So what exactly is it that makes a poetry editor sit up and take notice?
For Lighthouse a poem has to be very strong as there are four, sometimes five, editors to get past. Either we all like a poem or one or more editors has to love it enough to stand up and fight for it. I am going to try and quantify what makes a good poem. Of course these views are entirely personal.
A good poem should be:
- Not simply be an anecdote or a description− there are a lot of these kind of poems around. I have a few myself – none of them made it into my book. An anecdote is not, in itself, a bad thing, but the poem needs to be more than that, it needs a pivotal moment or insight − the thing that makes you remember a poem and go back to it for a second reading.
- Not just a list− l like list poems, but successful ones are doing something more than simply listing stuff. They are suggesting a back-story or making you think about something that is not being overtly stated. A good example of this is “About His Person” by Simon Armitage.
- Be exciting to read− what makes a poem exciting varies from person to person of course. Some people like rhyme, for others it’s the content. For me it is a mixture−content is important, but so is the use of language. A good writer can write about the most trivial of things and make it sound exciting. A poem that uses language in exciting ways will make me sit up and take notice. Jen Hadfield does this for me−take a look at her poem “XXI The World“.
- Do something different− I like poems that come at things aslant. Even the most boring of subjects can be made interesting in the hands of a good writer – “Ironing” by Vicki Feaver does this brilliantly. I also like poems that tackle big topics in new ways.
- Not be overly poetic− Try and avoid ‘poetic’ words and abstract nouns (shards, shimmery, solitary, longing etc.). A poem should avoid being flowery and pretty−even if it is about something flowery and pretty. Alice Oswald is a master of this, take a look at her poem Narcissus and you will see what I mean. She only uses one (what I would call) poemy word in the entire poem – glittery, but she gets away with it because the rest of the poem is so surprising.
- Have a strong beginning and ending− It is so tempting to spell everything out for your reader. One of the things I tell my students is that they should trust their readers more. George Szirtes once said “jump right into the poem, and step off lightly at the end.” I have never forgotten this – it is great advice. When editing it is always worth asking yourself whether you need the first and last stanzas.
- Not be too obscure− Sometimes this comes from over-editing−the writer takes out so much that meaning is lost. Sometimes a poem sounds poetic but falls apart when you try and unpick its meaning. Beginners often start writing like this because it approximates what they think poetry should sound like. There is, conversely, deliberately obscure poetry − intellectual and academic poetry, which does little more than showing off that it is intellectual and academic − the kind of poetry that shouts “look at me, I am so clever and well read.” Don’t get me wrong, I do like intellectual and clever poetry, but for me it needs to be doing something more. Poetry has to speak to the reader; this is what makes us go back to it.
- Not simply tell a story− though of course there are many great narrative poems. I have come across many poems that are a story broken up to look like a poem. One trick as a writer is to ask yourself why you are writing it as a poem and not a story. If you feel like you have to cram in every tiny detail, then perhaps a short story would be a better medium. The trick is that less is more. Keep it simplish and aim to grab your reader’s attention. Don’t feel you have to tell us everything. A good story poem is like an art house film, it is immensely satisfying but leaves some questions unanswered.
- Feel true− that doesn’t mean it has to be true. I think of a poem as a tiny work of fiction. Of course lots of poems are about real events, but writers often get hung up on not changing things/leaving things. You should feel free to change details if it works for the poem, and to use real concrete details to flesh out fictional works. What matters is the truth of the poem not the actual truth. I love a poem that sweeps me up and makes me believe in it. It could be a mythological story or a poem about going to the shops, just make me believe it.
- Not take itself too seriously but not try too hard be funny− Poetry that doesn’t do it for me is poetry is that tries too hard to be funny or has a clever punch line−those poems are rarely memorable. There is a lot of humour in everyday life and I like poems that reflect this without whacking me in the face with it. A great example of this is the poem is “Somewhat Unravelled” by Jo Shapcott from Of Mutability. I have a similar dislike of poems that take themselves too seriously and are overburdened with portentous description and abstract nouns. You are not Edgar Allan Poe.
All this of course, is purely my own opinion on what contributes to making a good poem.
Julia Webb, December 2016