Our view of poetry

As editors, we have to judge hundreds of poems, deciding which to publish and which to leave alone. Of course, our choices depend on our taste, but one thing that has surprised us a little is how often we agree on particular poems. (We don’t publish anything unless both of us agree it’s good enough).

Yet we tend to write quite different things ourselves. Probably we have different skills and tendencies, too, although we’re unlikely to be able to recognise them in ourselves. So our judgements of quality seem to mean that there are some core qualities we’re looking for in poetry which we can both agree on and recognise when we see them. We probably can’t be explicit about the whole thing. After all, some of the best poems work mysteriously and achieve their impacts in ways which perhaps can’t be described. However, we do know several things that we like to see.

High on the list is musicality. We’re not especially wedded to strongly formal poems. Most of our own work is free verse, though we both are quite fond of the occasional sonnet and have wandered in somewhat formal gardens of verse sometimes. But we do like poetry which aims for music – chiming, sonorous, rhythmic poetry, poetry which particularly attends to the words it uses, to the sounds and patterns it makes in the ear. Sometimes we find ourselves writing “cut up prose” in judging a poem. This almost always means the same to us as “unmusical” and it would be rare for such a poem to make it into Antiphon.

Then there’s attention to detail. Yes, there can be a place for generalisation, uncertainty, abstraction in a poem but, by and large, better poems are specific, particular, unique and exact. We like original and striking imagery, though not poems that merely strive to be different above all else. The images have to ring true. They have to convey something. This means that, as well as being specific, they work best when they’re suggestive of something else – the world in a grain of sand.

Of course, we recognise most of these don’t happen in our own work from time to time, too. But that only encourages us to be exacting in the work of others. Ideally, I think, we’d like all the poems we publish to be better than we could write. (Though we’d be very envious, of course!) Poems that do things we don’t expect, or would never have thought of. Poems that have movement, flow, surprise, puzzles, mystery, interest. As Antiphon has developed, we’ve seen that certain subjects recur, and certain approaches to those subjects are common. If a poet is going to write about a loved one dying, the ravages of time, the failures of inspiration, the golden love glimpsed in the morning, they’re going to have to do something really special to make that poem stand out as special and new.

So we do set the benchmark pretty high. But, even so, there are occasional poems that come along and simply please us. Sometimes, we can’t say why. We’ve published a few poems we don’t understand, and a few in styles we profess not to enjoy. Except in this unusual case. Sometimes we simply know that a poem does its job perfectly, and there’s no point in subjecting it to tests and queries and examinations. We just have to publish it, without any debate about why.

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Responses

  1. What a wonderful and illuminating insight into your selection process, and a great source of thoughts regarding what makes a poem a poem. Musicality. I would like to thank you, as I am now going to apply a musicality test to my writing, and am excited about what will result. I look forward to turning “cut up prose” into something musical.


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