19 December 2005

A plea to would-be poets

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

PyroManiac devotes Monday space to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive.

Among all the things I love about Charles Spurgeon, the impishness that occasionally surfaced in his sense of humor has to rank somewhere near the top of the list.

Spurgeon personally made many of the editorial decisions and wrote most of the lead articles for his famous magazine, The Sword and the Trowel.

Trust me, that's a job you don't want.

I'm mainly a book editor, and that's bad enough. But I've also been involved with the editorial process on a few magazines over the years, and it's not a fun job. The unremitting deadlines and perennial creative pressure will literally take years off your life.

One of the inevitable, never-ending annoyances for any magazine editor is the difficulty of dealing with someone who fancies himself a great writer or gifted poet and wants you to publish his work. "And if you won't publish it, will you please help me get it published. I'm eager to hear your thoughts about my work and am open to any suggestions you might have."

I've received countless letters just like that from all kinds of ballad-mongers. But I have yet to meet the aspiring poet who is really eager to hear an editor's thoughts or truly open to any editorial suggestions.

I sometimes think the church is full of amateur poets who write the cheesiest doggerel and are honestly convinced it's high art. My advice to young editors: Don't try telling them their poetry is bad—especially if you're not a great poet yourself. To them, the reason you don't recognize the genius of their versification is all too obvious: you're just a Philistine when it comes to such matters.

Spurgeon had people like that sending him twaddle, too—including one guy who offered to supply entire devotional articles for The Sword and the Trowel written completely in "blank verse" (which is supposed to be rhythmic but unrhyming lines, usually written in iambic pentameter). This particular bard felt blank verse was the perfect vehicle for Spurgeon's readers, and he was just the poet/theologian to write it for Spurgeon's magazine.

Spurgeon was unimpressed. He published the following brief item in the July 1884 issue of The Sword and the Trowel:

Where Not to Send Poems or Blank Verse

"BLANK VERSE was first written in the modern languages in 1508, by Trissine." We do not know the gentleman, and do not wish to make his acquaintance. He lived a very long time ago, and it might have been as well had he never lived at all.

We have seen a vast deal of very blank verse in our time, and feel no kind of gratitude to its inventor for having brought upon us this infliction. Oh, poetic brother, do try your hand at prose! You will be prosy enough then; but now you string together your long lines of nonsense, with such an absence of all thought, that you are altogether unbearable.

We once saw an advertisement of a sermon in blank verse: we did not go to hear it, and the good man is since dead. We believe his discourse was dead long before. He has not sold the good-will of the poetical discourse business, and so there is no successor in the blank-verse-sermon line. Quite as well! Pulpits are dull enough without this last ounce of aggravation.

Milton and Thomson, Young and Cowper, we can all rejoice in; but your ordinary imitator of these sweet singers is blank as blankness itself. When the dear man feels that he must cover reams of paper with his effervescences, we have not the remotest objection to his doing so: it may be good for the paper-trade and good for himself; BUT, with the utmost vehemence of our outraged nature, we entreat him not to send his manuscripts to us, that we may pass our opinion upon them, and introduce them to a publisher.

This is one of our afflictions, and by no means a light one. The quantity of time it takes to answer poets we dare not attempt to calculate. Moreover, there is the solemn responsibility of having such jewels to take care of. We do not feet worthy to have the charge of such priceless treasures. Burglars might run off with them, rats might eat them, our Mary might either sell them to the waste-paper man, or they might even drop into


C. H. Spurgeon

Phil's signature


Steve said...

As an editor myself, Spurgeon's delightful humor about this particular "affliction" brought a huge grin across my face. I will have to share this with my fellow editors.

As for the deadlines and pressures that take years off one's life...I'll testify to that. And it gets worse when good friends and your church asks for your writing/editing skills toward good causes (you know about that, don't you, Phil?). Right now I'm in the midst of a "perfect storm" in which four major writing/editing projects, all from different sources, are due January 1. If I'm still awake at midnight on New Year's Eve, it won't be because I'm celebrating.

Matthew said...

Hey Phil, whattya think of my poetry?

Rob Steele said...

Ah, this will be the perfect venue in which to share with the world my masterpiece:

There once was a nation called France /
that became such a pain in the pants /
that she lay down supine /
with Sadam's rapine /
all for the sake of finance

pgepps said...

There lived once an editor, Spurgeon,
Whose style had more mason than surgeon,
From the pulpit he'd growl,
Then he'd pen Sword and Trowel,
So Phil Johnson's collection could burgeon.

When Keats set out to write an epic tale,
He found himself unable to complete
The work he'd dreamed and planned; and so he blamed
Immortal Milton, whose inverted style
Had twisted all his syntax into knots.

Should Phil dislike this doggerel
I wrote with tongue in cheek,
Well, that's OK--his expertise
Is in a different field.

Yeah, it's pretty poor stuff, but the language is fun to play with. You should read Poe's criticisms of 19th-C versifiers, BTW, if you haven't--great, scathing stuff.


Kay said...

Sooo happy to read someone explaining that blank verse is not just purple prose arranged in verses...

Away From The Brink said...

These signs

We gladly


To men who've had

No date of late


Away From The Brink said...

Roses are Red

Violets are Blue

I'm Schizophrenic

And so am I

candy said...

I used to go to poetry readings. The worst one I attended had a guy, dressed in black, who recited the world's longest and terribly written poem about vampires. It didn't near the mark of mediocre.

Jeri said...

My senior year at a Christian college, I hung out with the poetry crowd. Anyway, I tried to. They were always pulling huge wads of doggerel out of their coat pockets "to get my opinion," which they assumed would contain a lot of praise. Then my own sister, inspired by Jack Hyles and his horrible homespun poetry that he would read from the pulpit, went through a phase where she was writing poems with titles like "My Mother's Kitchen Counter."

The best poem I ever turned out went something like this:

They asked me how I knew
That white beans stick like glue.
I say this as I close,
What none will dare oppose:
There's one jammed up my nose.

Later, when I worked as novel coordinator for a small publishing house, I learned pretty quickly that honestly telling hopeful young writers how to fix their stuff is seldom worth the time. The only way a mediocre writer like me ever got books published was because better writers were too sensitive to necessary criticism. Never underestimate the power of doggedly revising! That's my motto. It got me published.

That being said, Spurgeon may be too harsh here. People dream of being firefighters, astronauts, actors, and writers. But if you dream of being a writer, all you have to do is put pen to paper to live your dream. That's a lot easier than rushing into a burning building or launching yourself into space!

Yet even the best writers have to start somewhere, and a good editor can turn around many unpromising "starters" and help them improve their craft. But the key to good writing, like the key to good skill at anything, is lots of hard work and something to say beyond "please publish me!"

Kim from Hiraeth said...

Gotta love Spurgeon!

This quote came to mind this morning when reading your Monday post:

"If you knew all the mischievous things I think about but never actually say, you would offer me hearty congratulations for my restraint."

Jacob Hantla said...

O the wonders of the blogosphere. Now self-fancied writers and poets with little skill (like me) can just go out and publish ourselves.

Tim Challies said...

In my somewhat limited experience I have found that many would-be poets employ the tactic that in the evangelical world is supposed to be a slam dunk.

"God gave me a poem and I would be honored if you would publish it for me." It's irrefutable because they didn't write the poem - God did. You know, because God often writes second or third rate poetry...

Neil said...

Dear Mr. Johnson,
God gave me a poem, and I would be honoured if you would examine it. I'm eager to hear your thoughts about my work and am open to any suggestions you might have.

Momo said...


You have offered some pretty good criticism of some drivel from my keyboard before and it was all appreciated. But, hey, I had several years training in how to take a licking and keep on ticking.


I don't know about others, but with me if it is a well-written slam, it is well-received. I have a deep appreciation for things like that.

Personally, if I were that guy Spurgeon was writing about I would have been flattered that I at least merited some funny commentary in that periodical. LOL

Dustin said...

To be honest, I think I'm a terrible poet, but I just can't stop thinking in rhyme. I just do what everyone else who can't write does, put my stuff on the internet.

As an old English teacher once said: "Blank verse is just an excuse for people to express their ideas without having to make complete sentences or paragraphs. Heaven forbid that they actually take the time to learn how to punctuate."

Matthew said...

Um...do some of you not understand the difference between blank verse and free verse? :-)

Warren Pearson said...

rob steele

I hope your dirty little school boy rhyme gets rule 2'ed along with this comment.

ResponsiveReader said...

I tried to write a witty line
Spugeonically to thank
Phil Johnson for this timely blog
But both mind and line were blank

Rob Steele said...

Warren, it's not a dirty little school boy rhyme, it's a dirty old man rhyme. Best, R

Sharon said...

Working in the music department of a church, we get people sending us volumes of poorly written music and/or lyrics, claiming that "God gave me this song, and I'm giving it to you to use in your church service." No publisher with any sense would touch it.

Most of the time, we feel like saying, "God may have given you this song, but the devil made you write it down!"

FX Turk said...

Hey: if nobody wants to publish your poetry, open a blog and publish it yourself. And for the sake of honesty and self-awareness, leave the comments open. And don't edit them -- let all-comers tell you what they think. If you are so sure that you are a great voice of our age, face the critics.

And send me a link. I'll link to you in my blog, and then my blog-readers will come and read your poetry and tell you what we think.

At that point, you will have a very interesting choice: do you believe what people tell you about what you have written, or do you have faith in your internal dialog as it relates to the world of other minds? You can choose very clearly from there.

FX Turk said...

Phil --

I just wanted to thank you, btw, for now giving me an endless supply of fodder for my blog. I cannot wait for the undiscovered talent out there to send me links to their poetry for critic appraisal.

"But wait," comes from the patched-elbow sport coat holding a latte, "yo're just going to make fun of my poems no matter how good they are. You're a jerk, and I'm not going to send you my art because you will treat it like trash."

To those who think that, let me ask you: if your poetry turns out to be the 21st century equivalent of "The Emperor of Ice Cream" or the Shakespearean sonnets and I crack wise upon them, what does that say about me? OK: so I have as much on the line as you do. The last thing I want to be known as is the idiot who made fun of the 2006 version of Wallace Stevens or Bill Shakespeare -- that's be a pretty bad way to make the history books.

Put your meter where your mouth is, folks. Bring it. It's the holiday season and we could all use a few smiles.

FX Turk said...

Sharon --

AnonyWriter: "God gave me this song, and I want to share it with you."

Cent: "Dude -- did you ever think that God gave it to you because He didn't want it anymore?"

(I can't take credit for that, btw -- that's a joke Caroline Arens tells about people giving her lyrics, and it makes me laugh every time I think of it)

Neil said...

Cent, bring it on baby, you know where I live.

Sharon, are you sure you're not really my wife in disguise? Your criticism sounds eerily familiar.

But very seriously, we're called on to make a joyful noise to the Lord. And if we are singing or composing to and for the Lord, then he will enjoy our praise. If we're doing it for our own glory, or just to "get published" then that's a whole other story.

And just because it brings enjoyment to our Father, that doesn't mean that anyone else will enjoy it...

Jeri said...


You have offered some pretty good criticism of some drivel from my keyboard before and it was all appreciated. But, hey, I had several years training in how to take a licking and keep on ticking.

Thank you James! I think anybody who wants to communicate the grace of God is ready to "take a licking" in order to get their work into finished form. Maybe someday I will tap on your door and ask for a critique. Then it's payback time!


NPE said...

Did Spurgeon write any Haikus?

He could write one about the "Question Oak".

AR said...

If nothing else, forcing oneself to adhere to the rules of grammar and of a poetic form at the same time will do for one's writing what acrobatics does for one's walking.

And I've discovered the one market for struggling young lyricists: struggling young musical composers. Just thought I'd give y'
all a kindly hint.

AR said...

P.S. They don't pay much, though.

Matthew Self said...

I love stories about curmudgeonly editors. I've known many in my time, and they are always looking for a warm fuzzy feeling to roast. It's a blast to watch.

My favorite curmudgeonly editor story centers on former NY Times arts editor George S. Kaufman. A publicist was contacting Kaufman daily attempting to promote his young new female client. After repeated failed attempts, the publicist moaned, "How can I get her name in the paper?"

"Shoot her," Kaufmann replied.

Kaufman also wrote journalism's all-time greatest lede in his review of the debut of tenor Guido Nazo:

"Guido Nazo is Nazo Guido."

wordsmith said...

"Spurgeon had people like that sending him twaddle, too..."

Phil, in your expert opinion, which is worse: twaddle, drivel, or pap? I'm just wondering if there is a qualitative difference :)

pgepps said...


Yeah, there have been some fairly incoherent remarks on the subject of "blank verse," here. For those who need samples, my first sample had:

1) a limerick
2) five lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter (BLANK verse)
3) two verses (one quatrain) of fourteener (think "Amazing Grace")
4) a short clump of prose. Had I broken it into lines, it would be free verse, as thus:

a short
of prose. Had I broken
it into lines, it would be
as thus:

You get the point.

BTW, despite the digs at wannabes over at my site, I would point out that most of us pass through a "wannabe" phase somewhere or other. The trick is to make "wannabe" and "has-been" as low a percentage of one's life as possible, and to that end a dig from others is helpful now and then.

And I'll leave you with Pope:

'Tis hard to know, if greater want of Skill
Pertain to writing, or to judging ill.


John R. said...

I've taken my stumbling attempts at poetry for Christian school plays and posted them on a blog. That bypasses the need for some sort of affirmation of an editor. The commentors at the site just sit back and yuck it up. Fine by me. I don't fancy myself to be much of a writer anyway.

Long live the blogosphere. Now, where was the water closet?


Violet N. said...

So, editor Phil, what do you think of these poems? (And I'm NOT asking you to publish them -- we're doing well on our own, thank you very much!)