A “sickener” was my grandmother’s term for something that put you off continuing with an activity or towards a goal.

Morale is of course very important in this kind of area. Whether it is choosing and pursuing a hobby or an avocation or a paid career, the stories we tell ourselves and are told make a big difference. In particular, people must often give up on a potential area of interest for no really good reason. This is because they let themselves be unduly affected by “sickeners”.

Sometimes it is wrongly implied that to pursue an interest or career, one has to be “the best and the brightest”. Unless one “graduated first in your class at [Prestigious] University”, there is no point in proceeding. This is fed by the myth of the CV or resume – the idea that what people put on their CV reflects their real capabilities and contribution. Whereas in fact such documents are written precisely to convey the optimal impression, and what is left out is often the most significant thing. With experience, one starts to recognise the signs of what is being omitted or covered up in a typical CV. For example, if somebody writes, “I embarked on a course of graduate work”, it probably means he never finished it.

Another thing that often gets implied is that, unless what you are doing was a childhood interest, it cannot be genuine. This is a kind of origin myth. Sometimes, it gets treated a bit like this: “Fred always loved the stars. When he was three he used to point to the sky, and he read books about the planets when he was seven, later building his own telescope …” In fact, if Fred had become a doctor rather than an astronomer, he would have constructed a different life story. Also, in reality, most childhood interests in the stars do not last; and the best path to becoming an astronomer in real life as an adult involves chance and very good mathematical skills.

I am loath to touch on this next one, because we have all heard more than enough about ethnic stereotyping. But it does happen of course. Or even religious: Time-Life had a generally excellent series of popular introductions to various fields, one of them being this one:


(The guy on the cover is, ironically, James Dewey Watson, the Nobel laureate who is now disgraced because of some remarks he made about black intelligence.)

In any case, I think it was in this book that the claim was made that Catholics have not made as significant a contribution to science as Protestants. This is actually quite untrue. But that was what Time-Life tried to argue. It was only years later that I realised what a poor argument they had made. For example, here is a discussion of the 35 lunar craters named to honour Jesuit scientists.

Turning to the literary world, many people are interested in placing poems and stories in publications. I have had some experience with poetry. From what I can tell, it is especially important in this area not to be put off by rejections. It is tempting to blame rejections on personal factors, but as far as I can tell, the most likely factor is that the editor just doesn’t appreciate your particular style. Some editors seem to be “biased” against you; but then some seem to be “biased” in your favour. Also, sometimes an editor will like one of your pieces, and then subsequently accepts nothing further. There is also a lot of sheer randomness in the response of editors.

One thing I would definitely avoid is sending your literary efforts to the top outlets, at least initially. Better to build up some confidence in the more average outlets. Also, poetry is actually not that hard to place. There are plenty of online publications as well as paper ones these days. Try to avoid self-publishing, and be wary of sites that will “edit” your work into publishable form for a fee. I suspect some of these sites are basically scams.


13 responses to this post.

  1. Speaking of overimaginative accounts of one’s achievements, I just found this:


    In fact, this provides a perfect case of one of my remarks above:

    “Well, Jay almost killed me last night. I only get to listen to him while driving due to reception issues here in the exurbs. About 4:08 PM, after the news he opened by stating “When I pursued my masters at BU.” I almost hit a tree, I could not see as I was laughing so hard. I guess it’s no longer. “When I took my masters.”

    Rich Aucoin of The Truth About Jay Severin also “noticed Jay’s not-so-subtle-yet-somehow-seamless switch from “took” to “pursued.”” and cautioned me “to leave several car lengths between you and the car in front of you between the hours of 3 and 7.”

    Of course he was leading into a discussion of the lack of ethics of the grey lady.

    There is speculation that one area talk host told a blooper on his resume and will pay for it. Some have guessed it might be Jay. Nah, his cv is all whoppers. If they haven’t sent him packing by now, he’s safe.”

    That is exactly what I meant. Most people occasionally embroider the truth, but some people create an entire Bayeux Tapestry.


  2. Oh yes, I’m sure you’re right about contributing to literary magazines, but you don’t go far enough – there are other sickeners. One is the fact that you usually don’t get paid anyway. The other – for me anyway – is the fact that most literary poetry *bores me to tears* (or, to put it another way, I don’t write the sort of poetry that interests literary editors, and I’m not interested in writing it either).

    And there is a broader problem, which those three sickeners are part of: that is, literary culture *in general* has a problem. Papers and magazines are usually losing money, or subsist on grants rather than engage with their audience. They are generally not read, and poets, after modernism, have generally lost the will or the ability to engage with readers in the demotic tone. Examine the newspaper poetry that appears nowadays in, say, The Age, or The Australian – and compare it to that which was written by, say, C J Dennis, or A D Hope, (or even Bellerive)! The style is completely different; generally the expectation of poetry that is published today is that it will represent the latest school, and be written by one of our finest poets (and why wouldn’t editors expect that? They publish so little poetry that when they do they want the name to really sell itself). The results are often tedious or obscure – since many of the award-winning poets today are thinking of the legacy of the modernists and post-modernists when they write, rather than, say, that demotic tradition.

    So, in short, I feel that the editors have have ceased to care much about the writers; the writers have ceased to care about the readers; and the readers have ceased to care about the lot. A whole-of-culture change is needed. I can’t make that change on my own. And I dislike the idea of revolutions (it’s one of the things that got us into this fix in the first place). Of course, I can try and encourage the poetry or art I like by simply publishing zines myself – and I do, and that’s what many other poets and writers seem to be doing too. Time will tell whether this will make a change.


    • It is actually ridiculously easy to publish one’s own poetry magazine online. The only thing that stops me is that I can’t be bothered. I have the time, the small requisite technical smarts using the ‘net, but why bother?

      I had one once, and I found that poets would preen themselves on getting published on what was just a blog, for goodness’ sake.

      I don’t know what the answer is. I generally like what I read in Quadrant, and even what I have occasionally read in the New Yorker. And I remember some good poetry from The Canberra Times.

      But yes, there is a problem with poetry that seems to need to be explained and footnoted a bit too much. The question is, is the game worth the candle? I prefer poetry that at least draws you in and carries you along. In a phrase once used by a clever boy at my old school, the kind that “effects without a painful exegesis”. (He had GM Hopkins in mind.)

      I am a noob in the poetry game, but I think I understand that you find a lot of modern stuff effete. As for sales and popularity, I think you dislike haiku, but the production cited below seems to me to hit the right note (and it has some of mine in it, so naturally I am biased). But the booklet looks good, it has clear, clean layout; and I can picture an audience in my mind’s eye – soulful girls riding the Metro or the Tube or whatever to work. It seems to have done OK commercially, given the number of used and new copies on sale at respectable prices. I think there is a market for (some) poetry.

      The Best of Mijikai Haiku

      (One reason why Les Murray attracts such dislike must be that he writes poetry that sells. I don’t think that makes it better than other good Australian poets’ output, but he does have that advantage. As Evelyn Waugh liked pointing out, Betjeman had the same commercial side, and people resented him for it.)


      • I like haiku – partly because, in my grumpy old man way, I feel it’s a form that everyone recognises, and it’s a form that therefore people are intuitively able to play with. So haiku are not written in *ignorance* of form, or in revolt *against* form – as part of some misguided attempt to carry on the Whitmanite free verse revolution.

      • Yes, haiku are good, but they require a certain mindset which really is foreign to the western mind. And sometimes it eludes me.

        Also, haiku get patronised. People know what haiku are (they have likely written some at school) so they know what to expect. And the other thing is that the time investment in reading a haiku is negligible. However, haiku are frequently not taken terribly seriously as real poetry.

        There is haiku and then there is “poetry”.

        Haiku also remind me of that old joke, I think maybe from Wilde: “there are two ways of disliking music: one is to dislike music: the other is to like Bach.”

      • I love Bach! That Oscar.

      • I think the poetry malaise – to an extent there is one – will essentially sort itself out in the end. Maybe we’re fortunate to be living in such a time: poetry will happen, and reinvent itself, soon enough. And we get to be a part of that.

      • The other thing I like about haiku is that because they are so universally recognised, and understood as something that people long ago were taught in school, they allow people to spontaneously play with them in a way they wouldn’t do with other verse forms. Basically, they have become a great contemporary verse form for jokes, the small-time commentary of the passing moment. You know the sort –

        Haikus are easy
        But sometimes they don’t make sense.

      • Yes, but a bad initial experience can put you off for decades. Certainly, wading through my mother’s poetry magazines (she must have belonged to a society and been subscribed) put me off poetry for years.

        It is rather like reading “Modern British Philosophy” edited by Bryan Magee turned me off philosophy for decades.

      • It is certainly my impression that the percentage of good haiku is higher than that of good poetry in general, among the typical mass of writers.

  3. Posted by Julian O'Dea on December 5, 2015 at 4:57 am


    “One doesn’t learn to be a writer in college and then graduate with the same opportunities as everyone else. When it comes to looking for a job, or having the time to write, social stratification determines who gets the internships, and by extension who gets to forge the connections that help one find an agent, or get a job with a publishing house.”


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