Ramblin’ Man

One of the best things (for me) about writing this weekly drivel is that it serves as an external memory. Most of them are stored in my email, so I can go back more than 20 years and read things I’ve long forgotten. Anything interesting that happened in my life, and a lot of things that are not so interesting, are preserved.

And, on a week like this, I can pull out an old one and resubmit it. I figure if I don’t remember it, you probably don’t, either. This one was from 2005.

I had to burst my daughter’s bubble last week. I hated to do it, but it had to be done.

I brought in the mail and noticed an envelope from a national poetry contest and anthology. It’s been many years since I’ve tried to write any serious poetry, but because I subscribe to magazines that cater to writers and journalists, I sometimes find myself on such mailing lists.

This one was different. It was addressed to my daughter.

The outside of the envelope proclaimed her to be a winner, which, of course, she is. But clue No. 1 is, when the envelope is preprinted with the word “winner,” pretty much everyone wins.

In a plastic-covered window on the face of the envelope was a poem that my daughter had written. I recognized the poem because she had shown it to me months ago, but I didn’t know she had submitted it to a contest. My daughter, by the way, is 12.

It’s a good poem. It has some insightful lines, some clever construction. It has a repetitive theme that’s supported by argument. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. If I was her teacher, I would grade it well because good grades, like winning a contest, can encourage a person to keep writing.

But it’s not a poem for the ages. It lacks cadence, meter and staying power, and it was full of spelling, typographical and grammatical errors. Telling your daughter that her good poem is not a great poem is like telling her that her puppy is dead.

“Oh, thanks, Dad!” she huffed. “Just ruin my good day!”

But the quality of the poem is not what’s at issue. It’s the quality of the contest.

She showed me the contest letter after she had opened the envelope. “See here where it says every poem is carefully read for consideration?” I asked her. Then I pointed out several spelling and punctuation errors. “How closely do you think they read it?”

I explained that these places accept virtually all the poems they receive unless the poem is offensive. Then they send you a congratulatory letter saying they’ll publish your poem. Then they ask you to buy the book. And the books are never cheap. They’re like $50.

“But I want the book,” she said.

“That’s what they’re counting on,” I said.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there’s a romanticism to being published. And writing is so subjective that anyone can do it. It’s not like you can measure it. If you design a house, there are certain rules that must be followed or the house won’t stay standing, but you can pretty much mix words in a blender and have them published — as long as you’re willing to pay the printer.

We agreed that she could continue with the poetry contest but that we were not buying the book. If the poem is good enough, it will win, and then they’ll send us a book.

And if it’s really good, Dad will quit his job and become her manager.

I don’t want to stifle Laura’s creativity, but it’s sad to see companies prey on people’s sensitivities. Of course, we all fall victim to that game.

Who hasn’t bought a product to make himself look better or feel better or be more popular? I’m sure I could fill a dumpster with those. At least in our dumpster, there won’t be any $50 poetry books.

© Copyright 2005 by David Porter who can be reached at porter@ramblinman.us. How do I know they would try to sell us a book? Because I won the same contest when I was 15.