Reading through submissions I sometimes get the impression that people send us little pieces of themselves in the form of poems, artifacts made out of language, but in actuality something far more than just words or tiny slices of meaning on a page. Jared, an editorial board member, was saying in one of his critical comments that this was our character-poem theme issue. That may be true, which takes away a bit of the personal aspect of what I’m getting at, however, this is still true generally for me as an editor reviewing submissions, and true whether it’s poems we accept and publish or those we reject, and might be true in some form or fashion for all poets writing poems? To borrow a trope from a British novelist who started out writing on pub napkins, I would suggest poems are almost like horcruxes. Perhaps this is overstatement verging on sentimentality, and I’m not suggesting these bits of soul implanted in words make us immortal, though some might be remembered for a poem or a line, but I do think poems are this important. A friend said to me almost offhand his central motivation for writing was love. And he meant it dead seriously. This gave me pause. I can’t say I am motivated similarly or by such a high ideal. I wish I were.
Perhaps I should clarify as a disclaimer I am speaking generally and in no way specifically to or about the poets in this issue. Please consider this letter from the editor my opinion page this time out. Also I am not making sweeping qualitative judgements about good or bad poems, but it was during the last reading period I was reminded to once again reconsider a little essay by the high modernist post-war poet and critic, Randall Jarrell. This micro essay is titled “Bad Poets,” and was written in 1959–so 64 years ago, but still feels as true as ever today, when poetry is blossoming and more and more poems and books are being published in the US than ever before. Jarrell was a wise, funny and perspicacious critic, one of my favorites of the 20th century, and this essay has followed me throughout my tenure as an editor coming to mind periodically. It starts out like this:
Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the “worthless” books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people’s hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with “This is a poem” scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write – a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize.
What do we take from this? Poems are personal. Poems are pieces of ourselves, our souls, reflecting little bits of our lives whether indirectly or directly. They may be visceral or spiritual. Most certainly emotional. Artifacts strewn by the wayside of the journey along the way–recounting histories of thought, experience and what it is to live in the world in time–to be human. As such poems matter. In the making, whether they are accepted for publication and see the light of day, or act as some distillation of meaning we hold to ourselves filed in a drawer or computer to never see the light of a public day. Trust me, they matter. And they do work. Whether we publish or reject your work. It’s the process of writing and expression that matters, not the end result or validation–though don’t assume I’m arguing this doesn’t matter either (but maybe it’s not of primary importance?). i.e: Soul work outweighs career or prestige of the moment, or perhaps even the connection poems provide? Perhaps connection is the primary goal, but I am choosing to highlight this other thing poetry does in us as individuals. The underground level work.
Also remember that when you submit work to journals, editors are reading and considering and often discussing it amongst themselves (which means you have your audience–the poem is not stillborn), even if they click decline. Take heart! You are seen, even sometimes if you are hiding behind the artifice of a poem, and being seen may be the last thing you want. We do see you. Also consider that of all the opinions, mine as editor may matter the least. Editors are biased, fickle, and have narrow concerns that have no business reflecting back on you about yourself or your work.
This is the game.
Sometimes, like Ben Lerner, I hate poetry because it is so ambitious and so often fails, but when it is right and all things come together it’s like a signpost pointing to some greater glory of possibility that is out there hidden and unrealized to me. I think this is what Jarrell is getting after. And why we stick with it.
I also want to say something about Jarrell’s title of “bad poet” to underscore the interesting point that Jarrell is making which is the distinction between good and bad ceases to matter in so far as poetry is ultimately reflective of humanity at large being human. It all matters, maybe not for all contexts or regarding publication in books and journals, but nothing goes out into a void, nothing is wasted. I’ll even dare to suggest we are all good and bad and our poems can be good and bad at various times or in states of revision and review depending on all sorts of factors like fashion, trend, culture, need, quality, vision, aptness or brilliance or dullness of expression–the music–the list is endless. For me, most the time, poetry is a gift coming from some place outside me–whether it’s a poem I am writing, or a submission I receive and love–it never feels like something I earned or merit. At the same time please don’t think I am arguing for equity of expression or attempting to erase distinctions of quality or criticism, except in this: the poetry all matters, and it all does a kind of work for the poet and the reader. But not all things are equal–Heaven forbid!
I want to leave you with one last thing before bidding you to enter Issue #31. Chris Anderson published a poem about a man (supposedly) spontaneously singing a beautiful aria in a mall, in a recent issue of Rattle called “All That I Have” (Rattle #82, Winter 2023). He offers this explanation: “During the pandemic, I happened to watch a video about a flashmob in a shopping mall in Leeds, and it moved me so much I sat down and wrote the poem more or less in one fell swoop. Later, as I was polishing it, I realized that it was about poetry, too, as I guess every poem is underneath. We are all singing our arias in the mall, and we all want them to matter somehow, to make a difference, however briefly, even though we soon disappear, back into the crowd.”
He ends the poem this way: O that I might disappear!
Once as a long-haul trucker, I came within range of another driver with a beautiful singing voice who sang to us from somewhere within the four mile radius of his CB, just to pass the time. Everyone within range was astounded and began making requests, because he sounded better and sweeter than Elvis. Part of the magic was his invisibility and anonymity as we rolled down the road together, him being one of us, performing for miles and miles. He could be anyone. The surprise and delight over the quality and random spontaneity of his acapella renditions has stuck with me indelibly after decades. Sometimes this is what we are like.
Finally, welcome to Issue #31! I hope you enjoy giving it a look and reading.