For the last five or so years, as readers may know, I’ve been the poetry Editor at Parabola magazine, while also fulfilling various other duties as a Senior Editor.
Over these five years, I’ve read thousands of poems. Most — as is inevitable in any publishing enterprise — end up rejected.
I always feel bad about rejecting poets, no matter what the objective literary merits of their work are, because poetry is a highly personal effort and everyone treasures their own poetry.
One of the things I have learned is that almost no one knows how to write poetry.
Even the people who do know how to write poetry write good poetry only because they know they don’t know how to write poetry; and so they have a question in their poetry, a nothingness between the words and the lines that suspends any and all absolute confidence in definitions.
This nothingness invites a form of insight that cannot be spoken in words: and every good poem has that in it somewhere. The best ones have it everywhere. It’s quite fascinating, really. What is that stuff? No one can tell. It is invisible, but it emanates a materiality that cannot be denied.
The poetry that lacks this quality often comes from a place of confidence—even certainty—best abandoned by aspiring writers.
The poetry of the lost soul that knows itself lost has more great strength than the poetry of the soul that thinks itself found.
Just so, poetry that teaches is weaker than poetry that seeks a teacher.
Poetry nested between two grains of soil often carries more light than the poetry of stars.
There are so many things I could say about our poets who don’t get published. Many of them are wonderful; and even if their wonder is only their own and ought not be shared with others, it’s touching and tender, and speaks to an inner need to nurture oneself.
If that’s the only purpose such unpublished poetry ever serves, this is surely good enough; we value ourselves much less than we should, and if we help ourselves find more value in what we are through the poems we write, bravo. In this sense, not publishing a poet may be a favor; a poem left unpublished still serves as a private—and intimately sacred—record of one’s own personal struggle and vision.
Then again, so many poems get published worldwide, in so many journals, that in my eyes shouldn’t be, literary curmudgeon that I am. Poetry invites excess, and finds it too easily. Excess emotion; excess adjectives; excess attitude, a circus of abundance that gives more than is needed, confident that the voice is worth hearing.
It’s like people singing loud in the subway, drunk, with headphones on, having the best time of their lives ever, not realizing that there is a whole car filled with people who—while they are amused by (and, yes, love!) the singer—also secretly wish that he or she would just quiet down and sit there with their hands folded in their lap.
As Milosz said in Ars Poetica,
… And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity,
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
That good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
—Excerpt from Czeslaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems (1931-2001) Harper-Collins 2001
Another thing I’ve learned is that everyone thinks their poetry is original.
There are certain forms, approaches, ways of voicing feeling, physical presence, and intellect that turn up over and over again. This happens even with poets that grow up in widely divergent cultures; and from it, I learn that we are all very much the same, even though we so often tend to celebrate the differences. Because poetry is such an emotional enterprise to begin with, emotion always stands out; and we human beings are, to the last, emotionally similar—despite the wide range of beliefs and attitudes we are raised within, and that we take as our own.
Across the range from outstanding to ordinary, poetry becomes a great democratizer when it is measured this way. The whole human race comes together in it; and a consensus of some form develops. One can, perhaps, begin to understand how poetry bound cultures together once upon a time, when we better recognized our sameness through it. Only a survey on the scale of thousands of poems, from across the spectrum of authors — beginners to established talents — can put this question into the perspective it deserves; only an editor is lucky enough to get a taste of that, and then just a taste, because the enterprise itself spans millennia, and we live but a few brief years.
So let this serve as my apology to all the poets I reject — and even the few I accept.
Thank you for helping me to see, not just your poems, but poetry.
It is a vast thing that we do not know.
I have been tasked with this responsibility; to select for Parabola the few among the many who speak without words and write without a plan, into a great unknown that all of us wish to gaze just a little deeper.
This is not the poetry of everyman, or the poetry of every magazine; mea culpa, for all those who find themselves on the other end of my rejection letters. Keep writing, keep hoping, and keep searching for your own wonder.
There is a place where it belongs.♦