Saturday, November 24, 2007

Interesting Imagery, Accessible Ideas

On a lark a few months back, I submitted a chapbook manuscript to a press. I didn't think there was much chance this particular press would be into my stuff, since much, if not most, of the poetry they publish is of the quiescently lyric variety and this particular ms. was about as far from such as I've ventured. But I like their production values and some of their titles, so figured I'd give it a whirl.

Got back the anticipated slip yesterday, in which the editor said "I found the imagery interesting and the ideas accessible, but I wasn't always convinced the rhyme schemes added to the poems." I got a good chuckle out of this, as among the 12 poems were two poems in a kind of Skeltonic falling rhyme; a ballade; a canzone; three sonnets (one a translation, one a list poem set as a more or less orthodox Shakespearean, and one irregularly rhymed, so presumably not one of the offending poems); a poem with seven quatrains, all rhymed ABBA (same rhymes in all 4 stanzas); a 16-line anaphoric litany of 4 ABAB quatrains in which each A rhyme is feminine and each B rhyme masculine; and "Achromatope," a dramatic monologue in pentameter couplets. In other words, in a brief collection of intensely formal experiments, if the rhyme schemes don't "add to the poems," then there's precious little besides paraphrased content left over once you've "removed" the schemes! Except, I guess, some "interesting imagery" and "accessible ideas." Which seems to be what the majority of editors care about and which, in the absence of formal rigour, verbal dash and syntactic vigour, tend to produce the kind of faintly praisable "craft" that one sees in most places and which most of the best poets are now turning away from quite decisively.

I'm not saying that this editor should like my poems and should have accepted my manuscript. Clearly, it wasn't a fit. But for a poetry editor to have what appears to be the misconception that rhyme schemes (or other formal elements in a poem) either "add to" or don't "add to" a poem is telling of how bad most people--even those who do it professionally--have got at reading poems. Rhymes and other patterns of sound aren't frosting, they're integral ingredients; poems either succeed or fail or fall somewhere in between. What she says is a bit like complimenting a cake for its flavour and texture, "but I'm not sure that the flour and sugar add to it." To be fair, maybe this is just shorthand on her part for "I'm not into these poems and I have to provide some sort of rationalization of this to you." Or maybe she meant that the subject matter and structures aren't jibing. In the absence of specific criticisms, it's hard to tell, but I have to wonder why one would bother to share this kind of vagueness without elaboration (which poems? which rhymes?), unless it's just the reflexive dismissal of poems that are self-consciously structured. Why not just say, "Sorry, not for us"?

I rented the movie "Fido" last night. The clerk at the store said enthusiastically that it looked like "such an interesting movie." It's a freaking zombie satire flick, not a documentary on the courtship rituals of cephalopods! Bad adjective choice. But she's a store clerk, not a film critic, so fair enough. A poetry editor, if she's going to commit to a statement of aesthetic judgment, should be able to do a wee bit better.

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