The Poetry of Rejection
J. Bottum, poetry editor.
Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By J. BOTTUM
I ONCE PICKED UP the phone and called an author who'd submitted a piece of writing. I thought I could publish it, I said, but there was something a little off in the final line, and maybe she and I could work our way through the problem together. First there was a silence from her, then a half-choked-off sob, then a pair of imperfectly controlled sniffles, and finally a full, broken-down wail of weeping.
Now, it's true that authors and editors are natural enemies. Michael Kinsley once said that, from an editor's point of view, the ideal author is someone who's run down by a truck twenty minutes after turning in his copy. But never woman bewept her babe as this was weeping, and tears, bitter tears, were a new publishing experience for me. Noemie Emery doesn't sniffle if I edit her work. Joseph Epstein doesn't often begin to sob. I once told Robert Kagan--in that supercilious voice all copy editors seem to learn on their first day of work--that pronouns in strict grammar shouldn't refer to genitives. And it's true he gave me a kind of odd, sideways look, but you can't exactly say he wept.
The difference with the tearful author, however, was that she had written not a magazine essay, but a poem. One of the things I do on weekends and late at night--far too late at night, in fact, for much good judgment--is edit the poetry section for the journal First Things. And you haven't drunk deep of life until you've tried to edit poetry--by which I think I mean you haven't gotten all the way down to the bottom of the cup.
It's not just the angry letters that begin, "I haven't heard from you about the poem I sent four days ago," or the embarrassing letters that begin, "I haven't heard from you about the poem I sent eight months ago." There's an anthology waiting to be assembled from authors' cover letters, most of which prove that poetry and prose are alien arts. How is one to reply to a letter that reads: "Enclosed are four poems written in no particular metrical pattern, if one at all"? Or the notes that begin with something like, "I am a poet at present in the Tuscaloosa County Jail"?
The real problem, however, is the poetry that lurks beneath those cover letters, waiting to pounce. Marvelously hopeless poems--like the one that opened, "Hello, butter-colored worm"--almost make it worthwhile. But far too much of the submitted verse is something like the raw pain of tormented animals, and its inarticulate agony would be unbearable if it weren't first unreadable. The little old lady from Dubuque doesn't pen Hallmark-card rhymes of gentle platitudes these days. She writes free verse about how she lost her virginity in the spring of 1939 and why her father was a soul-destroying tyrant. Day after day, the mail brings unendurable sorrow and anger and ache: the raw stuff of poetry, without the poetry.
The editor Neal Kozodoy tells the story that he once proposed Commentary magazine should start publishing poetry again--but this time, poetry treated like any other text: commissioned for specific topics, selected for its public purpose, and edited for meaning and tightness just as the magazine's essays are edited. From the response, you might have thought he'd suggested firebombing the library: Poetry is privileged writing; it is what it is and can't be touched--which means a magazine has either to accept what comes in or to refuse all poetry, as Commentary still does. The weeping poet on the telephone shares this view of what a poem is. And it may be true. But it makes the job of editing that poetry a curious and awkward thing.
Of course, day after day, the mail also brings good work, poetry one is proud to publish. But for magazines like First Things, the rejection rate is over 99 percent, and all those unusable poems must be ploughed through as well--and while I'm doing it, about the best you can say is beware, beware his flashing eyes, his floating hair. Sheer plod may actually make plough-down sillion shine, but I think I'd have to ask the author for a little more clarity. Still, good fences make good neighbors, that's obvious enough. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. That needs a comma after "claws," maybe, but I'm not the man to do it. Not today. The native hue of resolution has been sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower is driving me mad. Weave a circle round him thrice and close your eyes with holy dread, for he on honeydew hath fed and edited some poetry. I have heard the poets singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.