It’s well-known that poets are blind when it comes to their own poetry. They can’t tell good from bad because they’re married to it. But what about major-league poets’ poetry? When you can’t tell good from bad there, you’re in a world of trouble.
Or maybe that’s the nature of poetry.
For Exhibit A, we go to the loftily-glossy pages of that venerable old war horse, The Atlantic. It’s a terrific periodical and money well spent as far as this subscriber is concerned, but their selections for poetry often leave me scratching my head.
In the new January/February issue, we have this entry, a found poem by Elizabeth Spires:
“How To Sing”
by Elizabeth Spires
from a hymnal
In flowing style
With great dignity
Joyously, but not too fast
With stately vigor
Not too slowly
With joyous dignity
First of all, my cardinal rule in this column is not to dis fellow poets. I know a glass house when I see one! And I’ve read very little of Spires’ work, so I’m not here to judge her. In fact, this moves me to read more of her work because I know she must be a talented poet. And Elizabeth, honest, I’m happy for you and congratulate you!
My point, rather, is to wonder in a more abstract way (my default, turns out). What is good poetry? What is bad poetry? What makes an editor accept a poem? What makes her reject one?
I hereby give up.
Why? Because I have just gone through my third manuscript of poems and cleared out poems that don’t quite cut it. I put them in a new file called “The Isle of Misfit Poems.” (That’s for you, Rudolph! That’s for you!).
And, in all honesty, if “How To Sing” were in my work-in-progress, it would have been one I culled for the dreaded Isle.
Why? Because I feel 99.9% sure that, were I to submit the same poem under my own name (illegal in 50 states, so don’t try this at home!) to 100 tough poetry markets, I would garner 100 rejections.
This means something, but what? Something about the poem? Something about the market? Something about me? Does the emperor have no clothes here, or am I missing something magical about this hymnal-inspired piece that cashed in from the coffers of a major market due to my own feral upbringing in literature?
Hell, I once submitted to The Atlantic and never even heard back from them, even when I followed up with queries. You might cancel your subscription for that alone, but like I said, I genuinely enjoy the journalism in this magazine, so I just shrug and go on.
I know, I know. This phenomenon is not news or particularly revelatory. But it accentuates our own confusion as poets sending work out. Some of our stuff we consider pretty damn good. Some of it we are more than convinced will be snapped up by a market quickly. But no.
And then, for the hell of it, we sometime submit stuff we feel “meh” about and have little hope of selling. Then it gets accepted.
Can you figure this out? I certainly can’t. I officially give up.
6 thoughts on “I Give Up”
It’s a mystery, isn’t it? I’ve a couple of her books (great reads, by the way), but this poem doesn’t do it for me. And I must admit that my “afterthought” poems, those I feel a bit “meh” about, seem to have a higher acceptance rate than my “best” poems. All I know is that I don’t know…
As E.D. would say, “Then there’s a pair of us!”
We are multitudes!
I just had two poems accepted by a well-known journal. I thought they were pretty good poems, not wonderful, but might fit the taste of the editors. They obviously did. Still, browsing through the work in the magazine, I found very little that thrilled me. There really is no accounting for taste, or at least taste about poems somewhere in the middle of the awful-to-immortal spectrum. As long as the poem is competent, some editors and readers will like it, some will reject it. I think po-world is chockful of competent poets, and that adds up to many of us giving up when it comes to ever knowing if our own work is as good or as bad as we think it is.
“Might fit the taste of the editors” is key, I think. If you have a sense for an individual magazine’s leanings, it will help you to choose certain of your poems over others. Reading the New Ohio Review, for instance, I saw an abundance of narrative poems.
Yep, and much of my poetry is written in the “plain style,” an attempt at heightening the most colloquial and conversational material I can compose. That’s why “Rattle,” the mag I mentioned above, took two poems. “Rattle” likes plain style, narrative work.