Writing Honestly

I’m sitting here on the couch watching the Inauguration Ceremony for Obama and stumbling through random web pages. A few minutes ago I stumbled on a poem about Inauguration Day and Barack Obama.

I read the poem. Aside from being forced in some verses, the words painfully and awkwardly shoved into the rhyme scheme to create the poem, it’s obvious that this author likes to write. If you look at his site, he’s fairly prolific and likes his poetry. (by the way – all of us poets struggle with the balance between awkward phrasing and meeting the scheme requirements of a poem)

Still, this poem annoyed me. I re-read it. On my third read I finally understood what the problem was. The poem was dishonest.

The viewpoint presented in the poem was that no man deserves to have such adulation and “worship” the way Barack Obama does. It implies that change cannot happen in our nation because of this undeserved hero worship. The poem states that everyone deserves a parade – not just the President.

Also in the poem it religiously drops God’s name and, by association, Jesus. So, in one poem the author implicitly agrees that one man (a man he approves of) should get parades and attention (we celebrate Christmas in his honor after all) and yet another man should not have a parade. By celebrating Barack Obama we demean the rest of the world but it’s OK to celebrate Jesus.

This led me to comment in a rather cavalier fashion on his blog about his apparent dishonesty. In truth, I should have waited to gather my thoughts – my comment was unfair because it did not explain itself. It was nothing more than a minor flame.

The point of the comment though, was that I could not enjoy this poem because it was so obviously dishonest. It contradicted itself. Dishonest writing insults your readers.

Readers are able to discern, to read between the lines. When an author is dishonest the reader feels cheated. I’m not talking just about contradictions within the writing itself. It takes a lot of skill to write true “Devil’s Advocate” believable. If you’re not careful, your readers will note the deception and learn to very quickly question what you say.

Trust with a reader, once broken, is almost impossible to regain.

So, authors, write what you know. Avoid contradictions. Be honest.

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10 Responses to “Writing Honestly”

  1. I’m sorry, man. I just can’t agree with you. That poem, and that poet, are terrible. You wanna talk about writing honestly, let’s talk about it.”…all of us poets struggle with the balance between awkward phrasing and meeting the scheme requirements of a poem…”This is my point—the struggle. The work. No one, particularly the author referenced in your post, seems willing to put the work into their poetry anymore. It’s like everyone’s decided poetry never needed to be hard work. The rest of the author’s “work” is similar. It’s all trite, surface, boring. There’s no insight. No depth. As I said in my comment on the author’s page, the only way we’d recognize it as a poem is because the author cut it up to look like one.I’m sorry, but I’ve grown extremely tired of seeing poetry abused like this. Everyone, all of us, including myself, need to read more poetry.

  2. Chris;I’ve never been a fan of the type of poetry that the author of that poem writes. I always try to find a positive in people who do try to write, though. When I was in my 20’s, I was much more judgmental – and if you Google my name in Google Groups you’ll see some terrific flame wars I was in as I protested the poor writing of others. The bottom line, for me, was more about the dishonesty than the effectiveness, accurateness, and depth of his prose. If I had commented on that – I would have diluted my point. Does that make sense?

  3. No, it does. I mean, both of us are attacking what we see as equal issues. To you, the question of honesty was more important.To me, the problem of quality is chief. And that, only because I find it endemic out here on teh webs. Flame wars aside, I feel like we’ve allowed poetry to become this… “as long as the author truly felt it and meant it, it’s good poetry” thing. That’s wrong. That’s dishonest. You notice you accidentally called the guy’s poetry prose? I dunno if we can call that an accident, really.To me, it’s not being judgmental—it’s being fair. As poets, especially those precious few of us who’ve managed to get published, we have a duty to explain how good poetry is made. And to show that there is a standard by which it should be judged. Lest our art go the way of modern art—incomprehensible and largely a joke.

  4. I feel like I am talking to an earlier version of myself. Not that I’m smarter now, or more enlightened – I just have a different viewpoint than I used to have.You talk about showing the standard, and teaching the uninitiated or ignorant. Critique the poem honestly and let the poet grow from the experience. After all, you can handle that kind of feedback – if you’re going to be a writer you have to have thick skin, right?I can’t tell you how many times I was (and sometimes still am) on that bus. One day, though, I had an epiphany.I used to run a website called iSciFiStory.com. Got over a million hits a month. I was featured in Science Magazine, NPR’s All Things Considered, and many other online accolades came my way. I had hundreds of poets and authors writing on my site – we specialized in “Flash Fiction” and we had the “Periodic Table of Haiku.”I saw some great writing and I saw some HORRIBLE writing on my site. I critiqued everyone – brutally honest.Then I realized that real writers SEEK critique and improve as a result. They ASK you for a reading. If they don’t ask (as the guy that spawned this whole discussion didn’t ask) there’s no way to reach them. So why waste my breath?It became much easier to politely acknowledge, withhold judgment, and move on. I focused on the honesty in this poem because it struck me so strongly as I read.Also, I found that the more time I spend being offended at the amateurs who diluted MY love, my art, the less time I spent writing.Now, I shrug them off. I smile politely and move on. The true writer will rise above and shine. Every profession has its cannon fodder – you don’t hate them; you use them for what they are good for.As a software engineer, it’s the same. I see tons of programmers who are sub-standard and refuse to better themselves. Great – better jobs for me.

  5. I had time to visit your site today. I think your criticism was somewhat tainted by your obvious love of Obama. Had you spent more time on mine I think we would have had a good discussion. We will never agree on what constitutes good poetry. I am 62 years old. I grew up listening to hymns and reading really old poetry in which some of the words seem out of place because every line had the same number of beats, was the same length and the rhyme was consistent. So what can I say, it is in my DNA. Contrary to what Chris thinks it requires a lot of thought. Had you read my poem “God” you would have begun to realize that I do not equate God with Jesus. Had you read my poem “The Last Why” you would get a greater understanding. Had you gone to my photo album you would have seen my motorcycle. Had you read my bio you would have understood the last thing I wanted to be is a poet. Anyway, I have to leave now to make lunch for my mother and me. I may return to comment on my dishonesty which I tried to address on my site.www.thelastwhy.ca

  6. Mm, Sparks, I think I could agree with you if I wasn’t so frightened for the future of poetry as an art form.And, funnily enough, I’m sort of backwards to you. I started out not really caring. While actively pursuing poetry as an art, I equally actively ignored the glut of bad poems out there. “I know better,” I said to myself, “so I can ignore it.”But we can’t. Like I said earlier, we have a duty to continue to improve ourselves just as much as we have a duty to pass judgment on the rest of poetry.I think about writing like this: I’m stepping into a room that’s filled with every masterful poet who ever lived, and they’re having the ultimate discussion about poetry. At the end of the day, I’d like to be able to take a seat with them and have something interesting to say. I’d like to prove that I made some lasting contribution.Doug—your age is no excuse.

  7. Actually Doug, I did spend time on your site. I read about your amazing ride in ’72 and how you never got on a bike again. I saw your pictures.I spent time there. I felt your bio was overlong; I couldn’t make myself read all the way through it.Also understand that I mean you no disrespect. You asked me to gauge your position based on other poems but that’s kind of cheating, isn’t it? I read multiple poems on your site, but each one stands alone – I would no more compare Robert Frosts’ consistency across multiple poems than I would yours.So let’s get specific, shall we? You wrote that poem for a Western audience. A Western audience does, and will, equate God with Jesus. You can’t escape that fact Doug. It just IS. Similarly, when I write science fiction, I can safely use the acronym FTL for “Faster Than Light” because it is a domain-level word that EVERY reader of sci-fi understands.Your reference to God was a reference to God/Jesus/Holy Spirit because you didn’t tell me otherwise.As such, you reference implied support for a human incarnation of that God – a human that gets his own parade, holiday, etc.I personally thought your argument would have been something along the lines of “a diving being deserves a parade but a mere mortal doesn’t.” I was actually prepared for that argument. You surprised me by not bringing it up. Good job.As for whether or not I like your poetry; you’ll notice that I have not once stabbed at thee. I mentioned in my blog that I found some awkwardness in the poem I read – and then I have been having an abstract conversation with Chris about poetry in general.It’s true that I am not a fan of the style you write; I feel structured rhymes work best in iambic pentameter and you don’t do that. There’s a reason why Shakespearean and Petrachian sonnets are so popular – iambic pentameter sounds pleasing to the human ear. I would not judge you based on the style you write though – but on how well you write in that style.I’m quite content to let Chris be the critic here. As I’ve stated above, I don’t have the energy to wear my critic hat any longer.Keep writing, Doug. Maybe it will be great. Maybe it won’t. No writer nails it first go around. I have millions of words that will never see the light of day – and even the prose I post here is not nearly my best. Mostly it honors my favorite poet of all time as I tried to emulate his style: CHarles Bukowski.As for my “obvious” love of Obama. It’s true that I support him and, for the first time in a decade I have hope for our nation again. Still, I would never blindly support anyone and will always entertain dissenting opinions.As you said, we can indeed have a lively discussion. I welcome it. Just don’t expect us to agree on everything. 🙂

  8. Chris;Interesting position. Passionate. And that’s good. Still, in some ways, it almost feels to me like you walk around with a POET chip on your shoulder; waiting for someone to knock it off or to find an excuse to knock it off yourself.I agree with you wholeheartedly that poetry is in “recession.” Even slam poetry, that was all the rage a decade ago, has faded into obscurity again. Only one or two “trendy” bars have events here in Orlando nowadays.Local poetry groups are filled with teenage girls and goth chicks/guys with REAL chips on their shoulders. Sometimes an emo kid shows up. Occasionally a middle-aged mother walks in the door, looks around, and walks out.I have to wonder, though, if “defending the faith” scares people from joining the faith? If we all walk around wearing the jacket with POET emblazoned on the back, swiftly dispatching those who don’t deserve to wear it, how many will WANT to join? How may people could be nurtured into real poets if we didn’t stand so pretentiously on points of poetic honor? Are we even qualified to be that nurturer, let alone that judge?I’m not calling you to the carpet; hell I’ve never read anything of yours except these posts. I’m just offering a different viewpoint. I’m not even sure how much I believe it yet – but it struck me as I read your comment because I love to play devil’s advocate.

  9. Sparks,I dunno if I’m walking around with a poet chip on my shoulder or not. I certainly don’t think I’m an exceptional poet or anything. Ok, maybe, but not great. A work in progress. I do have a kind of chip on my shoulder, I suppose. It’s something a mentor once said to me, about the prevailing artistic feeling in the world is how we’ve arrived at this “late date in history”. Post-post-post modernism, I guess. I am, yes, a little disheartened by the lack of honesty and sincerity in the art. The lack of work ethic. The attitude that allows anyone can be a poet so long as they just really feel it. Pff.(By the by, I dunno if you’ve heard him, but Taylor Mali is an excellent, still working, slam poet.)Now. The faith. You ask an interesting question, with a not so interesting answer. I don’t think poetry really is for everyone, anymore than I think modern art, literature or good cinema is for everyone. Good art is, by nature, exclusionary. I’m not sure it is pretentious, at least in the way you mean, to stand judge, to have standards. I want to threaten away all but the most devoted to poetry. We haven’t been doing that, man, and that’s why we’re in this place, now. “Everyone’s a poet who truly believes.” Hogwash. Poetry is hard work. Our predecessors didn’t get to where they did by allowing for some inclusive philosophy to muddy the waters with amateurs and hacks. Someone has to judge, someone has to be willing to say, “No, that’s terrible, do it again.” Otherwise, what the hell are we doing? Other than allowing our art (art, damnit!) to become someone’s whiny journal entry.Thanks for being my devil’s advocate in a friendly, non-flame-war environment. It helps me better hone my arguments.

  10. Chris; if you haven’t read about Bukowski yet, take a moment and look him up. One of America’s great poets, in my opinion, and he absolutely despised the “poet community.” He had such disdain for the pretenders that it was legendary. You’ll relate, I think.I’d love to read some of your stuff if you ever want to share. Email is ron dot sparks at gmail dot com.

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