The Blog of John Hewitt

Feel free to write a bad poem

One of the most severe problems poets face is perfectionism. Too many poets and aspiring poets feel they have to write a great poem every time they write a poem. They get frustrated when something doesn’t work or they don’t bother to write at all because they just don’t feel “inspired”. This sort of thinking destroys creativity. It stops many poets, and many other writers, from even putting the first word on the page.

Poetic perfection is a great goal, but a terrible standard. You aren’t going to produce a great poem every time you sit down to write. You may go for days or weeks without producing anything that you feel is good enough. It can be frustrating, but it shouldn’t be defeating. Writing bad poetry is simply a part of writing poetry.

Part of this poetry perfectionism affliction comes from elementary and high school when young people take English classes with poetry assignments. Turning a poem in for a grade is always a dangerous thing. You are giving someone else the right to serve as absolute judge over your work, and in elementary or high school there isn’t much you can do about it. A class assignment is a class assignment. Sadly, this destroys many potential poets before they even get started. One bad grade on a poetry assignment can convince someone that they have no talent, when the truth is that any good poet can write a bad poem, especially when trying to conform to someone else’s assignment.

While I strongly support teaching poetry to young students, I am not a fan of grading poetry, especially at that level. It has the exact opposite of the intended effect. Instead of encouraging young students to embrace poetry, it discourages many of them. Writing a good poem is hard, and it is even harder if your first poem comes back with a C minus written across the top.

Wherever you are at in your poetry writing now, you should feel free to shake off poetic perfectionism. Allow yourself to write a bad poem. Allow yourself to write ten in a row or twenty or thirty. Writing poetry is a skill, and people improve when they allow themselves to make mistakes and learn from them. A poet who writes a good poem every time may be incapable of writing a great poem, just because they haven’t allowed themselves to take enough risks. Think of every bad poem you write as a step toward the next good poem. If you keep working at it, sooner or later the good poetry will flow. From there, you might even reach the great poetry. If not, at least you wrote a poem, and that’s a pretty good way to spend your time.