Rejection is a matter of fact for all working, publishing poets.
When I was an undergraduate, I remember thinking that all living, well known poets simply had to send whatever they wrote to a magazine or (in the case of a book-manuscript) to a publisher and the work would quickly get into print.
I was taking a class from Pulitizer-Prize-winning poet Karl Shapiro at the time. He was just over 60 years old by then, had won the big prize and other prizes, had published numerous books, and had even edited arguably the most important literary magazine in the U.S., Poetry, in Chicago. He had signed a contract with the New Yorker magazine whereby he would send the prestigious magazine his new poems first before sending them elsewhere.
But one day he brought in a poem called "Humanties Building," and he said that the New Yorker would publish it only if he made certain changes, and he wanted our opinion of the poem. It was the only time he ever shared his work with us--published or not--and I think he did so because the building he described was the one in which the English Department was housed: Sproul Hall at U.C. Davis. After class, several of us students talked, and we all simply couldn't believe that the New Yorker wanted him to change the poem--or else not publish it. I remember one fellow saying that Shapiro shouldn't "give in," should refuse to make the changes. How naive we were!
Many years later, Karl's longtime publisher, Random House, simply dropped him, letting his books go out of print and expressing no interest in publishing any new books he might write. Another very well known poet was visiting the campus at the time, and I mentioned this news to him. Instead of expressing sympathy for Karl's situation, he said, "That doesn't compare with all the things that publishers have done to me!"
The experiences of these two "war horses" of American poetry helped me put my own stacks of rejection-slips from magazines and publishers in perspective, but what really helps to put rejection in perspective is poet William Kupinse's poem on the subject. Bill has kindly allowed me to post the poem on the blog:
By William Kupinse
It comes by stealth amid the circulars and bills,
the print of the S.A.S.E. uncanny
as catching yourself in a shop window mirror.
But instead of “who’s that . . . Hey, it’s…not so bad,”
this glimpse of self’s a backhand cheekward slap.
“Thank you, but we will not be publishing your . . .”
Or, more honestly, “We wish we could reply
to each submission individually. . .”
Something in the photocopy process makes even kind attempts
sound patronizing: “As James Fields wrote to a young
Walt Whitman, we’re sorry, Walter, but . . .”
I’ve been tearing open, reading, and resealing
through the magic of obsessive imagination
just such a letter, as I recline in Dana’s
automobile, a vehicle whose faint pungency
is liberated by a springtime afternoon
as we head north to Seattle. By the paper-mills of Fife
I confess: the letter has me blue. She nods,
recounts her psychology abstract shot down—
no expenses-paid trip to Bologna for her.
I nod; it is sometimes a kindness
to recommend your failure to a friend,
when it’s half-buried in forgetting’s murk.
We need a word for such an act;
like Schadenfreude, but more upbeat.
It could not be a German word;
it would need to come from India, or Sweden.
I lean back, farther still, into myself,
and think of all the world’s psychologists typing abstracts
and all of time’s poets licking envelopes,
and everyone trying to better everyone else,
and I think of nature red in tooth and claw,
and of chimpanzees besting other chimpanzees,
and of chimpanzees typing furiously
while glancing at the heroic couplets of other chimpanzees,
and I think of Darwin getting a leg up on Wallace and Lamarck,
and I think of every grade school boy wanting
to be an astronaut or fireman or president.
And I think of the man the country calls president
and what weird family systems therapy it would take
to sort him and America out, and how he
could never best a soul in any unrigged contest,
yet he gets to use this remarkable stationery
that always gleans a personal response.
Copyright 2007 by William Kupinse