December 7, 2009

What Poetry Editors Hope To See In Poetry

In the book Spreading the Word compiled by Stephen Corey and Warren Slesinger and published in 2001 by The Bench Press, twenty editors of poetry journals discuss the qualities they look for in the many hundreds of poems that cross their desks every month. Since most of these literary magazines only have print space for a couple dozen poems per issue, competition remains high. Each editor has personal preferences, of course, yet they looked for similar characteristics in poems they accept. To find out more, I highly recommend the entire book, but for a mini-view here’s a recap of the notable qualities or fresh traits commonly sought by editors – and, yes, readers too:

• Compelling subject that engages readers, making them want to re-read

• Fresh perspective or unusual treatment of the theme or topic

• Credibility and an honest voice

• Accuracy in fact, sensory detail, observation, research

• Genuine exploration of something that might interest most people

• Risk or emotional investment in the poem

• Conflict, counterpoint, juxtaposition – something to provide a push-pull tension between knowing and not knowing or a balance between order and disorder, poising the poem so it does not become a locked box that clicks shut at the end

• Word choices with interesting connotations, denotations, and sounds

• Rhythmic emphasis on syllables or rhymes that benefit from the stress

• Distinctive language and ideas by an interesting speaker or persona

• Tone in keeping with subject, for instance, lively lines in a humor poem

• Humor rather than cleverness, irony over mere wit

• Effective form for traditional verse, effective line-breaks for free verse

• Musicality that becomes even more obvious in reading the poem aloud


(c) 2009, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.

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