Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Friday, June 14, 2013

Why Your Poetry Fails - Part III

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #38
Judges, Editors, Forms and Meter:

    Stories abound of great poems or poets being rejected by editors.  The greatest poem of the 20th Century was initially put aside because the editor didn't know it was metrical and thought it was obscure rambling.  Ironically, the greatest piece [so far] in the 21st Century was rejected by the same outlet and under the same misapprehension:  that it was non-metrical and too obscure despite the fact that its theme was, literally, spelled out for them.

    "How can this happen?" you might ask.  "Twice, no less!  Are they crazy?  Stupid?  Utterly lacking in taste?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #16

     Too many people seem to think that contests and periodicals have dozens of screeners and judges/editors waiting for submissions to trickle in, each of which will be studied like the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Wrong at every level.  Judging and editorial staffs are always undermanned, almost always receive far more entries than expected and, with a deadline looming, have nowhere near the time for a "close read" of each poem or manuscript.

     Typically, like a sports franchise cutting players in training camp, the process involves slimming down the stack of entries using progressively more stringent criteria.  Only in the final stages will judges or editors be sufficiently familiar with the candidate works to consider subtle nuances.  It follows logically that "deep" poems are usually eliminated before these stages unless they also have an eye-catching exterior.  Gotta have some sizzle with that steak.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #48
     Many assume that editors and contest judges are students of the craft.  Not so.  Most are students of the products of the craft.  Literature majors, not technique freaks.  More like car dealers than car mechanics.  This state of affairs isn't new.  Harriet Monroe was an excellent editor but would not have published "Prufrock" if Ezra Pound hadn't stepped in and scanned it for her.  True, T.S. Eliot got away with outwriting his editor but you won't...unless you have Ezra Pound riding shotgun for you.

     Today, thousands are earning MFAs, PhDs and positions as editors and contest judges without knowing the basics of verse, starting with scansion.  This is hardly an ideal situation--indeed, it's one of my pet peeves--but as long as we are aware of the editor's/judge's level of technical knowledge it can work in our favor.  We can treat them more or less as we would the average poetry lover, employing the tricks we speak of in this series without detection.  Many would ask:  "Isn't that as it should be?  Isn't poetry intended for poetry fans as opposed to poetry geeks?"  (I'm biting my lip here.)

     Given their lack of interest in and familiarity with the elements of verse, the easiest way to outwrite such editors or judges is to write in form.  It's too conspicuous, like speaking a foreign language around unilingual anglophones.  Rude, even!


     An acrostic is a poem that lists its theme with the first, last or other letters from each line--most often the first letter, as with "Beans".  Here is how they operate:

  • Person hears or reads the poem;

  • Person experiences a "WTF?" reaction;

  • Person has the time and curiousity to investigate; and, ideally,

  • Person looks at the poem on paper and sees the acrostic.  Mystery solved!

     The catch is that a judge or editor, pressed for time and inundated with cryptocrap, likely won't bother to check for the acrostic.

The Fate of Other Forms:

My sister, Pearl Gray
     When people complain that judges and editors are unpredictable I show them the Great Canadian Literary Hunt, an international writing contest sponsored by that country's national broadcasting conglomerate.  In tracking the winning manuscripts over time I have been so struck by the lack of diversity that I had my Rik Roots wannabe sister, Pearl, write the "Prosody Evaluation And Report Logger" (aka "PEARL") [in her favorite programming language, Perl].  By counting repetitions of rhythms and sounds, its algorithm revealed that, even though the contest employs different judges each year, the winners invariably hovered around 1.8 out of 10 on the PEARL scale.  This means they had less poetry than a weather forecast (which might repeat words like "rain", "heat", "temperature", etc.).  One year, the second place entrant in the prose competition scored a full PEARL point higher than the poetry side winner.  What is more, in all the years I followed the contest not one triumphant manuscript--these were collections,¹ not single poems--had a single line of verse in it.  Subject matter rarely ventured far from diary entries and feeble fables about coming of age in small towns.

     This makes two points:

  1. You must check out not just the judge's or editor's track record but that of the contest or periodical as well.  The sponsors always pick the same kind of judges.  Read their previous output carefully.  Indeed, most publishers' submission guidelines implore you to do so.

  2. Many, if not most, judges and editors take a jaundiced view of form (e.g. sonnets, villanelles, ghazals) and, if they can detect it, meter.  Biases range from "simplistic doggerel" and "light verse" to "precious", "trying too hard" and the Kiss of Death:  "too clever by half".

    It follows from #2 that if you are going to write in meter break it up into paragraphs (called "corata", like "Shadows") or irregular linebreaks (called a "curgina", like "Beans").  It isn't a stretch to assume that those who don't understand meter won't recognize it when it is disguised, however thinly.  Some don't even have someone read the submissions aloud to them.  (If I ruled the world contests and editors would pay Nic Sebastian to record every poem they receive but, hey, who listens to a squirrel?)

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #49
    As predictable as contest judges are, print periodicals are more so.  Few will publish anything that doesn't align with their aesthetics, philosophy or politics, all of which can be remarkably narrow.  Except for formalist magazines such as The Lyric and David Landrum's "Lucid Rhythms", I could find no magazine that scored higher than 4.0 on the PEARL scale, which is to say that most of their poetry isn't.  The three outlets that cracked 5.0 on a steady basis were all ezines.

    The takeaway from all of this, as encapsulated in Rules #48 and #49, is to use the tricks we mention in this series (e.g. diaeresis, bracketing, curgination, etc.) without making it apparent, just as your opponents have been doing. 

    "If knowledge hangs around your neck like pearls instead of chains...


¹ - Recently, these collections have been limited to two poems each, no doubt in an effort to reduce the judges' workload.

² - If you do not own Alan Price's "O Lucky Man!" album buy it.  Thank me later.

Series Links:

  1. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part I - Diaeresis

  2. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part II - Brackets

  3. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part III - Judges and Editors

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  1. I believe that's Harriet Monroe, not Harriet Moore; you might have been thinking of Marianne Moore, who edited the DIAL in the 20s after Scofield Thayer had a nervous breakdown (EE Cummings having eloped with his wife). The Waste Land was awarded the $1,000 DIAL prize (a lot of money in those days) before it was finished, thanks to a deal cut by Eliot, Pound and their lawyer, John Quinn.

  2. Darn! I had fixed that typo earlier but somehow it crept back in.

    Thanks for the heads up, Tom.


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