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When Is a Poem a Poem?

        Millions of people write poetry, just as millions sing or play instruments or dance or take photographs or do fine needlework.  Some few artists in each of these fields will in time be recognized as "great."  The poets so recognized will be included in standard anthologies, studied in schools, and their works will occupy spaces on the shelves alongside those of Chaucer and Keats and Frost.  That may happen to you, but there is little you can do about it.  You probably won't even know about it.  Emily Dickinson got ahead by filing most of her work in her trunk (hence the inspiration for the name of Trunk Press).  [Trunk Press was a one-man operation run by Judson Jerome, and which, I believe, originally published this pamphlet.]

        Another category, which may or may not include the great poets, is of those who become acknowledged professionals in their own lifetimes, whose names and works appear in the literary journals, who win the prizes, whose books appear from the most prestigious publishers, who serve as points of reference for the critics of the day.  At our graduate school picnics in the fifties we used to sing a round to the tune of "Are You Sleeping, Brother John?"

Shakespeare, Milton, Shakespeare Milton.
Shelley as well, Shelly as well.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
Ethel M. Dell, Ethel M. Dell.

        Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Ethel M. Dell were big names in poetry in the early part of this century.  We may expect comparable obscurity for most of the poets in the limelight today.  Some of them may be considered among the great of the next century, but others totally unrecognized by the public today may also have achieved a reputation by then.  There is no necessary connection between contemporary reputation and eventual canonization.

        Most poets writing today, however, fall into neither of those categories.  They will achieve little recognition in their lifetimes or posthumously.  Would that they could simply enjoy writing their poetry and sharing it with family and friends and others who care, as one might enjoy his front-porch whittling.  But for most poets there is a confusing and treacherous stage between the creation of a poem and its reception by others:  the stage of publication.

        A poem exists as soon as it has been composed in the mind.  It is "published" as soon as it is written down or recited.  Any of us can publish our work by copying it out in handwriting, typing it with carbons, using the photocopy machine in the library.  But that doesn't satisfy us.  The poem still doesn't seem quite real until it has been "accepted" by an editor, until it appears in a periodical or a book.  It is as though the creative act were dependent for its completion not only upon the judgment of others but upon the vicissitudes of the marketplace.  And for most poets, printing, which is one thing, and publication, which is quite another, are shrouded in mystery.  [I'm not sure how Judson was using the word "published" in the second sentence above.  Legally, a poem is published when it is reproduced and placed before the public.  As far as I know, simply writing your poem down on paper does not publish it.]

        This chapbook is intended to dispel the mystery.  You should become as comfortable with the processes of printing and publication as you might be with singing in the shower or showing guests through your garden (which is not to pre-judge the quality of the poetry or singing or horticulture).  Even poetry which critics may judge to be poor may serve important functions for its author, and it may bring pleasure and enrichment to others.  The mystique of publication inhibits the flow of creativity and tends to contain the art as a province of a privileged elite.