Posted by: noelwilliams | February 15, 2014

Poetic emergence

I’ve just read an account of ‘poetic emergence’. The authors are clear this is different from poetic development – emergence is about the profile and public presence of a poet, development is about their poetic expertise and, I suppose, experience. See here

I recognise the conventional stages they’ve identified as making sense in the UK at least. Initially, (1) local and limited publication in very few magazines, then (2) more extensive publication in more magazines, then (3) publication in the most widely recognised magazines, some anthologising and possibly producing a pamphlet, leading to invitations to readings. Stage (4) is full blown first collection, with more readings, perhaps a few reviews in major places. Stage (5) is where we all hope to be, I think, with a well established and wide geographical profile, and a second collection, perhaps also becoming established as essayist or reviewer, and possibly recognised through awards and professional position. Stage (6) is probably beyond most of us: “ the poet might be on the syllabus for GCSE, A Level, and degree-level study; there might be academic conferences with papers on their work…..  there might be radio interviews, appearances on TV book-shows or arts programme.” (There is no stage (7), so that, I guess, will be the Nobel prize for literature).

I guess, I can see where I sit within the stages they outline, though I think I’m an odd case in some ways. I wonder if most poets will actually feel that way, faced with such a schema. Clearly what this describes is something like the normal way that a poet becomes known in the current cultural context of UK poetry, but does that mean it’s inevitable it should be like that?  (I think the model doesn’t apply quite so well to the US context, so I imagine other countries actually would say the process is rather different. Maybe you’ve a view on this?)

Whilst it’s obvious that this is not about quality in poetry, and poets can also clearly decide that this sort of professional progress is not for them, for the typical poet this is probably close to how it goes. Consequently, somewhere along that line of emergence, most of us have to settle for being “a local poet in little magazines” or a poet with “one collection and a couple of pamphlets” – or however it turns out. Which is fine, of course, for everyone except the over-ambitious.

However, this is now rather complicated by growth in the electronic presence of poetry and, related to it, the growth of self-publication. I’ve not yet heard of a poet who only works online, or who has solely self-published, who finds themselves magically transported into this more traditional process. But we’ve heard such stories from other genres (typically erotic work, it seems) so there’s nothing to say it’s not a possibility for poets to. It may even be that some online presence becomes a logical stage in the typical poet’s emergence, too. Your appearance in Antiphon may well be an important step in getting an international audience, for example.

What perturbs us, here at Antiphon, is the apparent number of poets who do achieve success (at least according to their bios, which we’ve no cause to doubt) but who nevertheless send us work which we cannot or would not publish. Obviously our taste simply does not accord with that of many other magazines and small presses, because many poets come to us with a long list of publications, but offer us nothing that we feel is of even reasonable quality. We pride ourselves on trying to select the highest quality of work from all that is submitted, as close to perfect as we can find (although we do sometimes allow ourselves a small “well, it’s got flaws but we still like it”). There’s relatively little correlation between the length of the bio and the quality of the work.

Indeed, in some cases, there seems to be almost an inverse correlation. We know sometimes when a poet says “I’ve been published in over 73 magazines” that the work itself is going to be problematic. We’re simply mystified on occasion by what appears to be mediocre submissions supported by extensive bios. According to the “emergence” model, such poets would be at stage 3 or 4 or maybe even 5, but in quality terms, we’d place them as 2, at best, and so we’re puzzled about how work which seems undeveloped or loosely imagined or unmusical or not thought out or unoriginal can establish such a substantial resumé.

So in our view there’s a clear difference between quality of work and the level of emergence of the poet – the bio is largely irrelevant – we’d much rather publish completely unknown and unpublished poets if their work is tight, musical, clever, imaginative, stimulating, rich.




  1. Sounds fair enough to me. I think if you looked at emerged poets’ books you’d see a wide range of quality. Some poets are famous for years until they die, then their work’s suddenly forgotten – it survived because of the poet’s “emergence factor” which in turn depended on the poet’s self-marketing abilities more than their quality. Larkin had the last laugh over Hughes.

    If a poetry book’s break-even point is (say) 500 copies, and an emerged poet can shift that many via libraries and readings, then why should quality matter? If a poet can guarantee sufficient sales by appealing to a particular audience, why should quality matter?

    My impression is that quality might matter more for small presses because they’re still trying to create a brand of sorts – if they publish a book which wins a prize, it might help the sales of the publisher’s other books.

  2. Good points, Tim. I suppose there’s always going to be a tension between “quality” (which is impossible to get a clear, consensual definition of, in any case) and “popularity”, measured in such things as number of sales. If the poetry market is finite, though (e.g. if all poetry readers only buy X books a year) then the popular will usurp the quality, wherever the one excludes the other. Presumably, the best kind of poet to be is a quality poet who is also popular. Who would this be? Duffy or Armitage, perhaps? McGough? Zephaniah? Always easiest to work out once the poet is dead!

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