The Courage of a Young Poet

There is more to books than the words we read. As aspiring poets and avid readers, we often miss this. There is, of course, the paper, ink, cover art, binding, and all the other things that go into the business side of publication and getting books sold. But next time you pick up a brand new book while wandering through your local bookstore, even a reprinting of an old classic, think about what really has gone into bringing together all of those pages, words, and ideas. What you’ll find, if you look hard enough, are years and years of effort and hard work. You’ll find years and years of rejection. What is most prevalent in those books, really everyone ever read, however, is determination.
Irish poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats used to comment on the courage it takes to explore the dark, mysterious region of the self and mind. He compared it to the courage that a soldier showed dying on a battle field. This was how serious he took his art form, as if he were marching into battle every time he took down an idea and opened himself up to let whatever inspiration he suddenly had come out. To me, this is the determination of the greats that we read, from local poets all the way to those inscribed into the western canon. For young writers who hope to someday be published, to have their works read, not necessarily at the same level as a Nobel Prize winner, but at least by those in their respective communities, this is the courage it takes to become something. Everyone, from the young poet sending in their first round of Master’s program applications, to the playwright opening up their final show in New York City, knows what a feat this really is.
For the young poet, there is an ever increasing amount of obstacles that come with pursuing their chosen career and educational paths. Working towards an undergraduate English degree, while very rewarding, is not the most practical path to choose. As mentioned by Kyle Austin in an article from this website, choosing an English degree is often considered a “dead end” for those entering the job market. Despite this association, however, there is still a large pool of competition for those studying and looking to advance in their education in writing and literature. For the young poet looking to get published, the pool becomes even more competitive, even in small non-profit publications. All of this has created the daunting task that gaining even the smallest amount of recognition has become.
What does all this mean for the young poet? Simply put, the aspiring poet must face this adversity with the same courage of those who have come before them. There is nothing more fear inspiring than having the realization that you have made a life decision that may only bring unpaid bills, loneliness, and uncertainty. Years of rejection are sure to bring a deep feeling of despair. Recognition and publication have always been hard to come by for writers, but perseverance and patience is always equally present. The poet and fiction writer Raymond Carver, best known for reenergizing the short story form, didn’t have his first major publication, the collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, until he was thirty-eight years old. He went on to later publish several highly acclaimed collections of fiction and poetry. Not only can you come to great inspiration through the beauty of a writer's words, but you can also find it in the shear will it takes for the work to reach your hands. Building this will is what the young poet needs most.
Thankfully, there are a wide variety of opportunities today for those after a career in writing. Although it has already been mentioned that studying English or Writing as an undergrad isn’t always seen as a choice with great possibility, these disciplines help develop the close reading skills that poets need to effectively study their craft. Of course, perhaps most importantly, these types of programs require a great deal of writing, both creative and critical, which only hastens the development of individual development. They also give the focus and practice in continuous writing and rewriting that all writers develop. One may finish a degree and eventually leave school, but the forming of writing as a continued process is most certainly formed. Colleges and universities are one of the best places for a young writer or poet to be instructed on the precise attention and formation that comes in writing, constant rewriting, and editing. This can, of course, be learned on one’s own, but the motivation and helpful guidance of a professor who has written for years is invaluable. This development of the writing process gives the young writer or poet solid foundations to not only develop, but to persevere through the long years of rejection that often come before publication and recognition.
Colleges and universities are also valuable because they typically offer publication opportunities aimed at getting undergraduates and beginning writers in print. Almost every large university is associated with a literary journal, from the University of Michigan’s Michigan Quarterly Review, to Western Michigan University’s Third Coast. These two journals are highly competitive and feature some of the best writing in the country today. While they might not be the ideal place for the young writer to begin submitting for publication, it is important to read and learn from these journals to get an understanding of the trends of the day. Many of these same universities, along with smaller colleges, also have literary journals dedicated specifically to their young writers. My own first publication came in the literary magazine of the school I attend, Aquinas College’s Sampler. Similarly, Grand Valley State University publishes their literary journal, fishladder. Other colleges and universities are often looking for submissions from around the country. These are often published in printed form, but a new and popular form of publication has emerged on the internet. Although these types of publications don’t necessarily reach a large readership, they are a great way to get the first taste of the satisfaction that comes with seeing your poems in print. They also give the aspiring poet a solid reference base when sending out submissions to more competitive literary journals in the future. With thorough reading and research into publications, there are a variety of options for young poets to learn the process of publication.
Another opportunity for the young poet to acquire ever valuable experience and knowledge is through conferences and workshops. Literary festivals and conferences hold to a long-standing tradition of bringing together poetry enthusiasts both young and old. Not only are these festivals and conferences great places to make connections with other poets and hear some of the best-known poets read their writing, but they also often hold workshops where a group of poets can come together and work on their individual poems together. Often these workshops are led by an established poet in the region or country, and their oversight helps guide the discussion of each poet’s piece. Michigan’s best known conference, Bear River Writers’ Conference, is held annually and brings some of the best writers from around the country to lead workshops. While large conferences like this may be financially expensive, local workshops held by different groups or bookstores often give the young poet a similar experience. Applying to and attending workshops are a great way for the emerging poet to get help with their writing from the people around them. In a few hours’ time, a poet’s work will be read by several poets who offer important insight as not only poets, but as readers. Workshops are also a great place of inspiration, as the community that forms around poetry is felt in the cooperation of so many people working together to help one another. If the young poet has the time and ability to attend a workshop, not only will they receive a good deal of instruction of the craft of writing, but they will also come away with increasing confidence as they gain support from poets around them.
Despite all these opportunities, deciding to dedicate so many hours and hard work can still be an unnerving task for the young poet. But if one truly wishes to pursue their passion for writing, even if the poet does it for strictly personal expressive readings, putting together words takes a great deal of determination. Sitting alone for hours on end, reflecting over the moments and reflections that make life what it is, will always be draining emotionally and physically. What the poet needs most, whatever their end goals, is the ability to put aside the constant doubt that comes with everything from writing, sending in submissions to publications, to applying for graduate schools. Across the board, from the most famous and influential poet, to the one taking their first steps into their writing future, poetry shares this constant overcoming of the self. It is what makes our work so worthwhile, and our art form so meaningful.
For more information on helpful publications and links focused on helping local young writers, consider visiting these sites:
Resources from Grand Valley State’s Writing Department:
Michigan Writers Organization:
A Young Authors Guide:

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.