Tuesday, October 16, 2007

100 Sonnets, and other measures of achievement

I just wrote and posted my 100th sonnet.

It's a fairly impressive achievement in terms of quantity: Shakespeare's lifetime output of sonnets was 154. Now, he may have written (probably did write) other sonnets that, for one reason or another, weren't ever published in a lasting form. Not to mention all the other stuff he was busy doing (like writing and producing plays). But still, 100 is pretty good considering I wrote my first sonnet just over two years ago.

Quality? Well, that first one is technically inferior; the meter's uneven, the language sounds a little forced to me, and there's no enjambment to speak of. Looking at some of my recent sonnets, like Lot's Wife and Oil and Salt, I think there has been some serious improvement.

I did not get here by myself.

How does one get critical feedback on one's writing? In my experience, blogging isn't the way to go about it. I've had wonderful, appreciative commentary from readers, which has definitely kept me going through some tough spots; I am and will always be grateful to my blogfriends for their encouragement and support. But if I'm serious about my poetry (substitute whatever kind of creative endeavor), I need the negatives as well. Fortunately, there's a huge universe of criticism available to anyone with a computer who's willing to go out and look. Most online workshops/forums will let you read posts without joining. You can pretty quickly get an idea of whether you want to jump into a particular puddle-- is the water going to be over your head, or is it too shallow? Is the material on display stylistically compatible with your goals?

Perhaps the larger question at work is: What are appropriate measures of achievement in a field where quality is largely subjective, where very few people get paid anything at all, and where the professional community is almost completely decentralized? In case it isn't obvious, I'm speaking about poetry, especially as it exists online, in the world of blogs and ezines.

One measure of achievement would be the approval of experienced colleagues-- this is one reason that I brought up online forums above-- but of course there are caveats, the main one being that if someone happens to dislike what you wrote, it isn't necessarily a reflection on your ability. Good commenters will say things like "it's not to my taste, but shows high technical skill". Most, unfortunately, will just say "I don't like it." You may need both a thick skin and a sensitive eye to extract value from such comments without swallowing the damage.

Ultimately you have to set your own goals and define your own measures. To the extent that your goal is to communicate (I think that's a fair assumption, for most actively blogging poets), other people's opinions have to matter-- but they cannot be your only yardstick.

Finally, perhaps it's as important to measure effort as it is to measure achievement. Are you challenging yourself to try new things? Are you experimenting? Do you always succeed at your experiments?-- if so, you need to try something more difficult!

Thanks to the good folks at Sonnet Central and Desert Moon Review for my continuing improvement. Thanks, first, last, and always, to God.

Note: though this post stands alone, it's also part of an ongoing series of thoughts I've been having about poetry, professionalism, and the state of the market. If you're interested in the rest of my thoughts, click on the "poetics" label and read back through Paper. Who needs it? and "Professional poet"?

If you like poetry, check out the weekly prompt site at Totally Optional Prompts


LaVeda H. Mason said...

Congratulations on posting your 100th sonnet!! That's about 2 sonnets a week... that is serious output!

Don't worry about the quality... just keep working at it... and before you know it, you'll have 154+ sonnets of Shakespearean quality (smile)!

Michael J. Farrand said...

Congrats! Thought you might be interested in taking a peak at my sonnets.