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Are You Bored With The Default Poem?

In his 2007 book, How to Write a Poem (the book is much better than the title might suggest), John Redmond writes (p.17):

Many poems fall back on a simple lyric formula: an ‘I-persona’ describing its state of mind and feeling as though chatting with the reader across a coffee-table. Such poems might carry the invisible preface I am a poet and this is how I feel right now… There is nothing inherently wrong with writing a poem in the form of a personal statement, because there is nothing inherently wrong with writing a poem in any form. The popularity of the default mode, however, should not blind us to other possibilities.

I was thinking on whether many literary magazines tend to encourage the “default mode” by publishing such poems at the expense of those which take more risks. Of course, emerging writers are urged to read magazines before submitting poems, so that they send editors poems suitable for the publication. Are magazines therefore liable to perpetuate the publication of default-mode poetry?

However, what do you want? Do you prefer the ‘default mode’ for its immediacy and direct emotional involvement, or would you prefer to read more adventurous poems?

And how about writing? Are you writing default poems? And, if so, is this really a problem?

This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. The default mode has lost much of its emotional involvement because it is default, because we encounter it so much that it seems more like a stance than real engagement. I’d love to read a wider range of poems in Magma as well as in a number of other UK journals, poems that through their risk-taking and innovation engage the reader with not just heart but also intelligence.

  2. Seems tautological to me: the default mode is bad. By default. If someone writes a first person lyric that doesn’t sound like all the others, then it’s not default. I’m interested in reading strong poems and see no point in limiting the potential modes in which poems might be written. Magazines, by and large, reproduce the fashions of the day. They’re mostly irrelevant.


    I am a poet
    and this is how
    I feel right now.

    I feel sad
    at the thought
    that life is short.

    I feel angry
    about war
    and what it’s for.

    I feel bad
    about a love I lost,
    and also a bit cross.

    I feel happy
    the sun coming out.

    I feel another
    coffee coming on.
    Do you want one?

  4. This idea of the demon default poem (personal, lyrical, epiphanic, sentimental, linear, short, neat etc etc) has become a tiresome meme in the poetry world of recent years. It has some basis in truth of course, but is no more effective or progressive as a concept to pinpoint than ‘chopped-up prose’ was back when it was the, err, default moan, or that ‘ random, opaque nonsense’ is when used to take a potshot at anything in the experimental traditions.

    Those who rattle on about it are similar to people who will tell you that they ‘don’t suffer fools gladly’.

  5. Actually, I rather like the simplicity of Nick Asbury’s Default poem! Isn’t it more of a sin to write something that’s pretentious or doesn’t connect at all with human experience?

  6. I think Nick’s poem is quite funny!

    Some very interesting points being made here on both sides of the argument.

    It occurs to me that we all may have an individual default mode, the kind of poem we can write fairly easily, and it’s worth considering new strategies and approaches. Redmond, as I read him, isn’t really against personal, lyrical narrative poems as such. Obviously, good ones are still being written. He just wants people to use their personal material in more varied ways, to consider alternative possibilities before opting for their usual strategies.

  7. Sorry, obviously being a bit mischievous with that poem – couldn’t help reading the John Redmond piece as a challenge. I take his point about there being a default lyrical/confessional mode. If you ask any layperson to write a poem, that’s probably what they drift instinctively towards. Then again, many of our greatest poems are in the ‘default’ mode. So it’s clearly less about the mode and more about what you do with it.

  8. I found one of the most interesting documentations of the poem writing process, online at Esther Morgan’s website. Journey of a Poem, informs the reader in a clear, conscise and comprehensive way, the compositional method used to make a poem called The Legend of Appollo; which “was inspired by the Full Moon exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. The images in the exhibition were taken from the NASA archives of the Apollo missions; the artist had chosen the photographs that moved him most and then blew them up to a huge size to maximise their impact.


    In the Concrete church of my first learning, where Bob Cobbing and Charles Bernstein were two of the main prophetic influences upon us neophytes taking it all very seriously as nube students setting out into the unknown realm of, what one later learns is little more than, village life – many how-to-write books were on the reading lists, and to a one, I found they played no part in influencing what I was doing, in any real conscious way.

    The only how-to book that I read cover to cover engrossed, was Stephen Kings How To Write book, which he wrote as part of the occupational therapy he underwent after nearly being killed when struck by a juganaught as he was out taking his daily afternoon walk on a country road in Maine, where he writes his million sellers.

    The problem I had with the how-to poetry books, was that most are written in a default poetic tenor, ranging from crazee po-biz technicians at the cutting edge, jangling in a language resonant with wit-challenging syntax – through to lyric-normals whose language suggests the just so-ness of a petty plastic leftie, purporting connection and commune with the Byronic element, in language which belies their bourgeois credentials of the life-long middle class academic practicing in front of kids fresh out of secondary schoo. The primary audience for so many in the guild today. A shame.

    Especially in the crazier proofs, was the ever-present hint that what we are reading could all be a massive Conceptual enactment on the part of an author, in which irony and fooling the reader by filling them full of shit – is the primary purpose of the poetic exercise and challenge which results in some truly dire how-to guff being off-loaded onto po-biz nubes, seeking out who best to imitate as we stride forth into the veiled wood of poesis and music making.

    Not that i am any expert, i speak only as a consumer, with all the attendant minor and major grudges and gripes a life of failure is capable of singing: the middle anged wangst of an also ran – some days; other days when i can drag myself into believing the mind occupies some elevated plinth, on which the rare air of poetic success is momentarily present; comedic benevolence can impell the faux begrudgery and it is at these – very occasional – times i can forget the reality of my own standing, and view less angrily, what moves through our realm of light and love.

    The default poem; it seems is one we must share collectively, as one unspoken, for few dare name names, fess up the real thought on colleague X or Z’s prayers on the shelves being spun and sold as, not default but the best there is, in whatever culture claims us as its own.

    My own – very general – theory on poetic practice; is that it is a never ending ouroboros of one gen displacing the next, in a process of revolt ending in sameness, which begins with a few teens in uni doing their variation on the Goons and Python, tail-devourers too young to understand that, far from creating something truly new and original, we’re merely re-inventing what wheel has always spun, since time immemorial.

    After a several decades of being young, new, clever hopes on which to pin the dream we’re gonna beat Irish poets in the game of attaining the globally poetic gravity of their Group’s cadre – we turn into the George and Mildreds after a brief spell being radical changers ushering in the new same-as saminess the default lyric normal poetries, in which a world weary twenty five year old genius, living in an apartment in some anonymous composite midway anywheresville of contemporary England – goes hammer and tongue to make their mark as a groupie-assassin of Armitage, Cope, Duffy, Larkin. Name your poison, pick a name, any name and imitate.

    So reinventing the same old rig, the kids forget that John and Paul, Keith and Mick, had the gig bigger than any before who who came after: and the search for acceptable man poet status, always turns into Athur Seaton and Jack Regan, Sweeneys astray, the warrior bands of graduate bards, narrator’s eye all ennui and longueur premise demanding attention on the strength of some off-scene coolness it is assumed we the reader buy into, just because of the name on the spine of the slim collections stuffing our shelves, as much – if not more – tactical how-to guides than bibles bestowing us the creed of ancients.

    Take no notice of me, I am only dreaming and being bitter about the scene: or rather, the narrator is – who is not me the real person, Kevin the drippy bore hiding behind his mother’s maiden name, using father’s for my first. No, this is detached lie telling in order to grain some truth, and it has failed, as all things ultimately do, on a cosmic scale, where all our poems, default or the best ever written, will be forgotten and not live beyond a few centuries unless we are Christ or Pliny. I dunno, it’s all madness, poetry, isn’t it?

  9. Challenging yourself to go beyond your comfort zone has got to be a good thing for anyone engaged in writing. I’m sure most of us know what it’s like to stay in the areas that are most familiar to us and inadvertently producing ghosts or faint parodies of our previous work. We need ambition. Often, working with material that we are afraid of results in the most exciting poetry whether it pushes the boundaries of form or emotional boundaries, or both, and of course form and content work in synergy anyway. The kind of poem that is ‘default’ for one person might be very ‘adventurous’ for another. Some poets might find that writing a direct confessional poem is a big challenge and that very challenge is what gives the work its potency for the reader. Others might find that working in a more ‘experimental’ way is their way of developing beyond their own patterns and routines. There is no blanket definition in my mind for a poem that ‘takes more risks’ but I know it when I experience it, and it can take many shapes.

  10. I’d be more impressed by John Redmond if he made better sense. He writes “There is nothing inherently wrong with writing a poem in the form of a personal statement, because there is nothing inherently wrong with writing a poem in any form”. But anyone who’s serious about poetry uses ‘form’ to mean the way it’s written – quatrain, terza rima, free verse, etc – not what it’s about (“a personal statement”). Someone who writes as sloppily as this seems unlikely to help people write good poetry.

    I think Nick Asbury’s poem is a brilliant response to John Redmond’s pomposity and I agree with Roddy Lumsden and Zachariah Wells. As they say, there’s something both sneering and meaningless about calling a first person lyric about a personal experience a ‘default poem’.

    Every poet starts by writing about their personal experience and it takes a lot of dedication, and usually help, to move beyond this to the “risk-taking and
    innovation” that Carrie Etter seeks. Poets like Rimbaud, who appeared fully formed as a radical poet in his teens (and was burnt out as a poet in five years), are very rare. Even Blake started off writing dull conventional poems till he worked out how to express is radical ideas in radical forms.

    I guess poets learn to ‘make it new’ by reading other poets who have been successful at “risk-taking and innovation”; by learning all the available poetic forms and modernist techniques like juxtaposition instead of narrative links, shifts of tine, playing of content against form, etc; and by trying again and again till it comes right. It certainly isn’t easy.

  11. When a poem essentially follows the same form every time (Neil Asbury’s poem is uncannily accurate about a lot of the poems one reads in magazines) then it has become a kind of form, even if technically it isn’t.

    “Making it new” is surely a good way to go for all poets.

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