What’s Wrong with Standards?

by Elise Hempel

ScreenHunter_1943 May. 16 12.23Almost in my late fifties now (and possibly having a touch of ADHD), I've grown impatient with the whole glacial process of getting a poem published, which can sometimes mean more than a year between submitting a poem and seeing it in print. I no longer submit to journals who accept only snail-mail submissions, and I'm submitting more and more to online journals, for their overall speediness. You can't beat having your poem published within a month or week, or even a single day, of having submitted it. There are exceptions, of course: One particular online journal took longer than any print or online journal I've ever submitted to over the last 30 years, and one recently took the time to send me paper proofs (go figure).

One of the online journals my poems have recently appeared in (on?) posts a new poem every day, with rejection or acceptance occurring within one week. Though I don't always agree with the editor's choices, I like the journal very much. I like the editor. All the more reason for me to dislike what this editor says in the “About” section of the website: “Poems are selected on the whim of the editor and are not indicative of quality (a subjective concept).” The editor means to say, of course, that his/her acceptance or rejection of a poem is no indication of its quality or lack thereof, but you get the drift. When I first read this “disclaimer” I actually went to my dictionary and looked up the word “whim,” just to be sure my annoyance/amazement was founded. Whim: “1. A sudden or capricious idea; a fancy. 2. Arbitrary thought or impulse.” I'd rather this editor actually meant definition number 3: “A vertical horse-powered drum used as a hoist in a mine.” (What would this journal's slush pile be called?)

What's wrong with standards, with being someone who has them?

The aforementioned editor (also a poet) actually has much better judgment than the editors of many online and print journals I've read, editors I blame for the proliferation and rewarding of so much bad poetry – mostly uninteresting prose (straightforward sentences) randomly broken into lines resembling poetry. There is another daily poetry website that loves posting such “poetry” (with regular typos to boot, just to show their further respect for the craft). I complained a couple of years back to the person who runs the site, saying what I thought of their often incomprehensible selections and got a condescending response something to the effect of “Isn't it nice that we're allowing you to open up your mind?” This person loves all poetry, whether it makes sense or not, whether a two-year-old could have written it or not. What a swell guy. And try to find any real criticism in a poetry journal. What you'll find are simply “reviews,” every one of them positive, usually no more enlightening than a blurb on a back cover.

For a long time my “bible” has been Fred Chappell's book of poetry criticism called A Way of Happening. Though almost 20 years old now, it's intelligent and funny, and I still learn something from it every time I return to its eloquent honesty. I've come to most things late in life, and so now I'm also, finally, reading the poetry criticism of William Logan, having recently picked up cheap on Amazon his book Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. So satisfying to hear Logan say exactly what I'd been thinking about the work of this or that well-known, popular poet, even certain Pulitzer winners. So nice to know that the concept of good and bad poetry (or at least better and worse poetry) is still surviving somewhere, that talent matters, that a good ear matters, that hard work matters, and that, most of all, language – what you do with it – matters. I can say the same thing about Logan's book: It's intelligent and funny, and it can teach me something about how to write. (And despite his brutal reputation, he's actually kinder to certain poets than I would have been.) I may have a bone to pick with him about his opinion that one of my favorites, May Swenson, is a “mediocre” poet, but I'm sure I'll be buying more books by Mr. Logan.

My first full-length collection of poems will be out at the end of August, and I'm both thrilled and frightened. Though there are things I'd change about my book, I can say that I've worked hard, very hard, at my poetry – at giving it substance and music – for many years. I've gone through that glacial process of getting published. Yes, there are the glowing blurbs on the back cover, but those don't fool me. Let the critics come. (Yikes!)