The Atlantic magazine poetry

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I Give Up


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

Moderately slow
Moderately fast
With vigor
In flowing style
Well marked
With dignity
With great dignity
Joyously, but not too fast
With stately vigor
Rather slowly
Not too slowly
With joyous dignity
With movement
With flow


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.