What I Look For in a Poem
By Senior Poetry Editor
In addition to a cornucopia of silly-sounding euphemisms for sex, dating-game television shows in America in the 1970s and ’80s were obsessed with having contestants list their “turn-ons” and “turn-offs.” Remember that? In attempting to communicate what I look for in a poem when I read for Silk Road, it occurs to me that this model illustrates the important point that one editor’s taste in poetry can be just as intimate, revealing, peculiar, and visceral as a “turn on.” And while we collude socially to raise up certain things as universally “attractive,” who can say why a particular accent, object, or romantic setting turns over the engine of one person’s libido while leaving another stone cold? In aesthetics, as in human sexuality, the closest we can come to truthfulness is to recognize the existence of theme and variations.
I will begin therefore with my “turn-offs.” These are the things that sometimes cause me to stop reading a poem before the end. Yes, I do that. Even though what I receive has been carefully read and deliberated upon by assistant editors, I still have hundreds of poems to get through. There are certain ways that a poem can signal to me that, out of respect for so many others awaiting my attention, it is now time to move on. The single biggest mistakes are actual mistakes—not so much typos, which I can overlook, but errors of grammar or malapropisms that betray an incomplete understanding of the language being used, laziness, or both.
The next set of “turn-offs” fall into the general category of trying to increase what I call the “mystery quotient” of a poem. Excessive use of subject-less or verb-less sentences and passive voice constructions can often convey a sense that the author is making a deliberate effort at being fragmentary or impressionistic, when they are actually just being incomplete. Another big “turn-off” is pressing antique language and elevated diction back into service. In general, I am wary of poems that sound, for whatever reason, like they’re trying to be poems. I also distrust—and this is probably just me—the use of questions that never get answered in a poem, as often they seem put there as an easy way to try to make the poem seem more philosophically interesting.
The last set of “turn-offs” I have identified involve poems that are prosaic. The first sort involves an excessive reliance on the kind of narrative description constructs that don’t succeed in prose, either: “She does this,” and “She does that.” Poems can tell great stories. But they must do so within the context of language as an artistic medium. They must tell it line by line. Which brings me to my final “turn-off,” which is the most significant: the use of general language. In particular, I distrust the excessive use of words that label emotions, or the use of therapeutic, self-help, religious, or philosophical language as a kind of conceptual shorthand. This vocabulary is great for communicating one’s inner state quickly to a circle of like-minded friends. But poetry requires a different approach. It reaches the universal through specificity.
So on to what poetry deserves, my poetic “turn-ons.” As much as conceptual shorthand often has the opposite effect of the author’s intention (to make the poem more lofty), getting specific can actually make a poem transcendent. The best way to get specific is to come alive to one’s senses in the telling of the tale, setting of the scene, or painting of the impression. A poet who has come alive to her senses automatically makes the language more specific, and often more concise as well. The use of language, the quality of observation, the turn of phrase, even the interesting objects involved—make a poem a poem much more than employing grand ideas or describing feelings. Which is to say, it’s all in the execution. A poem executed well takes me on a journey I want to go on. At the same time, poetry that excites me takes risks. I know for a fact that good poets write bad poems. Poets who take risks tend to fail spectacularly. But they also sometimes end up doing something deliciously new.
In closing, I will say that editing for Silk Road has been edifying for me as a poet. I tell my fellow editors “don’t read angry,” and take that advice to heart myself as well, since my own mood can affect the care with which I pore over these manuscripts. And knowing what I put in to my own work before I decide to send it out, care is what each piece deserves. Some will turn me off quickly. Others, sometimes on a second or third reading, will make me feel, as Emily Dickinson put it, “physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” It is for that moment that we all read—as editors, subscribers, and poets revising our own work. That’s what I look for, and strive for, in a poem. “That,” says Emily, “is poetry.”