Q: What is the first thing you look for in a piece of writing? Is there something concrete that you check, or does the piece have to have something more indescribable to catch you eye?
I was lucky enough to have this discussion over some very delicious wine with some of my foothill (and non-foothill) colleagues before answering. During that discussion, the importance of form, style, and craft all came up. And to be honest—it’s an impossibility to put it completely under any poetic thumb.
So I’ll stick to what I know, and that is this:
Something has to happen in the poem. Something arresting, something interesting, something strange; a single brilliant metaphor or turn of phrase can push me over the threshold from nonchalance about a poem to fighting tooth-and-nail for its publication when no one else seems to recognize its merit (I have only done this successfully twice, just for the record. But that’s also more than anyone else. Just for the record). That said, every editor on our team grapples with at least one poem that makes it to publication. If not two. Or more. And I think this one of the most valuable things about the foothill group: we all have separate tastes and they are all exquisitely loathable and laudable. My favorite thing is when a poem surprises me—with an unexpected word, an image that likens two starkly contrasting ideas. But all of that is still relatively vague. For the sake of argument, two things that will make me at least reconsider a poem:
1). Subtle humor, effectively executed.
2). Cats (this is not a joke).
Precision. That is the first thing I look for in a poem. And this is all encompassing. The line breaks have to be entered with care and purpose. Each individual word has to be the best possible fit, the most suitable word in all the English language. The punctuation needs to be accurate and correctly used because, let’s face it, we should all be aspiring to the mastery of ee cummings. The form has to match the content. And the content. Yes. Something meaningful needs to come through in at least a few great lines. If the poem lacks precision in any or all of these areas, then it comes off as sloppy and rushed rather than the well-crafted work of a careful poet. From what I have learned from the great ones, poets need to spend time with their work; they need to be great editors who constantly strive to improve their writing, and they need to be dedicated to their craft, in love with words, and endlessly devoted to studying other great poets–great poets who, without a doubt, display in their writing excellent precision.
We all have our tastes for poetry. Even editors deeply committed to impartiality can’t escape their own biases, their own views on what makes something good. And why should they? When picking up a poem for the first time every reader brings their opinions with them–no matter if they’re well-thought out, or intuited, or (as is usually the case) something in between.For me, nothing comes before form. How a poem appears on the page is the first thing to notice. Does the poet use a special font? Does she call attention to the poem? Does he use traditional forms? Does it rhyme? Some of these features take longer to notice than others, but a lot can be gleaned from a few quick glances. A neo-Language poet, for instance, might submit a piece that looks like letters scattered on a page, while an avid reader of Shakespeare might send out an overwrought sonnet.But form can only indicate what sort of poem is likely to follow. In other words, first impressions will only take you so far. Nothing in a poem–not even spelling errors–should warrant a rejection without a few careful readings first. We all have our pet peeves, we all have our points of view, but when it comes to evaluating someone’s poetry the things we look for first can only tell us so much.
The first thing I look for when reviewing a poem is form. Does the form of the poem hold and enrich the subject/language? Are the line breaks, stanza breaks, caesuras and enjambments meaningful? Are they necessary? I have found that where there is clear attention to form in a poem, there is too clarity in visual, symbolic and/or narrative purpose. Spelling errors can be corrected, but a poem that attempts to define itself by meaningless formal gimmicks (e.g., poems with no punctuation, arbitrary colons or hay-wire line breaks and tabs to the extreme left or right) rather than the synthesis of form and content is a hopeless thing. The best poems I have read are not necessarily formalist poems—but, they are the result of meticulous attention to every word, line, stanza and piece of punctuation in the movement(s). Sound is too an element of form. A poem that compels me to read it out loud is usually one that I will advocate for in editorial meetings. Poems that break down form have too garnered my attention and respect. Fragments and innovative syntactical pairings can thwart contemporary expectations of English language form in the interest of creating a poem that creates feeling and vision. What I look for most in terms of form is how the poem itself impacts my understanding of the English language and American culture. Our language is in constant flux. While English is encroaching on other first-world languages, thanks to technological advancements that originated in the US and the global exchange of information (for both economic and social networking purposes), it is to the product of multicultural discourse. Poems that capture a moment of cultural, formal intervention to the English language demand to read and considered for the moment of insight that they are.
When reading a piece of writing for the first time, whether poem or short story or op-ed, I look to have the following question answered relatively quickly: “So what?” In other words, why do I care? I want to be sucked in, enthralled, enticed. If the form is beautiful, the word choice precise, but the piece doesn’t grab me, then I don’t really care about the craftiness of it… except to think how I wish this craft-conscious poet were as masterful at engaging me as she is at her bitchin’ line breaks. Of course, I won’t be sucked in if I think a poem sloppily written, so the craft is certainly important. And, naturally, art is so subjective that a poem that entices me might fall flat for someone else. But, subjectivity aside, the first thing I look for in a piece of writing is that feeling of being hooked, dazzled, affected. And that feeling only arises when the poet persuades me to care.
What do you look for first in a poem? Is it that difficult-to-define “happening”, a general feel (or form), or something more individual (we think T. S. Eliot would agree with Emily on the cats) ? Comment and join the debate!
I try to sense the depth of the author’s capacity as an artist. I often develop an awareness of an underlying artistry behind the writing after a few lines, a verse, or a paragraph. However, it is still possible for an author to write well in terms of their formal ability but fall short within the realm of content. I only become truly interested once I have a sense that the author is both a craftsman and a philosopher. In my opinion, these two qualities together make a great author and an excellent piece of writing.