A well-published poet, a tutor of mine, once tried to comfort me: “Editors never take poems.” So it feels. Often. Very often. I take little comfort from knowing that famous authors and poets faced multiple rejections before their work achieved renown: J.K. Rowling, Dr. Seuss, Steven King, Richard Bach, poets X.J. Kennedy and Gertrude Stein. The Atlantic Monthly turned down Robert Frost’s early poems.
Why do I take ‘little comfort’? Because for every Robert Frost there are thousands of Norbert Hirschhorns: rejected over and over, and whose name undoubtedly will be ‘writ in water’. But what is essential is the ability to handle rejections and bounce back — using every rejection to improve your work, and not surrender, because in the end the art is long and life too short.
Never give up — submission is like a lottery: you can’t win if you don’t play
Make publication a secondary goal
Record your rejections
Treasure the positive (often hand-written) rejection notes
Reassess your work
Let acceptances carry you through the inevitable next rejections
Take a breath, a long walk, eat chocolate
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a 19th C advocate for women’s rights, advised Emily Dickinson not to publish her poems because of their unconventional form and style. He only realised her great talent after her death when he co-edited Dickinson’s first collection. Dickinson never sent out any of her poems. She said to Higginson, “I told you I did not print.” Of the dozen published (out of nearly 1800), all were sent by friends or her sister-in-law, without attribution. Perhaps others would have been rejected.
John Keats didn’t survive rejection. His first collection, published in 1817, got bad reviews and hardly sold. Keats soon realized he was suffering from TB, so he moved to a friend’s house in Hampstead where he met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne. In just a few months he wrote five of his great odes. As his tuberculosis was getting worse his doctor advised him to go to Italy, hoping for a cure. He died soon after, age 25, in Rome, just after a crushing review was published about his epic poem Endymion. He asked that his name not be put on his tombstone, only the words “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” By then, Keats had published only 54 poems. Endymion, another poem that critics scorned, opens with one of the greatest lines in English literature: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”
But you needn’t have to die to get praise and publication. Send your rejected, beloved poem to Salon of Refused Poems, knowing more people will read it online than will ever see it in print.