A Defining Moment

“So how is that different from prose?” a poetry friend of mine often whispers to me at readings, with a mixture of bafflement and indignation. Although appreciative of both rhymed and unrhymed verse, he laments the decline of set rhythm and formal structures in poetry. For him, the rhythmic quality of poetry is its defining feature: remove that, and you might as well call anything – a short story, your diary entry, your shopping list – a “poem”.

I don’t always entirely agree with him, either about the particular poem we have just heard lacking rhythm (I often quote T.S. Eliot’s dictum about the importance of writing “in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”, but he doesn’t like Eliot much, either, so that doesn’t help) or about rhythm in general being the touchstone of poetry, but I do think he’s got a point. In both spoken word and “literary” poetry, while the removal of the straitjacket of established form has enabled a pioneering of new structures and an unfettered creativity in the best poets, it has also ushered in a certain amount of laziness and self-indulgence among their less talented peers (including, probably, me). I admire people who regularly submit to the discipline of a set formal structure and do it well, as I think it’s a lot harder than let-it-all-hang-out, anything-goes vers libre. I also value his contribution to that age-old debate: how do you define poetry?

When asked how I define it, I usually go for a fuzzy cop-out, along the lines of “a form of writing where how it has been said matters even more than the subject matter or where the language choices and devices form an integral part of the work’s meaning. If you can paraphrase it without losing something, it’s not a poem.” Mind you, even by that, you would have thought, catch-all standard, a lot of “poems” fall through the net. My two pet peeves at the moment are (1) piss-poor spoken word “poems” which are actually prosaic sociopolitical speeches or personal misery memoirs in disguise and which seem to attract an unmeritedly enthusiastic response from audiences because they sympathise with the subject matter, not because of the way it has been said, which isn’t interesting, at all. (2) “poems” in literary journals which are actually flash fiction pieces, randomly broken into short lines. There seems to be a craze at present in some quarters for pieces which have a strong narrative, told very concisely, with a surprising twisty-twist at the end. And those, apparently, are the only requirements. You can use the most banal, clicheed, tediously monoguous language you like, because it doesn’t matter – certain editors will still be all over your piece.

And, yes, I know I’m probably missing something in both these cases – possibly the primacy of performance skills, emotional impact and forging a relationship with your audience, in the former, and the narrative control and skill involved in what is not said in the latter.

People frequently tell me I am too wordy, that I work the language too much and that I stuff my poems to the seams with extravagant puns and (often mixed) metaphors like an embargo is about to come in and I have to create a stash while I can (see what I mean?). The watchwords for a lot of modern poetry are concision and precision. People who have been on proper creative writing courses keep telling me to “distil” or “condense”, “cut it right back”. Or, as that poem by Gösta Ågren (or perhaps it’s Tomas Transtromer???) that I can’t quite remember sort of says, scour off everything that’s extraneous, then the poem is finished. And I do see the value in that – a lot of modern poetry has the clean, minimalist elegance of sushi or expensive Scandinavian furniture and I can definitely admire that. I just can’t write it myself. And it makes me feel like I’m 15 again, back in my ‘O’ level English class, being made to do a boring precis, when I’d rather be doing “creative writing” or reading a book. I embroider, rather than whittle down. Does that make me a bad poet? Or is there room for fussy Victorian puddings, as well as sushi, on the poetic dinner table? Overstuffed fauteuils, as well as Carl Hansen chairs, in poetry’s front room?

I think, though, that we all have our own favourite Spice Girls in the poetic devices pop group. Hip-hop poets admire clever puns, ingenious multiple rhymes and fast rhythms; Craig Raine’s thing always used to be defamiliarisation (before he started writing embarrassing poems about how not being allowed to grope airline staff anymore is political correctness gone mad).

I have a particular weakness for ambiguity and I must admit, when I hear or read a poem which says one thing and one thing only, in utterly opaque language, without even the merest whiff of double entendre, subtext or symbolic alternative reading, I do sometimes think, “How is that different from prose?”

More on submissions

I probably have nothing of great value to add to the large number of excellent blog posts on this subject by proper poets, such as this fantastic one by Roy Marshall , but having experienced a few rejections this week, I wanted to record my feelings about poetry journals and their policies for soliciting and responding to submissions.

Firstly, much as rejections can smart, I do recognise that the editor usually has it much harder than the poet: most of them do this in their spare time, around other demanding commitments, for the sheer love of literature and provide an invaluable service to writers and readers for no material reward; most receive so many submissions on a weekly basis that they could probably wallpaper a lifesize model of the Titanic with them; most find rejecting work the most difficult part of their job; most regularly have their kindness abused by poets who submit without having read the journal to ascertain whether their work is at all suitable for it (and, in some cases, without ever having read any modern poetry, at all) or who try to engage in lengthy and disputatious to the point of abusive correspondence about the outcome of their submission.

Nonetheless, some publications do make the process of submission and acceptance or rejection less painful than others.

I do not expect editors to send a personal message to every rejected poet – the standard copy-and-paste job is sufficient and (and I know many will disagree with me here) I don’t even mind not getting a reply, at all, as long as the publication’s website has made clear that if you haven’t heard back by a certain date, you may consider yourself rejected and are free to submit elsewhere. Not letting you know by any means is a big no-no, though. And I have to confess that if editors do send a personalised and/or sensitively worded rejection, I am much more minded to submit to them again than to journals who send impersonal, MailMergey brush-offs. Gold stars go to Patricia Oxley at Acumen, whose enthusiastic, flattering rejection letters are more ego-boosting than some journals’ acceptances, and Michael Mackmin at The Rialto, who always used to add a highly personalised, handwritten note to every rejection, commenting on individual poems (although whether this personal touch has survived the migration to Submittable, I am yet to discover). What is particularly impressive is that these two journals receive huge numbers of submissions, many more than most of the journals who claim that individual responses are impossible.

How long is a reasonable amount of time to wait for a response? I think anything up to six months is entirely reasonable and I am usually prepared to wait up to a year with no response before assuming the poems are free and can be submitted to another journal, but I’m probably more patient than a lot of poets. Much depends on what the submission guidelines say. If  a journal claims they normally get back to you within three months (or that weasel expression, “We AIM TO respond within three months.” WTF does that mean? I aim to be the most successful performance poet in the world and marry a 35-year-old toyboy, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen), I am usually prepared to wait four months before getting antsy.

I think, though, that there ought to be a small circle reserved in hell for editors who give totally misleading time estimates on their websites, or who fail to update their websites when circumstances change. I once chose to submit some poems to one particular journal, rather than others which were, in other respects, much more attractive, because its website boasted an impressive turnaround of six weeks. There then ensued six silent months when I heard not a peep from them and two polite e-mail enquiries went unanswered. Eventually I received a rejection from them, apologising for the delay and blaming it on real life intervening. I don’t think it was unreasonable for them to take that long to reply, but (a) I don’t think they should have posted such a hopelessly unrealistic turnaround estimate in the first place (b) once they knew they were experiencing a backlog, they really should have updated their website, so people already waiting for a reply knew what was going on and new submitters didn’t get sucked in by the totally false “six weeks” claim. I accept they were too busy to read any poems, but how long does it take to add one short sentence to your website, FFS? Unsurprisingly, I have never submitted to them again. I’ve also known journals that have folded not take down their websites or even add a five-word message informing visitors of the fact.

Nonetheless, there is such a thing as replying too fast, in my opinion. I recently had a rejection from a journal within twenty minutes of their opening my submission. While it did, at least, free the poems up to send elsewhere, I couldn’t even console myself with the fiction that they’d been tempted. That quick a decision normally means they think you’re terrible. And, yes, I know that a Submittable file that has been “In Progress” for several weeks is probably languishing unread in a  drawer, but you can at least imagine that they’re feverishly rereading it, wondering if they can possibly find space for it.

And, speaking of Submittable, I wish they wouldn’t display  “Declined” in glaring red font – every time I log into my account, I feel like a naughty schoolgirl who’s just got back some disappointing homework.