Tag Archives: criticism

A Year in (Not) Publishing

Like more people than you would imagine, I once had a whole spreadsheet keeping track of the poems I had written, the outlets I had submitted them to, and the results. I rarely look at it now. I have not published many poems recently, either. Partly this is just life. Letting go of a poem – researching magazines and preparing submissions, writing cover letters – takes a lot of time and concentration.

Modern technology, and the amount of opportunities out there, creates the impression that getting a poem published is easier than it is. The ever-growing number of opportunities is at least partly a function of magazines being able to find their own audiences and more people having the tools to put them together in the first place. The benefit for writers and readers, no longer reliant on a narrow set of outlets, are huge. The effect on how we think about our own work is more ambiguous.

On the one hand, it’s too easy to get unrealistic expectations about how much anyone can or should be publishing. On the other, rejection (the most likely outcome, when even small magazines can only publish a tiny percentage of what they receive) only feeds a desire for more rejection. Comparisons with social media are hard to ignore: for every tweet you put out which gets no likes you want to do another. For every poem which got rejected, I would submit another elsewhere.

I have got a great deal out of writing this blog this year. The feedback is as immediate as social media, and far more fulfilling. There is always a chance someone will read it, so it never feels pointless. I write about whatever I want, however I want: that anyone is listening at all is a luxury! Yet, having had a month or so away from blogging, I can see how my relationship with it might have some things in common with submitting poetry to magazines, or using social media: that feeling that I need to just keep publishing; that fear of rejection, which only feeds the desire to publish more.

Is there a solution? Jonathan Davidson suggests we broaden our understanding of what sharing poetry entails to include a greater focus on different kinds of reading (e.g., out loud, at special occasions), and on reaching more non-poets. I agree. Davidson’s focus is largely on collections, but I think the insight can be extended to individual poems. Why should the default ‘end point’ be publication in a magazine?

For most people I know, poetry is a marginal art, so it’s a fair assumption that by placing a poem in a magazine you will have a greater chance of finding an appreciative reader (i.e. another poet) than sharing it with someone you know. But the end result of this way of thinking isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy which keeps poetry on the margins: it effects our idea of what a poem even is.

There are ways of rethinking how we share poetry among regular writers, too. I suspect a lot of writers engage with poetry groups and workshops, at least in part, as steps towards publication. But there is no reason why they have to be. I attended a regular poetry evening when I was at university. I have never produced so much rubbish in my life, but I have rarely felt so much like I knew why I was writing.

My own solution over the last few years has been to try to publish less poetry, and more writing about poetry. I can see this wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It may end up with me not publishing any of my own poetry at all (which isn’t necessarily a disaster). But I’ve also found that I appreciate poetry – writing it and reading it – more, not less.

While I’m Here

  • Prose – appreciation, explanation, provocation – is one of the best ways of growing and sustaining an audience for poetry which is why poetry publications which value these things are so important. Poetry Brum is one of the best (and newest) in the UK and one reason for this is the space and encouragement they give to essays and reviews. Also editorials like this.
  • Full disclosure: I have a piece in the latest issue, on what a lockdown homage to Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal tells us about the original. Some of the issue is available online, including this essay by Mona Kareem on the politics of translation. I also recommend the piece on ‘music lost in translation’ in the print edition by Khaled Hakim (who writes like a dream).
  • Another new-ish outlet I’m enjoying is The Friday Poem. Their innovation is to publish one poem (and only one) a week – and explain why. They also have a lively blog: Emma Simon’s recent piece on rejections inspired me to finish this one, as did Matthew Stewart’s piece on reaching ‘beyond the bubble‘. Matthew has very kindly featured me on his round up of the year’s best poetry blogs.
  • I watched ‘Don’t Look Up’. It was mostly bad, although I was glad they followed through with the ending. I also watched ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for the first time, which was completely surreal and unexpectedly brutal – mostly in a good way.

The header is from a print by Cyril Power called ‘Whence and Whither’ (c.1930). I have just moved out of London after almost six years and am feeling nostalgic about escalators.

Making Nothing Happen

It was probably inevitable that the two most famous quotes about poetry’s purpose, Shelley’s ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and W. H. Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ would be so contradictory: poetry is a house with many rooms and so, rightly, is criticism.

David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s ‘New Defences of Poetry’ project, now available on its own website here, marked the bicentennial of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ by inviting defences of poetry today and received an appropriately diverse and challenging range of responses. (I was very glad to have a piece included.)1

One of the pieces I particularly appreciated was Polly Atkin’s essay ‘Poetry as its own defence’, which puts Auden’s quote in its proper context. Often invoked ‘to gesture to the redundancy of poetry’, Auden’s words, which are lifted from the poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, are their own defence:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

For Auden, through Yeats (and now through Auden), poetry is a mouth: as Atkins memorably puts it, ‘a conduit for speech, meaning, knowledge, understanding.’ The phrase ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ ought really be read not only in the context of the line (poetry makes nothing happen, but ‘it survives’, which is something), and not only in the context of the whole stanza, which, like Auden’s Yeats, is a bit silly, if knowingly so (Mad Ireland?), but in the context of the poem. Auden puts his faith is not in some abstract thing called ‘poetry’, but in life, however difficult that proves:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

I am with Atkin, too, in being sceptical of Shelley’s figure of the poet as ‘interpreter of the sacred and the arcane’, this idea that poets have exclusive insight into moral or spiritual truths beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Not only does the evidence just not bear this out, it is a conservative idea – or at a least slightly cultish one – implying a hiearchy with poets (and perhaps their fans) at the top.

It is an idea which, at least on these islands, seems to be rearticulated in new ways in every generation: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ted Hughes all went in for it and you can still smell it lurking at the bottom of a lot of ‘poetic reasoning’. Auden represents a dissident tradition: respectful of poetry’s ‘gift’, he knew that poets themselves are as human as the next person.

My own piece was the result of a long running, if entirely one-sided, argument with Ben Lerner’s book, ‘The Hatred of Poetry’. My broader aim was to defend poetry from those who ask too much of it, or who place it on a pedestal, of whom Lerner happens to be a particularly prominent representative.

On reflection, I think one reason I am troubled by Lerner’s argument is that it reminds me so much of that Shelley-esque notion of poetry possessing some unique moral understanding, an understanding that resides somewhere in its poetic essence – quite where is rarely made clear – rather than anything the individual poet actually writes, does or says. (To his credit, Lerner is clear that for him this moral value resides in poetry’s familiarity with failure, but I do not buy this either.)

Sometimes poets take pride in arguing that arguing about what poems are and what they do is impossible. If I was being cynical, which I usually am, I would say we fear taking poetry apart and looking under the bonnet because we worry it will undermine its value: in effect, we think we need to choose between faith and reason. It’s a false choice.


1 David’s introduction says everything I would want to say and more about why criticism, poetics, whatever you want to call it, is important. It is also generous survey of the ‘defences’ themselves, which are a treasure trove. There is a great deal to think with in there and I was humbled, frankly, to be in the same store as so many poets/critics I always look forward to reading. In the spirit of David’s call for the project to be a spark for further discussion, over the next few weeks (more likely, months) I am going to try to respond to some the pieces which spoke most to me.


NB the picture is W. H. Auden. His notoriously wrinkly face has been crinkled again by the book cover.

Boom, Boom – ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ by Elizabeth Bishop

View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop sounds like an austere landscape painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings.

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2 reviews: Hannah Lowe and Stewart Sanderson

I enjoy doing OPOIs (it stands for ‘one point of interest’) for Sphinx Review, the brainchild of Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press. The form, 350 words on one thing you liked about a new pamphlet, works like all forms – the restriction becomes a kind of freedom. If you haven’t written any criticism before it is a good, supportive place to start.

By ‘criticism’ I mean any kind of reflection on how literature does and doesn’t work for you, though these days the word will seem negative to many people. There is no reason why this has to be the case. All reviewing is a kind of criticism, or ought to be.

The beauty of the OPOI is that because of the word limit you have to direct that attention on the poems, and only the poems. There’s no room to speculate. My two most recent efforts are below, on Stewart Sanderson’s An Offering and Hannah Lowe’s The Neighbourhood.

In the first, I talk about how rhyming can help a poem carry an argument or a narrative. I’ve been thinking about this again recently reading eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope properly for the first time, most of which is in rhyming couplets. Pope’s ‘Essay on Criticism’, incidentally, argues that the point of criticism is to encourage what is good.

Even if you agree with Pope that criticism is a positive thing, the question then, is – who wants to put themselves forward as the arbiter? To which you can only ask: who else is going to do it? At the end of the day, you are only explaining what you like, but it might help someone else decide what they like.

Hannah Lowe’s pamphlet is very close to home: my street in Brixton is on the front cover. In the OPOI I talk about how one poem in the pamphlet deals with different kinds of distances.*

An Offering, Stewart Sanderson

The Neighbourhood, Hannah Lowe