We live in a capitalist society. Oftentimes, we measure our success and value as a person by our productivity. We look back at how much money we’ve earned this year or how many awards and distinctions we’ve accumulated, and use these figures as an indicator of our own self-worth. We continually expect too much from ourselves. As poets, this way of thinking is not lost on us. So we ask ourselves, how productive have we been as writers?
For example, we may set a goal to publish 3 poems in poetry journals over the course of the year. It may seem like a simple task, but a goal like this is largely out of our control. Benchmarks like this may seem like a good way to measure our success as poets, but typically leads to disappointment and frustration with ourselves as artists.
Maybe, then, the act of writing poems in itself is the success of the poet. Writing 20 or so finished poems a year seems like a reasonable goal for a writer to make. If you write a certain amount of poems, you can count your year a success. After all, writers write… right? life, however, is unpredictable. Something unexpected may pull us away from the page. Drafting, shaping, fusing, stretching, and warping poems take time, a privilege we may not all share.
So if we can’t count on quantifiable standards to measure our success as poets, what then can we look to in order to observe our growth? The answer lies in the intangible. No matter how long our author bio may get or how many rejection letters pile up on our desk, it all comes back to the experience of the heart. If you’ve written just one line of poetry that you really love, you are a true poet. If you’ve shared your poetry with someone you care about, you’ve made it. These moments are all we can ever hope for. How many times has poetry brought us stillness in our lives? In what ways have we demonstrated greater patience or spoken more carefully because of the calmness poetry has taught us?
For me, rereading the collected poems of Sonia Sanchez this past week brought a greater awareness to the beauty of domestic moments in my life such as greeting a loved one coming home from work or sharing a bed with a partner. Her words provided empathy for people in a time before I was born where lives were equally complex and soulful. I stayed awake humming with potential. Her flavorful language warmed my senses and softened my being in preparation for the next day.
These are the things that carry us through to the next year. It’s what brings us to the page in the first place, for the chance to read an unshakable line, or to happen upon writing a spirit-filling phrase. We can observe these small things, small changes within ourselves learned by the magic and transformative power of language. We can nurture our work and challenge ourselves by reading more poets and consuming as much art as we can until poetry, art and life become indistinguishable from one another. This is where the endurance of the poet comes from. We sustain ourselves not by anything that can be counted, but by how much we’ve felt, and how much more we can feel, because of the poetry in our lives.