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SIXTEEN DON'TS FOR POETS
Written by: ARTHUR GUITERMAN
Arthur Guiterman has been called the Owen Seaman of America. Of course he isn't, any more than Owen Seaman is the Arthur Guiterman of England. But the verse which brings Arthur Guiterman his daily bread is turned no less deftly than is that of Punch's famous editor. Arthur Guiterman is not a humorist who writes verse; he is a poet with an abundant gift of humor.
Now, the author of The Antiseptic Baby and the Prophylactic Pup and The Quest of the Riband, and of those unforgetable rhymed reviews, differs from most other poets not only in possessing an abnormally developed sense of humor, but also in being able to make a comfortable living out of the sale of his verse. But when he talked to me recently he was by no means inclined to advise146 all able young poets to expect their poetry to provide them with board and lodging.
"Of course it is possible to make a living out of verse," he said. "Walt Mason does, and so does Berton Braley. And now most of my income comes from my verse. Formerly I wrote short stories, but I haven't written one for seven or eight years.
"Nevertheless, I think it is inadvisable for any one to set out with the idea of depending on the sale of verse as a means of livelihood. You see, there are, after all, two forms, and only two forms, of literary expression—the prose form and the verse form. Some subjects suit the prose form, others suit the verse form. Any one who makes writing his profession has ideas severally adapted to both of these forms. And every writer should be able to express his idea in whichever of these two forms suits it better.
"Now, the verse form is older than the prose form. And so I have come to look upon it as the form peculiarly attractive to youth. Many writers outgrew the tendency to use the verse form, but some never outgrew it. Sir Walter Scott was a verse-writer before he was a prose-writer, and so was Shakespeare. So were many147 modern writers—Robert W. Chambers, for example.
"This theory is true especially in regard to lyric verse. The lyric is nearly always the work of a young man. As a man grows older he sings less and preaches more. Certainly this was true of Milton.
"I never thought that I should write verse for a living. But verse happens to be the medium that I love. I ran across my first poem the other day—it was about fireflies, and I was eight years old when I wrote it. Certainly nearly all writers write verse before they write prose; perhaps it is atavistic. I don't know that Henry James began with verse. But I would be willing to bet that he did.
"One trouble with a great many people who make a living out of writing verse is that they feel obliged always to be verse-writers, never to write prose, even when the subject demands that medium. Alfred Noyes gives us an example of this unfortunate tendency in his Drake. I am not disparaging Alfred Noyes's work; he has written charming lyrics, but in Drake, and perhaps in some of the Tales from the Mermaid Tavern, I feel that he has written verse not because148the subject was especially suited to that medium, but because he felt that he was a verse-writer and therefore should not write prose."
Mr. Guiterman is firmly convinced, however, that a verse-writer ought to be able, in time, to make a living out of his work.
"If a man calls himself a writer," he said, "he ought to be able to make a living out of writing. And I think that the writer of verse has a greater opportunity to-day than ever before. I don't mean to say that the appreciation of poetry is more intense than ever before, but it is more general. More people are reading poetry now than in bygone generations.
"Compare with the traditions that we have to-day those of the early nineteenth century, of the time of Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Then books of verse sold in large quantities, it is true, but to a relatively small public, to one class of readers. Now not only the poet, but also the verse-writer has an enormous public. If a really great poet should arise to-day he would find awaiting him a larger public than that known by any poet of the past. But it would be necessary for the poet to be great for him to find this public. Byron would be more generally appreciated to-day, if149 he were to live again, than he was in his own generation. I mention Byron because I think it probable that the next great poet will have something of Byron's dynamic quality."
"Who was the last great poet?" I asked.
"How is one to decide whether or not a poet is great?" asked Mr. Guiterman in turn. "My own feeling is that the late William Vaughn Moody was a great poet in the making. Perhaps he never really fulfilled his early promise; perhaps he went back to the themes of bygone ages too much in finding themes for his poetry. It may be that the next really great poet will sing an entirely different strain; it may be that I will be one of those who will say that his work is all bosh.
"But at any rate, he won't be an imitation Whitman or anything of that sort. He won't be any special school, nor will he think that he is founding a school. But it may be that his admirers will found a school with him as its leader, and they may force him to take himself seriously, and thus ruin himself."
Returning to the subject of the advisability of a writer being able to express himself in verse as well as in prose, Mr. Guiterman said:
"Especially in our generation is it true that150 good verse requires extreme condensation. In most work to-day brevity is desirable. The epigram beats the epic. If Milton were living to-day he would not write epics. I don't think it improbable that we have men with Miltonic minds, and they are not writing epics.
"If a man finds that he cannot express his idea in verse more forcefully than he can in prose, then he ought to write prose. Very often a writer is interested in some little incident which he would not be justified in treating in prose, something too slight to be the theme of a short story. This is the sort of thing which he should put into verse. There is Leigh Hunt's Jennie Kissed Me, for example. Suppose he had made a short story of it."
Thinking of this poet's financial success, I asked him just what course he would advise a young poet to pursue who had no means of livelihood except writing.
"Well, the worst thing for him to do," said Mr. Guiterman, "would be to devote all his attention to writing an epic. He'd starve to death.
"I suppose the best thing for him to do would be to write on as many subjects as possible, including those of intense interest to himself. What151 interests him intensely is sure to interest others, and the number of others whom it interests will depend on how close he is by nature to the mind of his place and time. He should get some sort of regular work so that he need not depend at first upon the sale of his writings. This work need not necessarily be literary in character, although it would be advisable for him to get employment in a magazine or newspaper office, so that he may get in touch with the conditions governing the sale of manuscripts.
"He should write on themes suggested by the day's news. He should write topical verse; if there is a political campaign on, he should write verse bearing upon that; if a great catastrophe occurs, he should write about that, but he must not write on these subjects in a commonplace manner.
"He should send his verses to the daily papers, for they are the publications most interested in topical verse. But also he should attempt to sell his work to the magazines, which pay better prices than the newspapers. If it is in him to do so, he should write humorous verse, for there is always a good market for humorous verse that is worth printing. He should look up the publishers152 of holiday cards, and submit to them Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter verses, for which he would receive, probably, about five dollars apiece. He should write advertising verses, and he should, perhaps, make an alliance with some artist with whom he can work, each supplementing the work of the other."
"Mr. Guiterman," I said, "is this the advice that you would give to John Keats if he were to ask you?"
"Yes, certainly," said Mr. Guiterman. "But you understand that our hypothetical poet must all the time be doing his own work, writing the sort of verse which he specially desires to write. If his pot-boiling is honestly done, it will help him with his other work.
"He must study the needs and limitations of the various publications. He must recognize the fact that just because he has certain powers it does not follow that everything he writes will be desired by the editors. Marked ability and market ability are different propositions.
"If he finds that the magazines are not printing sad sonnets, he must not write sad sonnets. He must adapt himself to the demands of the day.
"There is high precedent for this course. You153 asked if I would give this advice to the young Keats. Why not, when Shakespeare himself followed the line of action of which I spoke? He began as a lyric poet, a writer of sonnets. He wrote plays because he saw that the demand was for plays, and because he wanted to make a living and more than a living. But because he was Shakespeare his plays are what they are.
"The poet must be influenced by the demand. There is inspiration in the demand. Besides the material reward, the poet who is influenced by the demand has the encouraging, inspiring knowledge that he is writing something that people want to read."
I asked Mr. Guiterman to give me a list of negative commandments for the guidance of aspiring poets. Here it is:
"Don't think of yourself as a poet, and don't dress the part.
"Don't classify yourself as a member of any special school or group.
"Don't call your quarters a garret or a studio.
"Don't frequent exclusively the company of writers.
"Don't think of any class of work that you feel moved to do as either beneath you or above you.154
"Don't complain of lack of appreciation. (In the long run no really good published work can escape appreciation.)
"Don't think you are entitled to any special rights, privileges, and immunities as a literary person, or have any more reason to consider your possible lack of fame a grievance against the world than has any shipping-clerk or traveling-salesman.
"Don't speak of poetic license or believe that there is any such thing.
"Don't tolerate in your own work any flaws in rhythm, rhyme, melody, or grammar.
"Don't use 'e'er' for 'ever,' 'o'er' for 'over,' 'whenas' or 'what time' for 'when,' or any of the 'poetical' commonplaces of the past.
"Don't say 'did go' for 'went,' even if you need an extra syllable.
"Don't omit articles or prepositions for the sake of the rhythm.
"Don't have your book published at your own expense by any house that makes a practice of publishing at the author's expense.
"Don't write poems about unborn babies.
"Don't—don't write hymns to the great god Pan. He is dead; let him rest in peace!
"Don't write what everybody else is writing."