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Defending Poetry Magazine
– Feb. 5, 2015
– some editing, Feb. 5, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC Dec. 3, 2013

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"Epic" by Ange Mlinko – Poetry Magazine

from Poetry Magazine (Dec. 2013)
poem found here

first lines:
It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with
You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen


more is not better; ergo, the few are not the best


Those of you who read this blog probably already know (and for those of you who do not I will be up front about) that I have little respect for Poetry Magazine. Nor, for that matter, for most (if not nearly all) of the major poetry journals. That is because for all their posturing, they mostly fill themselves with generic, banal, and, far too often, plainly bad poetry – if poetry which fits nicely and neatly into the category of popular poetry. Poetry most of all, for it has become a serial issuing of poppoetry, and it should – beyond all the others – know better. Usually I can go through the newest issue on-line and point out with each poem the pop hook that got it past editorship despite the poem's many shortcomings. And, it does not take too critical a look at the magazine's web face to see that the magazine has become mostly a shill for the poppoetry/pop-culture-studies industries. (Just as Rolling Stone is now little more than such for the music/entertainment industries.)

However, the magazine does deserve one moment of pause in its defense.

Looking through the Poetry Magazine site, in the editorial statement by the new-ish (2011) editor, Don Share ("To Our Readers"), I found the astounding fact that the magazine gets upwards of "120,000 poems a year."

How, ever, could that statement be taken as a banner of excellence? How could any magazine that wades through 10,000 poems a month at all be able to succeed as a magazine seeking to print "indispensible reading" (as the 'About' page states)? One might think that such a large submission pool offers the magazine the ability to truly find exceptional writing. The reality of it, however, is that by permitting such an inundation, they decimate that very possibility, and nearly assure that they will be publishing quite the opposite.

How? Primarily in that the sheer numbers involved necessitate one or both of two editorial realities: (1) either they must have a large number of first-line readers, or (2) the individual readers must face a massive number of poems. Neither result is a positive. The issue with the second should be obvious: inundate a person with a thousand submissions and they will become numb to what they are reading. (Watch J.J. Abrams all day and you will start to think the Die Hard movies are really, really good.) Also, the time constraints create a situation where the readers cannot possibly approach each poem with a honestly critical eye. Considering aesthetic poetry usually takes far more effort than conventional poetry. Because of all this, the readers start noticing hooks rather than poetics.

[FN] It goes without saying that included in the category of hooks are the names of popoets.

As for the first issue, a broad distribution of editorial labor means that your first-line readers are going to be your weakest readers: those least able to spot the wheat in the chaff, and, more importantly, those most likely to promote poppoetry: i.e., those most likely to pass a poem up the editorial ladder not because of its creative energies but because of is conventionality. It destroys the magazine's sophistication at the start, in a process that has no means of correcting it: the whole point of the distribution of labor is to lighten the load on the upper echelons, to leave to them the final decisions only. They are not going to go back through the piles to check to see if what was handed them is, indeed, the best to be found. They are simply going to accept what is given them as such.

(This is why I generally have little interest in creative journals – and many scholarly journals – edited by university students: most of the time, the people who are working through the submissions are the people most entrenched in pop poetics. And those people are by definition the least capable of spotting the truly creative, because the truly creative is the least conventional.[FN])

[FN] Which does not mean there is no place in poetry for such magazines. Only, those magazines should recognize that they are not upper tier journals. They should not behave as such, nor expect to be recognized as such. Rather, they should use the freedom offered them by not being an upper tier journal to be creative in the magazine itself. For example, they can get away with things like issues devoted to somewhat limited ideas. For example: "The Spring issue of next year will be wholly devoted to fiction about alien abduction: humorous, serious, poetry, prose, photography – let's see what you can do with that." The results will be spread about in terms of sophistication; but it has the positive service of opening up – and energizing – avenues of creativity and creative exploration that might not be normally available to a journal truly dedicated to printing the best of the best.

So it should be no surprise that Poetry Magazine offers, month after month, little more than pop fare. Their practices – their willingness to accept a reality of 10,000 submissions a month – has to have sabotaged the magazine from the very start. How can there honestly be, in such a massive sample, any real possibility for the discovery and presentation of excellence, of "indispensible reading"?


What to do about it? I can not help but think about the phrase learned in the economic crash and the profit gluttony that has followed: too big to fail means it has to be torn down. And 120,000 poems a year is definitely the label of a bloated sow. Of course, here, I am not saying Poetry Magazine should cease publication, but it should change its policies and procedures so as to make the idea of 120,000 a year a overtly recognized problem, not a sign of success. Which is not to say they should find new means to successfully navigate the flood: the problem is the flood, not the question of how to wade through it.

One possibility – and I'm just going to throw out a couple of obvious ideas here – is to have the magazine cycle through periods of editorial focus, to announce, "for the next two years (or whatever), we will be exclusively concentrating on X. Don't submit what does not blatantly apply." There are two benefits. First, it narrows the submission pool, obviously. But, second, since Poetry is so well established, it can create an atmosphere of mass exploration of poetics and poetry. Two or three (or whatever) years of absolute focus – including web presence – on a topic of poetics/aesthetics? Imagine the dialogue that could be created.

For that to escape poppoetry culture, however, such focusing would have to be on subjects of aesthetics and poetics – and at the highest level. Topicality is pointless (as magazines such as something devoted to poetry about cats can demonstrate). Issues devoted to topicality (without a previously established focus on poetics/aesthetics) only generates a larger pool, because the focus is on content, not on sophistication. And pretty much anyone can write and submit a poem about cats. Political/cultural topicality does not solve the issue: just because your theme carries political resonance does not mean the poetry is not banal: themes like "transgender poetry" or "poetry of the inner city" gets the same results – sophistication wise – as "poetry about cats." (The quicker the culture of poetry will admit to that truth, the better off the culture of poetry will be.)

Another obvious solution is dividing up the magazine into different titles of different focuses: Poetry/Lyricism, Poetry/Narrative, Poetry/Form, Poetry/Translation as examples. (Of course, rejecting submission to one because it also fits in another would be counter productive.) The magazine could easily divide its web presence into such, and have the primary (print) masthead be the best of the best. What it offers is not only that the submission pool is divided up, but that the reading process is performed by people whose own poetic interests are focused on that narrowed field: hopefully that results in better eyes looking over the submissions. (A reader with a aesthetic stake in narrative poetry will make for a better reader than someone who just likes poetry. This applies also to the previous suggestion.)

In truth, I believe the greatest weakness of most poetry/lit journals are that they are too expansive in their coverage: in being so they have watered down their own editorial talents. If you narrow coverage, you narrow the selection pool and make first-line-reader decisions much easier. (Indeed, narrowing permits training of first line editors in that chosen field.) But also, you present to the writers a statement of purpose: we want to see excellence in this. Can you successfully pull it off?

Now, of course, as with every awards show, for such a challenge to work there has to be the possibility of wholesale rejection. And here we get to the third suggestion, one which really underlies every other possible option with magazines that claim to be – or, even better, strive to be – indispensible reading: Don't print it if it's not brilliant.

As quoted on the "About" page, the purpose of the "open door" policy of Poetry Magazine is as such:

May the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius!

I think the key word there is "genius": the purpose of the open door is so as not to miss excellence because of "where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written." The point of the open door seems to me to say to the poets, "If you are willing to make the time and effort to write a brilliance like 'Prufrock' [one of Poetry's points of pride, and something would probably have no chance of being published today], then we will publish you."

But, if a magazine publishes conventional poetry, that intent and search for the "great poetry of genius" can only get lost in the resulting flood. Publish only Prufrocks and mostly Prufrocks will come your way. Publish velvet Elvises, and you will get velvet Elvises. And in far, far greater numbers.

Can you imagine an issue of a major magazine that had two poems in it?; that stated overtly, "out of 1,000 submissions, these are the only ones that were really worth publishing, that was not simply more of the same." Can you imagine if they wrote not the names of the people who they have published, but the names of the famous poets they rejected? And then prided themselves even more on the poets that came back with "oh, yeah? how about this!" and smacked one out of the park? Can you imagine a magazine that said (as so many do), "to be published in our pages means something," and then actually backed up the words with editorial actions?

Pipe dream, obviously. This is the U.S. of Mediocrity, where our major cultural awards are wholly subservient to the entertainment industry's bottom line. Where inaugural poems are at a level that invites drinking games. Where, if you are to believe the blurbs on the back, every third book of poetry published offers an experience of profound spirituality on the level of Faust or cultural insight on the level of Democracy in America.

When a poetry magazine fills its pages with what it has on hand, without considerations of quality, it is doing a disservice to literature. That is because people read magazines as though they are printing the best of the best. People read Poetry Magazine thinking that they are reading the best that poetic literature has to offer, which is not only not the case, it cannot be the case. The inevitable end result is a watering down of both the idea of excellence and the expectations for excellence, and an anchoring of the culture of poetry within mediocrity and pop. It leads us to accepting – and more hilariously striving for – banality as excellence, conventionality as creativity.

It creates a culture of poetry that offers bad poetry as examples of good poetics, trite conventionality as examples of ideational depth: it creates a school of creative writing whose exemplars need not hide their incompetency, because publishers of those exemplars are more than willing to ignore those incompetencies. Which tells the up and coming writers that they too can ignore incompetencies. Moreso, teaches new writers that brilliance is far easier attained than you might before have thought.

And I cannot here help thinking about the Bridge of Death, and Sir Robin's enthusiatically shouted "That's Easy!"

Which leads us to today's poem, which is, if you go to the Poetry Magazine site for the newest (December) issue, the first poem on the table of contents page (here).

So, we've opened our magazine. It is the first page; it is the first poem. This time, however, let's read it differently. Let's read it without an assumption of excellence (of which there can be no real expectation). This time, read it against the grain, against the assertions of pop culture that "it is on the radio, so it must be good." Read it instead assuming, say, that the first line is an aural trainwreck. Read it instead assuming that the first stanza is laughably bad. Read it instead assuming that the poem as a whole is riddled with bad poetics and tone-deaf wording. Read it assuming that the poem's play is not clever poetics but cheap gimmickry. Read it looking for the poppoetry hooks that got it through the editorial process. Read it assuming that it is not a good poem, but something that is preying upon the fact that you are not sophisticated enough to see just how bad it is. Read it assuming that the magazine does not want a sophisticated readership, it wants a top-40 readership. Read it assuming that the poem wants you to write poems no better than it is, just as bad as it is, because then it will not need fear the comparison.

Read the poem with this expectation: prove to me you are as good as you claim, for I know most of the time that that is a lie.

Read the poem out of the natural conclusion of "120,000 poems a year": there is no way this could possibility an exceptional poem; there is every reason to believe that it is poppoetry, that it is probably mediocre at best, and that it probably got through the editorial process for reasons that have nothing to do with brilliant aesthetics or creative poetics.

When you read, demand that the poems show you they are worth reading. Where they do, you have found something of value, something from which to learn. Where they do not, you very well may be wasting your time. Drop the magazine; go back to Tennyson and Yeats, Donne and Pound.

One of the interesting things I have noticed in reading the Poetry Daily and Verse Daily sites, in writing these posts, is that, when taken on the whole, poems that come from books tend to be better than poems that come from journals; even the prestigious ones. (Now, this an observance, not scientifically acquired data. But, one with which I am comfortable at the moment.) This does not suprise me: 120,000 poems a year makes for a poor magazine. That is the underlying truth of it. How could it possibly be otherwise?

So when pick up a Poetry Magazine, you should read its contents with this idea in mind:

My endeavor is to write better poetry than this.

That is all Poetry Magazine has to offer a poet who is striving for something beyond pop.



I want to add a note on the idea of "tiers" brought up in the footnote above. I believe one of the problems with poetry publishing in the U.S. is that they are all far too ecumenical, and yet so many of them still want to claim status as being a publisher of important poetry. A great number of Poetry Magazine's submissions would disappear if they simply took the stance of "We are an top-most tier journal. We only publish the best of the best." It would be a very interesting event if journals were to divide themselves into tiers, and expected from their submissions work of the level of their tier. There would be in the submissions itself a great deal of self-ordering. A poet that knows they are only of whatever degree of sophistication would not expect to be published in journals of higher tiers. (Until, that is, an editor says, "you should start submitting higher"; until an editor tells an upper editor, "I may have someone for you.")

It would not be such a bad thing for the poets either; for they would know where to go to find journals that offered them something fruitful in their development; a journal that offered (perhaps in online presence) a place for dialogue at their level of exploration. Also, on the part of journals, it would prompt the end what to me is self-limited publication strategy: to go national. There needs to be more local journals: that is, journals that reach out only to their geographical regions. Then writers of the region would have journals that are reflection of the local discourse on poets, journals that are interested in the local discourse on poetics (and interested in fermenting and generating such), and thus journals in which they themselves can find more than abstract, letter-head interest. Does, say, Southern Review really have a stake in developing the liteary culture of its region if its eyes are all over the globe? Wouldn't it be better for both the journal and the region if they brought their eyes in?

I believe this to be a lesson learned in bookstores, both local and chain. The more a store interacts with its customer base, responds to the customer base, is developing the readership in its customer base, the more successful the store tends to be. Why does this not apply to literary journals?