Just add originality.


It seems that recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the literary blogosphere about “overdone ideas” — topics that keep on popping up in poems and novels to the point where it all becomes rather same-y. Rob A Mackenzie recently wrote an article for Magma entitled “Are you bored with the default poem?” (The default poem is, according to critic John Redmond, “an ‘I-persona’ describing its state of mind and feeling as though chatting with the reader across a coffee-table.” Think of pretty much any poem by Billy Collins, and you get the gist.) The Rejectionist also recently posted a list of ideas for novels which “require some effort” to do well. (If you’re wondering what I’m on about, read it. You’ll know exactly what they mean.)

All this — and another blogpost (which I won’t link) in which a rejected writer gets personal about an editor who objected to the clichéd subject matter of their poem — got me thinking… are there some topics in poetry which, if we want them to impress, need extra legwork? I’d never go so far as to say there are topics which should be avoided because they’re “clichéd”… but are there subjects that require extra originality in order to catch an editor’s eye? I think there are. As an editor myself I can tell you that when you get to the 99th poem about X fashionable topic, it does start to grate. It’s not that you don’t want to see a poem on that subject ever again… in fact, what you really, really want is for someone to come along and write about that subject in a way that’s mind-blowingly original, rather than just saying what everyone else is saying. So what are the trendy topics du jour? What do you need to invest a bit more time in in order to pull it off? Here are my thoughts…

Bird poems.
Bird poems are so common that they’ve even become a little bit of a joke, I think… and yet dozens of them land in Read This‘ inbox every month. Thanks to Ted Hughes, Wallace Stevens and Edgar Allen Poe, crows, blackbirds and ravens are particularly popular, followed closely by rooks, jackdaws, pigeons and magpies. You’re all totally correct, birds are absolutely awesome… but for the sake of originality you might want to avoid giving them human voices, human characteristics, or going for the ‘birds are like the thoughts of trees’ analogy.

Reworkings of fairy tales.
I strongly believe that we have Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife to thank for this particular trend… or perhaps it was Shrek, who knows? All I know for certain is this is something that’s done a hell of a lot, and sadly, 99% of the time it’s done badly, or there’s just no originality there. Cinderella from the point of view of the misunderstood Stepmother? Snow White as a hilarious dwarf orgy? Rapunzel as a metaphor for a downtrodden wife in a present-day high rise? Sorry, they’ve all been done. That doesn’t mean they can’t be done again… they just need to be done really, really well.

Odes to Sylvia Plath.
Can you think of any other poet who polarizes opinion quite like Sylvia? Maybe Charles Bukowski. Basically, she’s a marmite poet… you love her or you hate her, no middle ground. But one thing unites both the Plath fanclub and Sylvia’s greatest critics: they all like to write poems about her, for her, to her, from her point of view etc etc etc.
I can’t count the number of submissions I’ve seen to Read This which were essentially one reader’s love letter to this tragic lady… and there are nearly as many “I hope you rot in hell, Sylvia Plath!”-style offerings out there. The vast majority of them seem to use/borrow/steal her “I eat men like air” line in some way. Beware the ghost of Sylvia, people!

“You and me” poems.
Incredibly common among just-starting-out writers… the RT editorial team also refer to “you and me” poems as “therapy poems,” as they generally seem to have been written in an attempt to exorcise an emotional demon or two. We call them “you and me” poems, because they generally consist of a first-person narrative voice (the “me”) speaking to a nameless second person (the “you”) about a happening or issue into which the reader has absolutely no insight whatsoever. These poems often include lines like “how dare you?”, or “if only you knew…”
Please don’t start thinking that you can’t use “you” or “me” in your poems now… but please, if you’re going to give a poem to other people to read, don’t make it so insular that we have no idea what’s going on! Who are you? Who is this person you’re lecturing? What the hell happened? Show me!

“Poems about what it is to write a poem, or worse, what it is NOT to be able to write one.”
The above is a snippet from Ambit’s list of stuff they really don’t want to be sent, and I agree… writing a poem that essentially says “HERE I AM WRITING A POEM” or “shit, I can’t write anything, I have writer’s block, doesn’t that suck?” generally leave me cold. There’s nothing worse than the aren’t-I-clever-ness of a poem that begins “I pick up my pen to write a poem…” and ends “I put down my pen and I’ve written a poem!”, with a blow-by-blow account of the composing of this work of genius in between. Billy Collins (king of the “default” poem!) did that already, and chances are, he did it with more humour. Basically, if you can’t think of anything better to write about than “look, I’m writing a poem,” then you probably need to get out more.

What do you think? Is it difficult to write on an ‘overdone’ subject, or does it just make it easier to stand out? Are there other subjects like this that need extra work in order to catch the eye? Or am I wrong? You know where the comments box is!

(Photo courtesy of Faber Books)

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15 Responses to “Just add originality.”

  1. Rachel Fox Says:

    That’s the part of the whole challenge isn’t it? Trying to write well about something (anything!) that has been written about a few times well and a million times badly! Love, for example, the most overused subject for poems and yet….there can still be great surprising love poems. Of course there can.

    The Sylvia bit made me laugh. I have never been much of a reader of hers and have certainly not written poems about (or to) her. However this week she turned up in a nightclub toilet in one of mine. I didn’t invite her…she just barged her way in. Bloody poets.

    x

  2. Rachel Fox Says:

    Extra ‘the’ in the beginning there. More challenges…
    x

  3. Matt Says:

    I have to admit there are some topics that, when I started reading them, I think to myself in a knee-jerk-reaction way, “this poet is just trying to be fashionable and write what others are writing,” and I dislike them for it … Anybody writing stuff just because they think it’s what people want are shabby poets in my opinion. To that list, I’d also add the modernizing of Greek tales and characters … Oedipus living in the flat upstairs, etc … Maybe that can be lumped together with “fairytales”? I can’t read poems that are too heavily emotive either, at least not in a sappy “this is what I FEEL why don’t you understand?” way.

  4. Weston you-know-the-rest Says:

    Seen any of these in the next issue of RT submissions?
    One that isn’t overdone- zombies. ‘Cause it can’t be done.

  5. Matt Says:

    … sounds like a challenge to me!

  6. Weston you-know-the-rest Says:

    Well. Go ahead, then! It is a challenge!

  7. Regina Says:

    Teen-age angst is one that really gets me… I suppose that’s “unrequited love” in general… ;)

    A really great post, Claire- I suppose I am guilty of writing some of these myself… reading Mary Oliver or Jane Kenyon can really get me in a tizzy, but no one can write like them…
    :)
    x

  8. Mairi Sharratt Says:

    I am always worried that I am writing in a cliched way, or on a cliched subject. I think I spend more time worrying about that than anything else. Was interesting to see you list.

    Why do people write about birds? My husband is a twitcher, and honestly, if I have to have another conversation about how the common gull is really “amazing” I might have to throttle him.

    Mairi

  9. Aditi Says:

    I have a blog post about this somewhere: another kind of overdone poem is one that describes a mundane situation — say, a man toiling away at his boring desk job — and then elevates this uninteresting bit of information written in uninteresting language by naming the man Sisyphus.

    By all means, use mythology. It’s a great source of material for all kinds of writing, just make sure that writing isn’t trite, boring, unimaginative or worse, mediocre.

    Indian poets have the habit of writing poems about the wedding night, particularly in arranged marriage situations. I can imagine how brutal such a night might be for a girl who doesn’t want to get married/doesn’t want to get married to the particular man chosen for her, but some cheaply written melodrama is not going to do anything for the reader or that poor girl.

  10. Aditi Says:

    Let me qualify that and say ‘amateur Indian poets.’

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