the consideration of the art.

The class of versifiers who send their lines to the newspapers and magazines is large for several reasons: First, poetic fame is the highest which the literary art has to offer; therefore, it has many aspirants. Conscious aspiration for it, as a thing in itself, is the most certain sign that one is not favored with true inspiration. All of this class are prolific, and keep manuscript readers busy, but they do not "drug the market" as they never get into the market. The only circulation which their work receives is privately among their friends, in manuscript or cheaply printed form, or in the columns of the local newspaper, which prints it out of compliment to them and without thought of paying for it.

Secondly, the tendency of the average person, whose words are weightier than his thoughts, is to rattle them about in his mind like loose change in his pocket, and with equal profit.

Thirdly, many attempt to write verse because of the real and worthy vein of sentiment in every human heart, which makes impassioned expression, and that is what poetry is essentially, natural to every one when deeply stirred. The lover is always, at moments, a poet, though he be tongue-tied. He who is melancholy for any reason, serious or trivial, drinks for the moment of the fountains which ever feed the souls of the poet and philosopher.

Therefore, it is not to be wondered at that there is much verse in the world. That much of it is commercially valueless is a foregone conclusion. The people who write verse with serious purpose and notable result are of two classes, and it is with their product that the critic has to deal, and deal honestly. If he flinches from his task, or makes a mistake, the results are dire and his shame is great.

The first class is composed of the writers whose special forte is some field other than poetry, but who have talent enough, and earnestness enough, occasionally to turn out a really excellent poem. They are the real competitors of the poet, both in the market and in the hall of fame. But if their talent in another direction is ever acknowledged, or if their inclination is toward some other form of expression, their competition is only transient, and posterity never mistakes them for real poets. The credentials of the real poet are always patent to those who know him personally. In his early writings it may be very difficult to distinguish him from other tainted litterateurs. Therein lies his danger, and the all too frequent tragedies in the lives of the poets. His work is almost sure to be unconventional and startling; therefore, it meets the condemnation of the critical manuscript reader who has fed on conventions until they are bred in the bone.

The true poet cannot have recourse to prose, because what he writes is poetry whatever the form it takes. There may be no known rhyme or meter in his work; it may be as elemental in form as the singing of the waters and the pulsations of the winds; but it is not prose, either in its spirit or its diction, and will not be whipped into regular lines.

While the real poet is gathering food for song out of life's experiences, and learning the tones of his soul, his genius looks like mediocrity or talent, and he has no answer to his critics except the call of his future, which they cannot hear. So he is like to drown in the vast flood of verse which the publishers receive, and if he escapes that fate, he is apt to be long left stranded upon the rocks while the talented writers who are not poets by birth are taken off. If, these perils passed, his persistent and skillful knocking at the door of literary opportunity lets him in, his fare is poor and scanty, because there are so many poetasters who must be fed first. He does, however, eventually win recognition, and then, long after fame, a livelihood.

Strange to say, the battle for poetic recognition is repeated in every generation, as each poet has to conquer singlehanded a world of his own, and the appreciation of the actual commercial and artistic value of his work has to wait until he has educated his public into an understanding of the new knowledge he has brought them.

If anybody must be born for his work, the real poet must be born into it. Rhymesters are incubator-reared. Probably every writer, male or female, and of every condition, including servitude, has sometime in his career thrown out rhymes more or less connected with rhythm, many of them creating the suspicion that the writer has swallowed a spelling book, or attempted to eat a dictionary, with consequent indigestion.

Every one of the leading magazines receives monthly from a hundred to a thousand alleged poetical productions, some of the verses of which actually rhyme; and the average newspaper, including the country weekly, does not need to purchase waste paper to start the fire with, if it uses for kindlings the rejected manuscripts of verses.

Many a would-be poet, who cannot write poetry, ignores the prose he might produce, and attempts to set up in verse thoughts which have not strength enough to run away. The alleged poets of America write, or otherwise produce, more than a million verses a year, and seventy-five per cent of them desecrate the paper upon which they are written. Twenty per cent of them are not injurious, and four per cent of them offer excuse for publication. One per cent of them redeem the whole.

If the alleged poets could hear the comments made upon their rhymes by editors and other judges of poetry, many of them would not attempt to express themselves in verse.

Real poetry, the kind that lives, contains the innermost thought of the master mind, and even the best of prose fails to reveal the emotions of the heart, and the convictions of the thoughtful brain, as well as they may be portrayed in verse. Genuine poetry has the highest literary value, and is commercially remunerative. The rhymes and verses, which appear in the newspapers and in most of the magazines, are insufficient unto the day thereof, and are seldom remembered, and, if paid for, receive sums hardly worth the taking. True, some of the better class of magazines pay as high as fifty dollars, or even five hundred dollars, for a poem, but comparatively few poets realize more than five to ten dollars per piece for their labors.

Newspapers seldom, if ever, pay for a rhyme or verse, unless it be of humorous character, or is particularly seasonable; and then the sum realized by the writer is not likely to exceed five or ten dollars.

The best poetry is published in book form, and all, or some, of the verses may have appeared in the magazines.

There are, in the United States to-day, probably not exceeding twenty-five who receive a reasonable income from their poetry, and I do not recall the names of more than half a dozen who make a living at it.

If you have an exceedingly vivid, and yet controlled, imagination, and are able profitably to search the very depth of your mind, and if your mind be of unusual depth, and you are poetically inclined, probably you can produce poetry which may be sold and read. Do not imagine for one moment, however, that because you are sentimental, you are a poet. More than mere sentimentality is necessary for the production of real poetry.

The superabundance of rhymes and verses upon the market has depreciated the poetry price, and the chances are that few receive more than small sums, even for verses which are worthy of publication. Comparatively few people can write real poetry.

It is difficult, even with a vivid imagination and with great ability, to place the innermost thoughts of the soul upon paper. Thousands of writers have poetical minds. They can produce poetry in prose, but not poetry in rhyme. Their best thoughts, their highest sentiments, they may find difficult to place upon paper under the handicap of the necessity of making one line rhyme with another. These writers can best express themselves in what is called poetic prose, for which there is an open market.

Commercially speaking, the field of poetry is greatly limited. Probably not exceeding one dozen magazines will pay more than a few dollars for a poem of merit, and book publishers refuse, as a rule, to consider the publication of a book of poems, unless the writer is one of a dozen, with a reputation sufficient to carry the book.

The only wise rule to follow is that he who can write prose should not attempt poetry. He may find that, among his prose, he has inadvertently written a few poems. If so, well, as his prose is all the richer for so great a degree of talent. But if, while modestly attempting prose, he finds, and the world also finds, that he has written nothing but poetry, then his fate is inevitable, he must accept a poet's fame, though with it come only a meager livelihood.