In December, there were 77 submissions or, in the end, 76, because one turned out to be the same one twice.

Reading and responding took all of January, between completing Chapter 7, designing new flyers and negotiating with the bank. The standard of the poetry inside the envelopes was horribly good. Horribly, because the likelihood of my offering to do a publication becomes more and more evanescent, even for good poets. I can only do so many.

Some poets make their first approach with little awareness of how it does (or doesn’t) work. It’s not their fault. A well-known poet has recommended they approach me (they will tell me who this person is) and they hope the endorsement will make a difference. It doesn’t make a difference.

I read each submission carefully and write things in pencil on and around the poems. As time goes on, I get less polite. I know I’m dispensing liberal doses of disappointment. Who wants to be a professional disappointer? The awful truth is that what I really want them to do is buy the poetry I have already published, not give me more of the stuff to market and sell. (It is so hard selling poetry. They have no idea.)

And yet, I love the poetry I have published. I really do. My enthusiasm isn’t feigned. Who would not want more things to love?

So I read the poems. Do I love what’s in front of me? How much do I love it? Do I love it enough to add it to the already impossible challenge in front of me?

Probably not. It’s the same for everyone who reads poetry. For every poem you love and copy out, there are hundreds you can live without.

Even as I scribble insults about the poem’s punctuation, sentence structure, mixed metaphor and line breaks, I know my view is just one view. But it’s a very particular one. Out of all the new submissions, I may offer to do a publication for one. I can’t afford, in time or money, more than that. (I can’t even afford that.) It has to be one that’s not only strong, but also as different as possible from anything I’ve done before.

And still there are a whole set of people here with individual poems I like very much. I’m glad to read them. In response to some of them, I could write pages, although lack of time prevents that. I hope some of my responses may prove useful to these people and perhaps win them opportunities elsewhere (the pamphlet competitions are useful in developing sets of strong work, I think, irrespective of winning).

The breakdown this year was as follows:

Already HappenStance subscribers, so know at least a bit about the press


First submission

Currently working on a promised publication, so sending poems towards that

Second, third or more approach (this normally means I have been encouraging)



45 (c 60%)







Number of new firm offers made: 1.

Not everyone makes an approach hoping I’ll do a pamphlet (it helps to know people’s ambitions). Some just send a dozen poems for feedback, which is fine. Many of them are now wonderfully professional: they have read the submission guidelines and followed them, and the dos and don’ts, so there are no immediate barriers.

So far, I’ve published more men than women, and I would like to change that. However, I getmore poems from women than men. I don’t know what conclusion to draw about this.

I don’t make publication offers on first submission. I might express an interest or a strong interest. Sometimes I tell poets they’re so good they don’t need me: they should be winning a competition outright. Some of them go on to do just that. It helps if people know my antipathy for villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, ekphrastic poems, ‘after’ poems, and dedications.

I am presentation-sensitive. I prefer single spacing (it’s in the guidelines). I prefer a size of font similar to what I would put in a pamphlet (roughly a 12 in Word) so I can visualize the poem on a page. I like the name and address of the author on each sheet. I expect the font to be consistent: all 12 poems same font and same size. (Often poets present their work dramatically differently from page to page.)

Some poets have interestingly graphical pieces with elaborate spacing patterns and designs. Mainly they present these on an A4 sheet, forgetting that books or pamphlets work to A5 (some presses use a larger format; this one doesn’t).

Increasingly, I have submissions from poets who have just finished, or are in process of finishing, MLitts or PhDs, for which they have completed a set of poems. These have been praised and now they want to publish them. Oh dear. I would look at a set of poems differently were I assessing the achievement for that particular person than I would when considering them for publication. Getting things published is not the same as writing them well. Writing them well comes first – of course it does – but after that, there’s more. Have any of the poems appeared in good quality magazines? (I expect this.) Has the poet started to build a readership? (I don’t mean their tutors or fellow students.) Has the person thought carefully about pamphlet publications and how they work? Why does the person want to be published at all?

And so I go on to dispense various kinds of disappointment. I am increasingly nervous of the phenomenon I call ‘Contemp Po’ and so I flag it when I see it. Every age has its own Contemp Po features, tricks that seem innovative at the time but quickly become passé. We absorb these features unconsciously. (Every age also has poetry that is timeless: it could work in any age and for any reader.)

When we write poetry, we instinctively reach for something that makes it not prose, a register or a method that confirms for us: This is a Poem. Some people find it in formal conventions (rhyme and metre); others find it in a particular rhythmic vernacular (writing in Scots, or a local dialect). There are many ways.

The ‘line break’ is the major indicator of ‘poem’ for those writing free-ish verse, but line break alone is unlikely to suffice. Sensitivity to sound patterns is just as important. By this I mean assonance (vowel sounds echoing each other), and also the sound trail through vowels and consonants. I don’t want to make this technical, but in the simplest sense, the lines don’t always sound ‘right’, whatever ‘right’ is for that particular poem.

Sound is not everything. There are deaf poets who write beautifully. But they become attuned to something else, some other features that make the text ‘poem’ and not ‘prose’. And besides, deaf people hear through their feet, fingers and toes: rhythm patterns apply.

Here are the recurring Contemp Po features I notice most. I flagged these in a last time round but I have added a couple, as well as an example at the end of the How and The Way feature (new!):

Features of Contemp Po

  • lots of ‘I see’ and ‘I watch’ and ‘I feel’ and, worst of all, ‘I think
  • disappearing subjects (verb with no ‘I’)
  • lots of poems in couplets
  • ‘arty’ layouts , space instead of punctuation
  • poems based on extended metaphor (sometimes it works)
  • over-mixed metaphor (over-wrought, crossed logics)
  • a lot of cross-stanza enjambment
  • numerous colons and semi-colons.
  • poem a single sentence which gets lost in the middle
  • poem based round clauses with no finite verbs
  • sentences starting ‘And’ and ‘But’
  • first few lines dead (no bite)
  • title steals thunder of the best (last?) line or phrase
  • disappearing articles (‘the’ and ‘a’)
  • many ‘as’ sentences (see blog 26.05.2011)
  • poems constructed round a set of imperatives
  • anaphora structure (eg each line begins ‘because’)
  • the last word of the last line is ‘love’
  • the word ‘yet’ flags an epiphany (resist! resist!)
  • the word ‘for’ meaning ‘because’
  • lots of thens, followed by suddenly
  • weird line breaks
  • a rhyme at, or very near, the end
  • line breaks on ‘significant’ word like ‘break’—see above
  • no punctuation, and then some suddenly arrives
  • the ‘leaning verb thing’ (see below)
  • the ‘how’ and ‘the way’ clause repetition (see below)

The leaning verb thing:
There’s a tendency to write lines where two or more verb clauses are each appended to the same subject, often towards the high point. This is now as ubiquitous as scattered ampersands were in the sixties. For example:

 She reaches for her pen, scribbles a few lines,  
wonders why the world hasn’t colluded, hasn’t collapsed.

 The ‘how’ and ‘the way’ thing
Here’s another regular pattern. In fact, the pattern can be useful until it starts to look mannered. It may one day look as mannered as ‘up and spak an eldern knicht’ and ‘o’er the wall the sun doth sink’:

He saw and took note. How she touched each leaf
on the trailing vine. How she stopped a second
beside the stair. How the light on her hair
glimmered. And later the way she paused
outside the greenhouse. The way she held
the key lightly, like a talisman. The way
she turned it slowly in the lock



16 thoughts on “THE AWFUL TRUTH”

  1. When I read these posts, I feel smug because I am not guilty of any of the sins you outline so carefully. If only the people who made these mistakes READ what you write. Keep going – you are doing a great job.

  2. I think I’ve probably been guilty of every single one of them, at one time or another. That’s half the trouble! 😀

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. I too have been guilty of many of the sins outlined and still find myself falling into a some of them. I also thought it was interesting what you said about submissions sent by MFA/Phd students. I think you are correct in saying that it is also important that poets doing such courses should also engage with the wider poetry world. Do you think it may be as difficult if not more difficult to get ones poetry published in ‘quality magazines’ than completing one of the mentioned courses?

  4. Oh dear, I recognize several that crop up in my writing. Thank you for telling us that you’ve had trouble with them too… 😀

  5. Thanks for good reminders. Sometimes this kind of list of awfulnesses is required because it’s so easy to get confused with woods and trees. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  6. Excellent article – I’m a novice poet (and feel at this point, i shouldn’t even use the term ‘poet’) and am definitely guilty of some of the above. This definitely making me rethink my work.

    Thanks 🙂

  7. “Getting things published is not the same as writing them well” – I agree with this and the rest. I’ll tie that in with something from Glyn Maxwell’s “On Poetry” – ‘your meeting with a poem is like your meeting with a person. The more like that it is, the better the poem is’.

    It’s not enough to have a feeling and convert/capture it using words. It’s not
    even enough to jump the gap between self and others. It’s like meeting someone – they size you up in seconds, and decide whether you’re bothering with. They negotiate a conversational mode with you. They’ve fallen in love too. Their parents have Alzheimers. Expressing an insight isn’t useful if it’s already appeared in the papers that morning, however genuine or sonorous it is.

    As Helena hints, there are affectations/cliches at various levels, some of them effective in the right circumstances. shows more.

  8. Tim, fascinating. I think I should meet Mike Young (or maybe Elisa Gabbert). They [i]think[/i] like me. Of course it makes it very difficult to read[i] any[/i]thing after a bit.

    However, I think[i] all [/i]the things I take issue with are sometimes okay. It’s when they stand out to such a degree that you notice them more than whatever it is the poem is saying — this signifies a problem. Also we do get trapped in our own familiar patterns. So easy to have favourite ways and phrases.

    Quite often I go back to a poem I loved before I started to notice all the repetitive patterns so much and — blow me down — it is doing one of those THINGS.

    Thanks to everyone who has commented on this post. Delighted if any of it is interesting or illuminating to anybody. When I get the recipe for the 27 ways of writing the competition winning poem, I’ll post that too.

    You need to keep a sense of humour. I recommend writing some anti-poetry incorporating ALL of the things I mentioned. Works for me. 😀

  9. Anti-poetry like this do you mean?
    I reached for my pen, scribbled a few
    lines, wondered why I wandered onto your
    blog, why the world has collapsed around the
    verse I wrote with love.

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