Quality v. Quantity: Do they need each other?

Now that I’m escaping from the vacuum of National Poetry Month and another successful April Poem-A-Day Challenge, I find myself wondering about the relationship of quantity and quality in writing. Is there value in writing every day? Is a writing routine a good or bad thing for poets? Questions such as these have been swirling around my head, and here’s my take: I think quantity can lead to quality.

First, let me be clear: Quality is the ultimate goal for any of the poems I try to get published. I’m not trying to publish as many poems as I possibly can for the sake of getting published. I wrote for more than a decade before I even tried submitting my poems, so quantitative publishing is not my end game, and I would not recommend that route to other poets. In my mind, one great poem is better than a million poems nobody remembers. So, let’s not get mixed signals about my views on quantity and quality.

I do think the way to be good at anything, including art, is to practice. If you’re a painter, you paint. If you’re a mathematician, you solve problems. If you’re a writer (whether you write fiction, nonfiction or poetry), you write.

Of course, there are many other layers of complexity that can be placed on the poet’s shoulders. Poets should read other poets. Poets should revise their work fearlessly. Poets should take chances. Poets should listen to the world around them. Poets should live. But at the end of the day, poets should write poems.

During the month of April, I wrote 30 poems in 30 days (actually, a handful more than that). Am I going to hold on to all those poems? No. But I am hopeful that a few will stick around and make it into a collection after revision. Or at the very least, maybe a few lines or images will find their way into another poem or two down the line. As my friend S.A. Griffin likes to say, it’s all about process.

Here are a few reasons why quantity leads to quality:

  • Writing poems prepares you for inspiration. Inspiration strikes when it strikes, and everyone is struck with inspiration from time to time. What separates a poet from others is that the poet is ready to take that inspiration and turn it into a poem. A painter might take the exact same inspiration and turn it into a painting. A novelist a novel. And so forth.
  • Writing poems opens your mind to more poems. Some poets hold onto an image or idea until it is fully processed. I think this is great, but sometimes I lose those images and ideas if I don’t write them down. Plus, I’ve noticed when I write I clear that space in my head for new ideas and images.
  • Revision comes after the first draft. Great poems come from revision. It’s hard work, sure, but poets can’t revise unless they have first drafts upon which to play. In other words, poets need to write to revise.

Of course, there are many other routes to quality beyond quantity, but I often feel poets (and other writers) are afraid to write anything that’s not nearly perfect on the first draft. Don’t be afraid. Write, write, write. That’s the only path you can take to get to the ultimate goal: a quality poem you love.

Quick aside: I once wrote a sestina and thought it was great. For a week or so. Then, I realized that it just wasn’t working. But not all was lost. Eventually, I lifted the best line from the sestina and used it in another poem that was not a sestina. That new poem was published the first time it was submitted. If I had not written that initial failed poem, I would’ve never made it to the successful one.

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I’ve received more than 100 submissions for the 2010 April PAD Challenge. Poets still have until midnight (EST) tomorrow (5/5/10) to submit up to 5 poems from the challenge. Click here to read the guidelines.

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Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

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Check out this great book on writing metrical poetry! It’s called Writing Metrical Poetry, by William Baer. (Click here to learn more.)

 

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