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Freedom in Verse

Why I took up poetry

Cecily Ross

I write poems.
Does that make me a poet?
What if nobody reads them?

If you know anything about poetry, you’ll recognize the above as a haiku. The form is simple. Three lines: five syllables, then seven syllables, then five again. Those are the rules. Poetry has a lot of rules, and most of them are made to be broken. It’s what I like best about writing poetry: mastering the rules and then breaking them. I’ve been a prose writer most of my life and that too involves rules, but breaking them can be risky. That’s why late in life I’ve found a kind of freedom in verse.

My adventure in poetry began more than a year ago, after my latest novel was rejected, for two reasons. One, my first published novel did not earn out its advance. (Publishers pay authors ahead of publication, in effect gambling on a book’s success. If the book doesn’t sell as well as anticipated, the author keeps the advance money. The publisher loses.) Two, there was the matter of my age. “There’s no doubt Cecily can write, but given her sales track and where she is in her career, I simply don’t see how we can break this out,” one editor emailed my agent. Fair enough. Publishing is a business. I’m a money-losing author — and an old one. All true. So no whining from me, no bitterness. I was sixty-five when I made my literary debut (my last tango, it turns out). One published novel after a lifetime of writing is good news. Isn’t it?

As I write this, I am about to turn seventy-two — old to be taking up anything new and expecting to be good at it, especially poetry, a craft that everyone knows takes a lifetime to ­perfect. Unless you’re the American Amy Clampitt, who first turned her attention to poetry in her forties. She finally achieved fame, or what passes for it if you’re a poet, with her ­collection Kingfisher, at sixty-three. She died in 1994 at seventy-four and will forever be renowned not just as a stunning and successful poet but also as an old one. Novelists, too, rarely make their debuts after the age of sixty. One exception is Penelope Fitzgerald, whose first novel came out when she was sixty-one. She went on to publish eight more, finishing with The Blue Flower, now considered her best work, when she was seventy-nine. Any hope that my own advanced age might elevate me into one of the “marginalized groups” Canadian publishers say they are courting these days has so far proved elusive. I can’t help but wonder how Fitzgerald’s jewel-like novels (Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, is just 132 pages), mostly based on her own life, would fare among acquiring editors today.

One thing we know for certain: Taking up a new skill when you’re old is good for you. Good for your brain, good for your mental health, all of that. A few years ago, with no previous musical training other than two years of piano lessons when I was a child, I taught myself, with a little help from YouTube, to play the ukulele. Today, I can manage a dozen or more chords and a few basic strumming patterns, enough for a rousing rendition of the jazz tune “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and, most recently, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night.” I get a surprising amount of pleasure from this late-in-life skill, though “skill” may be overly generous. I chose the ­ukulele because it seemed like the easiest instrument out there. I didn’t feel I had enough time left on earth to apply myself to the French horn or the cello. I also began taking drawing lessons in my sixties, even though I have absolutely no talent in that area either. Nevertheless, I have found the two hours I spend every Tuesday morning making pencil sketches of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and ­charcoal portraits of my grandsons utterly engrossing and remarkably satisfying, though my level of expertise continues to hover around “barely competent.”

In his most recent book, The Real Work, the essayist Adam Gopnik makes a distinction between achievement and accomplishment. The former, he posits, is about rising to a level of competence measured by external standards — like winning the Nobel Prize or a gold medal or getting straight A’s on your report card. The latter involves mastering a task or skill you have chosen, where your real reward is the profound feeling of satisfaction that doing the work itself produces. “Losing ourselves in an all-absorbing action,” Gopnik argues, “we become ourselves.” Achievement, then, is extrinsic, often fleeting, and potentially unsatisfying. Accomplishment, however, is intrinsic, with effects that can be permanent. When I apply these distinctions to my own experience, I can verify their truth. The act of writing the novels I have written (there are five of greatly varying quality) has been, despite the difficulties and frustrations and challenges, work that has given me great joy, work that honed my skills as a writer, work that I kept doing despite the failures and the rejections. Why? I believe it was for the sheer satisfaction of simply writing and knowing that little by little I was getting better and better.

Until I finally arrived at the big achievement: a contract with a major publisher, a decent advance on the book I had already been working on for three years, and a two-year-long whirlwind of editing, promotion, and anticipation. The day my agent called to tell me about the publisher’s offer, I jotted down the following in my desk calendar: “My life begins today. I am a writer!” It would seem it was actually the beginning of the end of that career. Becoming a published author plunged me into literary purgatory, the no man’s land that lies between obscurity and recognition. Having a book, it turns out, ruined everything. I naively thought that since I was now a published author, there was every likelihood I would go on being a published author. Wrong.

Hoping to cheer myself up, I recently picked up Stephen Marche’s somewhat bracing little On Writing and Failure. I hoovered it up, as a matter of fact. “The majority of books by successful writers are failures,” he observes. “The majority of writers are failures.” Success belongs to the handful of authors out of the hundreds of thousands published each year who achieve (that word again) financial gain and critical acclaim. And if publishers could figure out in advance who these might be, they’d save a lot of money. But as William Goldman once put it, “Nobody knows anything.” He was talking about movies, but his words certainly apply to books too.

A few dozen best-selling authors get published every year. And the rest of us? Failures. Likely fools for even imagining we could ­succeed. Perseverance? Pshaw! “The internet loves this arc,” Marche writes: “all struggle redeemed; the more the struggle the more redemption.” On social media, I receive exhortations from writers I do not know — who surely should know ­better themselves — urging me to keep trying, to never give up, to persevere, persevere, persevere. “It’s pure bullshit,” writes Marche in cold, hard, unvarnished prose. Strangely, I find his caustic, even cynical bromides consoling. If Stephen Marche, a successful writer by any ­measure, considers himself a failure, then at least I’m in good company.

Before I became a published novelist, I was content to write my books and stories and dream of the day they would appear in print. A few stories made it into obscure literary journals; most were rejected. The novels I largely abandoned after the second or third revision. I spent two years writing one about a mother searching for her lost daughter. There was so much wrong with the first draft that I gave up trying to fix it. I spent another two years writing a comic novel about a middle-aged couple moving to the country. My agent didn’t bother to get back to me on that manuscript. And the inevitable fictionalized version of my childhood she rejected as “too YA.”

If writerly success is so elusive, it’s fair to wonder: Why bother trying? It’s not for the money, that’s for sure. According to the Writers’ Union of Canada, the average writer of books in this country made $9,380 in 2017, down 78 percent since 1998. Writers write, I believe, because they are narcissistic masochists. What, then, do they really want? The simple answer: More. They want more. No matter how much authors have or “achieve,” they will always want more. And more will always elude them. It is a moving target. Take Philip Roth. Was he a happy man? Miserable by all accounts. Successful? Definitely. I discovered this myself. As soon as my novel was published — the thing I’d been dreaming about for years — all I wanted was more. More praise, more publicity, awards, recognition, reviews, authors’ festivals, book clubs, speaking engagements. More of everything. I became irrationally jealous of the writers I considered my peers. Every time one of their books made it onto a summer reading list and mine didn’t, every time they were invited to an authors’ festival and I wasn’t: Always a gut punch. I could barely bring myself to read their books. But if I did and they were any good: More jealousy. More, more.

On balance, getting published made me unhappy. I know how ungrateful that probably sounds —“Fine for her to say! She won the lottery!”— but publishing fiction has proven a sobering experience. The writing I loved. Because, of course, writing a novel is an accomplishment. And I loved everything leading up to publication: the editing, copy ­editing, proofing, the endless reading of endless drafts, approving cover design and typefaces, writing flap copy, everything, right up to and including the launch party (which I paid for myself). I loved all of it. But after that — misery, as I watched the book that was supposed to soar sink like a stone. I know my expectations were too high. The big monetary advance, I see now, almost guaranteed that. My publishers didn’t care. Their loss was a rounding error. No big deal. But for me, it was profoundly disappointing.

If success — because publication and a nice advance surely spell success — doesn’t make you happy, then maybe failure isn’t such a bad thing. The poet and fiction writer Steven Heighton, who died in 2022 at the age of sixty, learned this lesson well. In a long essay from 2020, The Virtues of Disillusionment, Heighton took us back to the mid-1990s, a time when Canadian publishers were on the lookout for promising young writers who might become lucrative literary stars. Although he was virtually unknown, he landed a two-book contract with a major house, and with that came his ticket to what he called “the great chicken raffle of 1990s CanLit.” Understandably, he imagined he was on the brink of a brilliant career. But that didn’t happen. His much-anticipated novel garnered a lukewarm critical response, and though Heighton has since been described as “as good a writer as Canada has ever produced,” his many works of fiction and poetry have never risen above the mid-list level.

In a way, Heighton lived with disillusionment for most of his writing career. His essay on the subject discusses the paradox that two negatives often make a positive. Therefore “dis-,” which is a negative, plus “illusion,” also a negative, actually equals something good. “Disillusionment,” Heighton argued, is a positive, because by letting go of or losing your illusions, you are set free. Okay, a silver lining. But free to do what exactly?

Now that I have been stripped of any illusion that I have a future as a writer of fiction, the pressure, in theory, is off. Which brings me back to the subject of poetry. I want to make it clear, though, that I am not comparing myself to Steven Heighton, not even close, or to Stephen Marche or to Penelope Fitzgerald or to any of the above. (I have always been and remain the original imposter.) Nevertheless, Heighton’s essay allowed me to see my own situation differently. After my latest novel was rejected because of my “sales track” and my age, I decided to give up writing. As much as I value accomplishment, the thought of enduring the years-long process of working on another manuscript at my (write it) advanced age, when it stood little chance of publication, was (like the idea of learning the cello) disillusioning. Still, writing for a few hours every day had become an ingrained habit. What, since I’m retired, would I do with that time? It was my husband who suggested poetry. “If a novel is too big to contemplate,” he said, “why not write poems instead?” For a lot of reasons, I thought. First of all, I haven’t written poetry since I was in my twenties, and it was pretty bad. And I mostly stopped reading poems after university. Oh, I went through a Sylvia Plath period and read a few literary biographies (Anne Sexton and Philip Larkin come to mind). Occasionally I would tackle New Yorker poems, even though I found them mostly bewildering.

Yes, I had a lot to learn, but I ended up throwing myself into this new versified world like a hungry caterpillar. I enrolled in a poetry workshop, then another, and eventually a third. I realized right away that writing poetry is basically wordplay, and that it requires intention, concision, and endless revision: all skills I had been working on for some time. Above all, it doesn’t require shutting yourself up in a room for years and years. I think it was the American poet laureate Billy Collins who observed that the biggest challenge facing a poet is figuring out what to do with the other twenty-three and a half hours in a day. And it’s true that a poem can come together very quickly once you have a subject. After that, you are free to spend as long as you like tweaking and tinkering. It’s endlessly absorbing and more fun than online Scrabble. Because I’m still learning, I enjoy the challenge posed by the constraints of the many poetic forms. I’ve been writing sonnets and ­villanelles and pantoums and, yes, haikus. I admit to a weakness for rhyme and metre, even though form has fallen out of fashion in the world of poetry. “Sonnets and strict iambic pentameters won’t do the job they used to,” Glynn Maxwell explains in his slim paean to verse, On Poetry. “Many of the old forms — sestinas, villanelles — had a purpose ­centuries back but are no more than exercises now.” Poetry itself, for that matter, has gone the way of the proverbial hula hoop. (Something similar could be said of the ukulele, I suppose. Although I’ve heard it may be making a comeback.)

This new pursuit has become more than merely something to do — though it’s that too. Anything to put off housework or going to the gym. Reading poetry closely reveals an entirely new way of seeing the world, and writing verse is a revelatory mode of expression for the writer of prose who must submit to the tyranny of sentences and punctuation and grammar: the rules, if you will. Contemporary poetry is implicit, which means you can get away with almost anything. Fiction, in my book at least, is explicit, requiring clarity and narrative if you want the reader to stick with you. Poems seek only to evoke a feeling. Could it be that my disillusionment with big publishing has released me from the straitjacket of achievement and freed me to luxuriate in the sense of accomplishment involved in mastering this skill for its own sake? Well, not entirely.

As much as I’m trying to embrace the idea of writing for writing’s sake, I confess that I’ve been submitting my poems to the plethora of Canadian literary journals in hopes of publication. It’s a time-consuming process that I doubt Billy Collins went through, or maybe he’s forgotten. More rules (and they vary from journal to journal): You may submit no more than four to eight poems at one time; only one submission per reading period, which occurs twice yearly for six weeks or so. The guidelines are very precise, requiring a letter of introduction (X words), a plot synopsis (Y words), the poems in Word or PDF format, one to a page, and a brief author’s bio (Z words) written in the third person. If you mess up in any way: automatic rejection. Would‑be contributors can expect to wait anywhere from six months to a year to learn the fate of the pearls they have laboured over. Fortunately, and in fairness, simultaneous submissions are generally allowed. Most journals use Submittable, a web-based management system to help authors and publishers keep track of things. It’s very useful if, like me and many, many others, you are sending out as many submissions as you possibly can on the theory that “flooding the zone with shit” (in the words of Steve Bannon) will improve your chances of publication. I’ve been at this for about a year now, so the rejections are beginning to arrive fast and furiously. They appear in my Submittable account as a curtly definitive “Declined.” Instead of feeling wounded, however, I have learned to celebrate the fact that a rejection means I can get right back on the poetry carousel and submit even more poems. It’s as easy as falling off a horse.

I don’t actually think I have much chance in this particular chicken raffle. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who decided a pandemic would be a good time to become a poet. We unknown newbies are competing against the legion of already published poets who are submitting their poems to the same journals in hopes of collecting $50 or $100 per piece and of seeing enough of their work in print so they can perhaps put out a thin collection — if they can find a publisher. They might then flog those little books to their creative writing students, who are the only people besides their mothers who are likely to buy them. It’s a crazy business, I know. But I can’t help myself. Vanity, thy name is author.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Frank Bascombe, the sometimes hapless protagonist in five of Richard Ford’s works of fiction. Bascombe, who is thirty-eight when we first meet him in The Sportswriter, enjoys early success with a short story collection, which makes him a lot of money when he sells the film rights. Then, while he is working on a novel, he is offered a job covering sports for a magazine, and he puts the book aside. When the magazine folds, Frank becomes a realtor, a career he pursues for the next twenty years, until prostate cancer pushes him into retirement.

Perhaps it’s projection on my part, but I believe Frank’s early success and his disappointment at failing to “make it” as a writer stay with him for the rest of his life. There’s a scene in the fourth Bascombe volume, Let Me Be Frank with You, where he, now sixty-eight, imagines describing himself to a stranger he is showing around his house: “I could’ve told her I’d gone to Michigan, have two children, an ex-wife and a current one, that I’d sold real estate here and at The Shore for twenty years, once wrote a book, served in an undistinguished fashion in the marines, and was born in Mississippi.” It’s those four words —“once wrote a book”— that stand out to me. Dropped as coyly as a scented ­handker­chief, they put things in perspective: a book, just another bump along the road of life. But not just any bump. I believe my fellow failed writers would understand this, even successful failed writers like Marche and Heighton.

I could have told you that I’d gone to Trent, that I have two children, an ex-husband and a current one, that I worked as an editor for magazines and newspapers for decades, once wrote a book, was fired twice, lived out west for a couple of years, and was born in Toronto. . . . Once wrote a book. When all is said and done, I’d like that to be my epitaph.

Cecily Ross is an editor, novelist, and poet in Creemore, Ontario.