About twelve years ago I received a poetry rejection from a magazine editor who shall remain nameless (because I can’t remember who it was for the life of me). This editor told me he rejected my work because the poems were all about myself, the poet, writing poetry, and nobody cares about “I” poems anymore. While this was (and remains) untrue in the wider sense, it took me years to understand what this editor meant by his rejection.
Many of us start out writing solely “I” poetry, the brand of lines and stanzas that focus on how we feel, the things we do, the actions we take throughout the day. We write about the thing we know best—ourselves. It’s how we break through into writing, the first line of defense that falls in our conquest to create meaningful art. The thing is, it’s easy to stop at that first line. It’s easy to write the “I” poems and keep writing them because every single one of them is important to us, symbolic to us, and tells the story of us, but this doesn’t always mean the “I” poem is developed enough to mean anything to anyone else.
When I first tried poetry, a few pieces in high school and college, I didn’t really have a lot to say. I just wanted to try my hand at it. Reading them now, they’re really corny, clichéd, almost paint-by-number Beat poems by an On The Road wannabe. They were poems about me going down that road of life, heading out to find adventures I wasn’t really taking. It was all talk, about me and for me.
Later, after having given up on poetry for about four years, I went through a heartrending breakup and divorce, and I went through a long year feeling broken, listless, uncreative, lost, drinking too much and thinking about how I didn’t want to wake up in the morning anymore. I was wandering through a bookstore and an author’s name caught my eye, someone a college friend suggested I read but I never got around to doing so. I bought Charles Bukowski’s The Night Torn Mad With Footsteps. It saved me. I realized, I can do this. I can write stuff like this. And I finally had something worthwhile to write about. I’d been broken and I was healing, slowly but surely, and I wanted to document that.
I knew I didn’t want to copy him directly though, no writer wants to be a copycat, but I did end up writing all about me: my broken heart, my aimless nights, my memories of being married, of getting hurt, of loss and nostalgia. Not unworthy topics in the least, but the poems were all me, me, me, I, I, I. Looking back, most of the poems were sealed off from the world, flat, monotone. Some still work, some still get to me and hurt a little, but the majority of them are written by me, about me, and for me. Which can be therapeutic and healing, but I can see why some editors rejected them. They weren’t really for anyone else. They didn’t often consider the reader, the audience, the wider world. The poems of the “I” were not for you.
Does this mean writing poems that explore one’s own inner feelings and experiences is unrelatable and not worth the time? No, never. It was a powerful healing too and an excellent way to break into poetry, right at the deepest part of the wound. But that can’t be where we wallow, right at the “I”. It can’t be where we remain. Artists interested in exploring the artform, in exploring the world, in developing a greater understanding of themselves must also turn their eye of the mind outward and write not just about the “I” and all the things we experience immediately, but the things out there that we have yet to understand, things we observe, struggles we witness, a universe of personal experiences shaping a humanity that only poetry and art can assess and parse, understand and retell.
When I began writing about not just myself, but the greater world and my small part in it and the small part of you, and how the great spaces in between ignite with loneliness and wildfire and all the wonderful terrible things happening around us, I felt I began to really write. And yes, I began to place more and more work in magazines, but more importantly, I began to truly connect with other writers, editors, and readers. And while how many pieces I publish is not a measurement of any sort of meaningful success, it does tell me I’m starting to make connections out there, that I’m moving from the “I” to the “Us”. It tells me I’m building bridges, I’m opening doors, parting the curtains, helping myself and others see more of this world.
There is nothing wrong with writing about our experiences, and no editor should ever tell a writer that nobody wants to hear what the poet thinks about the poet anymore, but no poet should stop there. Keep going. Drop the word “I” from your vocabulary for a few weeks or even a few months. See what else you can explore and understand and explain and share. Turn that lens from inward to outward, and tell me what you see. We’re all waiting, on you.
(This piece originally appeared in The Blue Mountain Review.)