Sunday, 16 April 2017

Never simply the bird (some thoughts on what poetry does)

Poetry is that thing that happens between seeing the bird (or hearing the bird) and recognising the bird. It helps us to recognise the bird – but more than that – it helps us to understand the bird in some way, or to think about the bird (that ordinary bird that you see everyday on your street or in your garden) in new and different ways. Poetry adds meaning to the bird (or cat or house or whatever). Sometimes it puts the bird in a context we might never have expected, or it takes that ordinary common garden bird and shows us how extraordinary it is, and somehow it simultaneously tells us something about ourselves or about (human) life, love, meaning etc. The poet may not have set out to intentionally do this. He/she may simply have set out to write a poem about the bird or to write about the place that he/she always sees the bird, or about how the bird makes him/her feel. But that’s the beauty of (good) poetry – it does something secret, something other, it’s where the magic happens. Good poetry moves and changes the reader; it shows us new ways to put words together, it gives us new ways to feel and view the world, or it reveals to us something about ourselves and our own personal connection with the world.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The mercurial mind - ways in which to read poetry

When I first started reading poetry I approached it as I would a novel - thinking I had to read one collection at a time from cover to cover, then I began dipping in and out. Now I read cover to cover but I may well have several collections on the go at any given time. Take today for instance, I read a pamphlet sized collection cover to cover and made notes on it for an endorsement I am writing, but I have also dipped into several other collections I am reading, as well as reading bits of a journal and reading some poems online. This seems to me a very natural way of reading. It is rare that a poetry collection is so riveting that I can't put it down and have to compulsively read it straight through - although it does happen (and is a treat when it does) and some poetry collections take a great deal of concentration and mental processing - in these cases I can only read a few pages at a time before I need to take a break. Using my old mode of poetry reading I would have probably put the book down after those few pages and gone and found something else to do or read a novel. Now, if I choose to, I can move onto reading a different collection.

I seem to have developed this mercurial mind approach to reading in general. I still tend only to read one novel at a time (although I may have several I have started and stopped and might later come back to) but I will also have several poetry collections, a short story collection or two and several non fiction books on the go at any given time. In fact Goodreads tells me that I am currently reading 36 books. I think I developed this way of reading when I was studying - I like it it means I spend more time reading overall and that I read more books - something that feels more urgent as you get older. and feel you might be running out of time.

I don't do massively close readings of every poetry collection I read. I usually give more attention to the books I find more engaging. Collections where I want to come back to particular poems again and again. With these collections I sometimes make notes or post snippets on Twitter so that I can remember them later - and perhaps to entice other readers to seek out the book. If I am not finding a collection engaging or am finding it difficult I don't usually give up. Often I will try reading poems several times or reading them aloud to see if I can make more sense of them or get a feel for them. Sometimes I put the book away on a to read pile so that I can come back to it later - it might simply be that I am not in the right frame of mind for it - after all we bring all our emotional states and baggage to a reading of any book. There are, of course, books I don't love. These tend to be discarded after reading - these could be mediocre writing, but they can also be books that I am simply not ready for yet. I remember reading a few books when I did my degree and hating them - Ted Hughes Crow was one of them - I loathed it - I found the language ugly and heavy and too masculine. However a couple of years later I suddenly had a hankering to read it and this time I loved it - it was all those things of course but now I "got it." I think I simply wasn't ready for it yet the first time I was introduced to it. I think of it as a kind of reading evolution. It's like studying art - most people don't love abstract without first gaining an appreciation of more conventional forms - it's like you work your way up to abstract through studying the history of art so that when you get there you can fully appreciate it. Poetry is the same I think - one starts with the more conventional and works one's way towards an appreciation of the more surreal and experimental.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Writing through the lens of what we know

Do we seek to write the opposite of what we know, or do we often use as our "writing muscle" the tools we were given in our formative years? In Contemporary British Poetry and the City Peter Barry suggests the latter - giving as an example Roy Fisher, who in his later life relocated to the English countryside, yet his poetry remained very much located in the urban environments he knew so well. I think there is some truth in this hypothesis - my own writing, for instance, often resides in a small town - a somewhat claustrophobic urban space that is surrounded on all sides by a brooding army of evergreen trees.

I am currently reading Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts and I find myself wondering if the whole town of my childhood is an edgeland of sorts. It is a kind of odd urban sprawl that rather like an over enthusiastic creeper has attached itself to the the few remaining historic landmarks sending out hundreds of shoots and runners. And yet despite this seeming sprawl of housing estates and industrial estates, the Thetford of my childhood was very much contained - contained by the thick and brooding pine forest planted and managed by The Forestry Commission that surrounded it. This inky perimeter gave the town a hemmed-in claustrophobic feeling.

Before the town was eventually bypassed there was a high metal footbridge that went over the All (the main Norwich to London trunk road). The bridge was built to enable pedestrians to pass safely over the road from the estate where I lived to the housing estate, cemetery and industrial estates on the other side of the road, without risking life and limb. As teenagers my friends and I spent many evenings on top of this bridge; smoking roll-ups and weed, playing guitar and just hanging out. The bridge enabled the casual viewer to observe how truly surrounded by forest the town actually was. We had been told it of course, every year or so someone from The Forestry Commission or the Fire Service would come to our primary school to pummel into our heads, through talks and videos, the dangers of setting deliberate or accidental forest fires. They never mentioned the threat to the town itself directly - it was more by implication, but any potential invader would have stood atop that bridge and seen immediately how vulnerable to fire the town was.

The town itself consisted of six or seven sprawling housing estates (mostly council housing, and largely in the 1960s and 70s filled with London overspill families like mine, who had chosen re-location with a job attached over squalid high rises in London), two rivers, a small but thriving town centre and several large industrial estates full of large and small factories. There was also a big golf course, the Grammar School's massive expanse of playing fields and a large common. It is amongst these landmarks - and the more historic landmarks of the town, that some of my poetry resides. Even if it doesn't always allude to it directly there is often a feeling, a sense of it being there in the background somewhere, this odd juxtaposition between rural and urban that I grew up with. It's like a mood or a coloured lens through which I view the world.

You can read my poem about Thetford Forest on the Oxford Brookes University website here.


  • 166) Ground Water - Matthew Hollis (poetry, re read)
  • 165) The Blindfold - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
  • 164) Sunshine - Melissa Lee-Houghton (poetry)
  • 163) Acts of God - Ellen Gilchrist (fiction, short stories)
  • 162) Ghosts - Anna Wigley (poetry)
  • 161) Bearings - Isobel Dixon (poetry)
  • 160) Domestic Interior - Stephanie Brown (poetry)
  • 159) Jam - Cliff Yates (poetry)
  • 158) Book of Bones - Kathy Gee (poetry)
  • 157) nothing more to it than bubbles - Jane Burn (poetry)
  • 156) Fifth Business - Robertson Davies (fiction)
  • 155) The Swell - Jessica Mookherjee (poetry)
  • 154) Catch - Fiona Sampson (poetry)
  • 153) The World's Two Smallest Humans - Julia Copus (poetry)
  • 152) Some Perfect Year - Cameron Gearen (poetry)
  • 151) Amazon - Catherine Ayres (poetry)
  • 150) Serious Concerns - Wendy Cope (poetry)
  • 149) What Just Happened - Sara Berkeley Tolchin (poetry)
  • 148) Pictures from an Exhibition - Maureen Duffy (poetry)
  • 147) Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen - Vanessa Gebbie (poetry)
  • 146) The Keys to the Jail - Keetje Kuipers (poetry)
  • 145) The Terrible - Daniel Sluman (poetry)
  • 144) The Stonegate Devil - Carole Bromley (poetry)
  • 143) Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (poetry)
  • 142) The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly - Sun-mi Hwang (fiction)
  • 141) The Game Parade - Maurice Spillane (poetry)
  • 140) The Most Beautiful Thing - Satya Robyn (fiction)
  • 139) Fragile Houses - Nina Lewis (poetry)
  • 138) Coyote - Colin Winnette (fiction)
  • 137) Girl on a Train - A.J. Waines (fiction)
  • 136) This Changes Things - Claire Askew (poetry)
  • 135) Small Nuclear Family - Mel Pryor (poetry)
  • 134) The Mother's Tongue - Heid E. Erdrich (poetry)
  • 133) Bee Journal - Sean Borodale (poetry, re-read)
  • 132) Almanacs - Jen Hadfield (poetry)
  • 131) Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress - Dai Sijie (fiction)
  • 130) The Illusion of Separateness - Simon Van Booy (fiction)
  • 129) The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - William Blake
  • 128) My Sunshine Away - M.O. Walsh (fiction)
  • 127) Lapidary - Rosamund Stanhope (poetry)
  • 126) Asylum - Janet Simon (poetry)
  • 125) Snowdrops - A.D. Miller (fiction)
  • 124) The Art of Falling - Kim Moore (poetry)
  • 123) Old School - Tobias Wolff (fiction)
  • 122) Pessimism for Beginners - Sophie Hannah (poetry, re-read)
  • 121) Wife - Tiphanie Yanique (poetry)
  • 120) An Ocean in Iowa - Peter Hedges (fiction)
  • 119) Weeds and Wild Flowers - Alice Oswald (poetry, re-read)
  • 118) What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
  • 117) The Case of the Imaginary Detective - Karen Joy Fowler (fiction)
  • 116) Spacecraft - John McCollough (poetry)
  • 115) Handwriting - Michael Ondaajte (poetry)
  • 114) Crowd Sensations - Judy Brown (poetry)
  • 113) Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn (fiction)
  • 112) The Sea - John Banville (fiction)
  • 111) The Flower and the Plough - Rachel Piercey (poetry)
  • 110) The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky (fiction)
  • 109) The Lighthouse - Alison Moore (fiction)
  • 108) The Forward Book of Poetry 2017 (poetry)
  • 107) He Wants - Alison Moore (fiction)
  • 106) Kink and Particle - Tiffany Atkinson (poetry, re-read)
  • 105) Little Usherette - Michael Scott (poetry)
  • 104) Say Something Back - Denise Riley (poetry)
  • 103) The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You - Paul Farley (poetry, re-read)
  • 102) The Tortilla Curtain - T.C. Boyle (fiction)
  • 101) Falling Awake - Alice Oswald (poetry)
  • 100) The Treekeeper's Tale - Pascale Petit (poetry)
  • 99) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler (fiction)
  • 98) Doors Opening - Sally Festing (poetry)
  • 97) Articles of Twinship - Peter Wallis (poetry)
  • 96) Bad Influence Girl - Janet Rogerson (poetry)
  • 95) The Sea House - Esther Freud (fiction)
  • 94) Dark Pool Ripple - Mike Saunders (poetry)
  • 93) Shed - Martin Figura and Natty Peterkin (poetry)
  • 92) Instructions for a Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell (fiction)
  • 91) Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas (fiction)
  • 90) Travels in the Scriptorium - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 89) Boyhood - J.M. Coetzee (non fiction)
  • 88) One - Sarah Crossan (fiction)
  • 87) The End of the World Running Club - Adrian J. Walker (fiction)
  • 86) Girl in the Dog-tooth Coat by Zelda Chappel (poetry)
  • 85) Groundings by Nicola Warwick (poetry)
  • 84) No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort (poetry)
  • 83) The Skin Diary by Abegail Morley (poetry)
  • 82) Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Milwood Hargrave (fiction)
  • 81) Emergency Poet by Deborah Alma (poetry)
  • 80) The Beechwood Airship Interviews by Dan Richards (non fiction)
  • 79) Hometown - Carrie Etter (fiction)
  • 78) Scar - Carrie Etter (poetry)
  • 77) The Forward Book of Poetry 2015 (poetry)
  • 76) Torn Awake by Forrest Gander (poetry)
  • 75) Catulla et al by Tiffany Atkinson (poetry)
  • 74) Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (fiction)
  • 73) Tilt by Jean Sprackland (poetry)
  • 72) This Can't Be Life by Dana Ward (poetry)
  • 71) The Stripping Point by Brian Henry (poetry)
  • 70) Daredevils by Shawn Vestal (fiction)
  • 69) Kink and Particle by Tiffany Atkinson (poetry)
  • 68) Long Haul Travellers - Sheenagh Pugh (poetry)
  • 67) Redgrove's Wife - Penelope Shuttle (poetry, re read)
  • 66) Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot (poetry)
  • 65) The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (poetry)
  • 64) Dr Zeeman's Catastrophe Machine by Martin Figura (poetry)
  • 63) On the Saltmarsh - Ruth Valentine (poetry)
  • 62) Here and Now by Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee (non fiction)
  • 61) Bones Never Lie - Kathy Reichs (fiction)
  • 60) Dissolve to L.A. - James Trevelyan and Enma Wright (poetry)
  • 59) Snow Child - Abegail Morley (poetry)
  • 58) Primers: Volume One - Maureen Cullen, Lucy Ingrams, Katie Griffiths (poetry)
  • 57) Myrtle - Ruth Wiggins (poetry)
  • 56) salt. - Nayyirah Waheed (poetry)
  • 55) So Many Moving Parts - Tiffany Atkinson (poetry)
  • 54) Long Time No See - Hannah Lowe (non fiction)
  • 53) True Tales of the Countryside - Deborah Alma (poetry)
  • 52) The Soho Leopard - Ruth Padel (poetry)
  • 51) Deep Lane - Mark Doty (poetry)
  • 50) Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds: Poems - Eleanor Lerman (poetry)
  • 49) The Brooklyn Follies - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 48) Mr. Vertigo - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 47) Alphabet - Inger Christensen (poetry)
  • 46) Virgin: A History Of Virgin Records - Terry Southern (non fiction)
  • 45) Leviathan - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 44) Deep Field - Mark Doty (poetry)
  • 43) Bones of the Lost - Kathy Reichs (fiction)
  • 42) Skin Divers - Anne Michaels (poetry, re read)
  • 41) The Plucking Shed - Jill McEvoy (poetry)
  • 40) Cathedral - Raymond Carver (fiction, short stories, re-read)
  • 39) The Print Museum - Heidi Williamson (poetry)
  • 38) The Life and Death of Sophie Stark - Anna North (fiction)
  • 37) The Book of Illusions - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 36) Not in This World - Tracey Herd (poetry)
  • 35) Curves to the Apple: The Reproduction of Profiles, Lawn of Excluded Middle, Reluctant Gravities - Rosmarie Waldrop (poetry)
  • 34) The Summer Without Men - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
  • 33) Antler - John Clegg (poetry)
  • 32) Loudness - Judy Brown (poetry)
  • 31) The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway (fiction)
  • 30) How We Light - Nick Sturm (poetry)
  • 29) A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway (fiction)
  • 28) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (fiction, re-read)
  • 27) Actual Cloud - Dalton Day (poetry)
  • 26) Out of Everywhere - Maggie O'Sullivan (editor) (poetry)
  • 25) The Music of Chance - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 24) The Gathering - Ann Enright (fiction)
  • 23) Kid - Simon Armitage (poetry, re-read)
  • 22) The Razor's Edge - W. Somerset Maugham (fiction)
  • 21) The Remains - Annie Freud (poetry)
  • 20) The Good Doctor - Damon Galgut (fiction)
  • 19) Shingle Street - Blake Morrison (poetry)
  • 18) Elephant and Other Stories - Raymond Carver (fiction, short-stores, re-read)
  • 17) Oracle Night - Paul Auster (fiction)
  • 16) In the Kingdom of Men - Kim Barnes (fiction)
  • 15) A Country Called Home - Kim Barnes (fiction)
  • 14) Paul Klee: Painting Music - Hajo Düchting (non fiction)
  • 13) With Deer - Aase Berg (poetry)
  • 12) The Fifteen Minute Rule - Caroline Buchanan (non fiction)
  • 11) Selected Poems - Denise Riley (poetry)
  • 10) The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures... - C.D. Wright (poetry/essay)
  • 9) The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman (fiction)
  • 8) The Cherry Tree Cafe - Heidi Swain (fiction)
  • 7) Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings - Matsuo Bashō (poetry)
  • 6) The Bird Artist - Howard Norman (fiction)
  • 5) Passing - Nella Larsen (fiction)
  • 4) The Life and Works of Chagall - Nathaniel Harris (non fiction)
  • 3) The Terrors - Tom Chivers (poetry)
  • 2) Red Dust Road - Jackie Kay (non fiction)
  • 1) The Last Pilot - Ben Johncock (fiction)

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Back to Writing (finally)

It's always interesting to me how time off from teaching and the internet can start me writing again. Throw in a good poetry book or two and I am well away. After a worryingly dry spell that has lasted a good couple of months, just the odd poem here and there, I have written twenty two pages over the last three days. I put this down, in part, to the influence of Melissa Lee-Houghton's book Sunshine, which I received as a Christmas present. I had been looking forward to reading Houghton's latest collection as I really loved her last book Beautiful Girls. Houghton taps into some of the same themes that come up from my own past - although her past is even bleaker and darker, but somehow (like reading Sharon Olds and Pascale Petit) reading these poems gives me a kind of permission to return and explore some of the darker aspects of my own past. Of course it's not just the themes - I have to find the writing style exciting too and I do find Lee-Houghton's use of language both exciting and inspiring.

I am not largely (well I don't think I am) a confessional poet - although when I first started taking poetry writing seriously I did err towards writing in that style. In fact I wrote largely in a confessional style until mid way through my MA when my style started changing and evolving - it wasn't that I stopped writing about that stuff completely, but I felt less need to tackle those themes head on. A lot of the poems in my collection Bird Sisters, for instance, do touch on family tension and difficult (mostly familial) relationships, but they deal with them either in a fictional or a metaphorical way - for example in one sequence the narrator's sister is an owl.

These new poems that I have been writing are more in the style of my poem Friday Night King's Head, which was published on Proletarian Poetry earlier this year. Friday Night King's Head is from a sequence of stream of consciousness style prose poems that I have been writing occasionally over the last couple of years. The poems are dense and prosey - and usually explore one event or incident (Friday Night King's Head is about one Friday night in my old local). Sometimes the poems jump from one theme to another echoing the way memory and thought works, and sometimes they explore one subject more deeply - for example one of the poems is a list of things that as a child/teen the narrator was told not to do, each sentence starting with the word don't. The poem offers a slow revealing of the family dynamic - this poem was in part inspired by Lee-Houghton's poem A Good Home, which starts with the words "Don't run on the lawn." (In recognition of this I will put "after Melissa Lee-Houghton in italics below the title - I know there is a technical name for this but I can't think of it right now).

It feels exciting to be writing again after such a dry spell. It makes me realise how writing makes me feel happier and more fulfilled. I know I have been doing things that have been detrimental to my creativity - printing out all the Cafe Writers competition poems for example and i also wrote cover endorsements for a couple of books which takes concentration and close reading. I just hope that now I am back in the saddle that I can keep this writing momentum up.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Some more waffly thoughts on subject matter in poems

When we are editing a poem one of the things we have to think about is the subject matter. Some subject matter is unique or unusual – which can be a good thing because it will immediately make the reader more interested – I am thinking here of poems like Jo Shapcott’s poems Piss Flower or Scorpion (which starts “I kill it because…”). Titles or opening lines like this will immediately grab the reader’s attention – but of course the rest of the poem then has to live up to this arresting start.

Subject matter can also be the bane of a poem. It might be too anecdotal (I have talked about this before here) and needs to have something that lifts it above and beyond the anecdote itself – some kind of insight (though not too obvious or cheesy), or something unexplained or unexpected might take place. Or it may be that your subject matter is something that has been written about many times before (how many poems have you read about cats, dogs, death, the moon, mothers, childbirth, etc.?). The question then is whether your poem is doing anything different to all the other poems on the subject – or is it just another poem saying how beautiful the moon is – if the latter then it is probably best to put that poem aside and move on. That isn’t to say that we should never write about these subjects (although there are people who would tell you otherwise). But you might find that you have to write quite a few poems about the moon or a dog or whatever before you hit an idea that will stand up to proper critical scrutiny. I decided that I wanted to reclaim the moon a year or two ago – after many poets and poetry teachers had told me it was a subject best avoided. I decided to tackle it during NaPoWriMo (National poetry writing month). I wrote about six different moon poems in all ranging from pretty trite to almost but not quite OK, and then when I had all but given up on the idea my moon poem came – I am not saying it’s a brilliant poem but it’s certainly not like any other moon poem I have read.

Of course the other thing to bear in mind when you are writing about something like the moon (as well as all the poems that have gone before) is the weight of common knowledge about your subject. The science, the mythology, the religious connotations – even if none of this stuff makes it into your poem, it is there at your shoulder and you should be aware of it, it should inform your writing, even if only on a subconscious level. But one needs to beware too, of this knowledge. As a teacher I see many poems that are over-burdened with facts: poems written by eager students who are keen to squeeze in every interesting thing they know about their subject matter. There is no need to squeeze everything you know into one poem, however interesting it is, save some facts for other poems you might write later, or if you feel you have to get all those juicy facts in then perhaps you should write an essay. Personally I don’t read poetry to learn about a subject – although sometimes I do learn something – I read a poem to be moved, to feel connected, to learn something about the world that I already knew but perhaps couldn’t articulate, to be excited by concepts or language or form, to connect with what makes us/me human, to feel like I have accidentally stumbled on home.

Further reading and links on the subject:

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

What makes a good poem (or not) - one of those rambling blog posts that ends up miles from where it started.

Today I have been sending out rejections for Lighthouse - it makes me feel a bit like the big, bad wolf. Actually it is worse than that because I suspect he liked being bad. I, on the other hand, feel guilty. Especially when rejecting a poet whose work I like or a poet I know. The editorial meeting this time was a long one - well over three hours. The sifting of the submissions is done before hand so that in the meeting we only discuss the poets who have made it into the maybe folder. We rejected some pretty good poets. I have been thinking as I send out emails about what it is that makes a poem a good poem. What exactly is it that makes a poetry editor sit up and take notice. I think for Lighthouse a poem has to be very strong as there are four, sometimes five, editors to get past. Either we all like a poem or one or more editors has to love it enough to stand up and fight for it. Probably ninety percent or more of what we receive does not fit into this category. I am going to try and quantify what makes a good poem. Of course this is from my own perspective - the other Lighthouse editors may have completely different views.

A good poem should:

  • Not simply be an anecdote or a description  - there are a lot of these kind of poems around. I have a few myself - none of them made it into my book. My mentor took out an anecdotal poem about living in a commune - I liked the poem, it had gone down well at a reading. She said so "so what, it's not telling me anything new." An anecdote is not in itself a bad thing, but the poem needs to be doing something else as well. Esther Morgan once said in a workshop that when you have read a poem "something should have changed, or you should have learnt something." I think this is what Pascal (my mentor) meant - my poem wasn't doing anything other than describing living in a commune. There was no pivotal moment or insight - the thing that makes you remember a poem and go back to it again. Similarly poems that are simply descriptions of something - a place, an art work etc. are rarely doing enough as a poem to make them really interesting and worth coming back to. I sometimes wish when reading this type of poem that the reader had given a little something of themselves to the poem.
  • Not just a list - list poems are interesting. I like them and I sometimes write them, but successful ones are doing something more than simply listing stuff. they are suggesting a back story or making you think about something that is not being overtly stated. A good example of this is "About His Person" by Simon Armitage. The poem lists all the articles found on a dead man (although he never states that anyone is dead), the articles hint at the kind of person he was and the life he lead. List poems can be much more subtle than this too, but they do need that extra something.
  • Be exciting to read - what makes a poem exciting for one person may be different to what does it for another person of course. Some people like rhyme, for some people it's the content. For me it is a mixture of things - the content is important, but so is the use of language - a really good writer can write about the most trivial of things and make it sound exciting. A poem that uses language in exciting ways will make me sit up and take notice. Jen Hadfield was one of the poets who first did this for me - take a look at her poem "XXI The World".
  • Do something different - personally I like poems that come at things aslant. Even the most boring of subjects can be made interesting in the hands of a great writer - "Ironing" by Vicki Feaver does this brilliantly. I also like poems that tackle big topics in new ways - two great examples of this are Amy Newman's "Dear Editor" poems and Toon Tellegen's book Raptors. Raptors is introduced by an unreliable narrator who immediately sets the tone for the rest of the book: "Years ago I invented someone whom I called my father. It was morning, very early, I couldn’t sleep any more, I remember it quite clearly. My father didn’t seem surprised at having suddenly appeared out of nowhere and, in his turn, invented my mother, my brothers and myself." Raptors explores the idea of family dynamics and hierarchies. Tellegen uses the idea of family as a framework and constructs and deconstructs it. He tells us stories, and those stories often conflict with one another. In essence he recreates the complexities of family dynamics and the way that family memories are changed and manipulated, and he does it in a very surreal and exciting way.  Amy Newman's collection Dear Editor also deals with the dynamics of family. Her series of prose poems takes the form of letters to an imaginary literary journal editor - each starts in the same way "Dear Editor, Please consider the enclosed poems for publication. They are from my manuscript X = Pawn Capture..." Each poem uses the game of chess as jumping off point for describing the dynamics and interactions between the narrator's family members. However, the poems are about more than simply chess and family, there is a lot about religion and the saints in the book and also about language itself. It is a clever and fascinating collection.
  • Not be overly poetic - a poem should definitely avoid the purple prose, it should try and avoid 'poetic' words and abstract nouns (shards, shimmery, solitary, longing etc) and it should avoid as much as possible being flowery and pretty - even if it is about something flowery and pretty. Alice Oswald is a master of this, take a look at her poem Narcissus and you will see what I mean. She only uses one (what I would call) poemy word in the entire poem - glittery, but she gets away with it because the rest of the poem is so surprising. As a journal editor I see a lot of overly poetic writing and it does make my heart sink just a little.
  • Have a strong beginning and ending - one of the things that stood out when reading back over my editorial notes yesterday was how often I had written things like - this would be a much better poem with the first/last or first and last stanzas. It is so tempting as a writer to want to spell everything out for your reader in case they don't get it. One of the things I am always telling my students is that they should trust their readers more. George Szirtes once said to me in a tutorial: "jump right into the poem, and step off lightly at the end." I have never forgotten this - it is great advice. Imagine how boring it would be if every film set up the back story before it started properly - of course they don't do that - they jump right into the action and do a slow reveal and usually we work it out.
  • Not be too obscure - of course there is such a thing as being too obscure. Sometimes this comes from over-editing - the writer takes out so much that the original meaning or story is lost. Sometimes writers write something that sounds nice and poetic but falls apart when you try and unpick what the writer is actually trying to say. A lot of writers start off writing this kind of poetry because it approximates what they think poetry should sound like. There is nothing more exciting as a teacher that when a budding poet moves beyond this phase and starts writing in new and more interesting ways. This happens much quicker if the student is reading widely. Reading shows them all the different possibilities and ways of using language. There is conversely deliberately obscure poetry. My son calls this beardy poetry (no offence intended to men who wear beards). What he means is intellectual and academic poetry, which does not do much more than showing off that it is intellectual and academic - the kind of poetry that shouts "look at me, I am so clever and well read." This kind of poetry doesn't really care if you don't get it - it assumes that you must be too stupid or uneducated. Some people like this kind of poetry - I am afraid it turns me off. Don't get me wrong I do like intellectual and clever poetry - but for me it needs to be doing something more. Poetry has to speak to the reader, I think, and that is what makes us go back to it. That doesn't mean it always has to be personal - but a poem that reflects something of the human condition is generally more memorable.
  • Not simply tell a story - though of course there are many great narrative poems - for example Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot." What I am talking about is poems that feel like a story that has been broken up to look like a poem. One trick as a writer is to ask yourself why you are writing it as a poem and not a story. If you feel like you have to cram every tiny detail into the poem, then perhaps a short story would be a better medium. Similarly if you feel the need to tell a complicated back story. The trick is that less is more. Skip the big build up and jump right in. Traditionally narrative poetry had strict meter and form. These days pretty much anything goes. Keep it simplish and aim to grab your readers attention. The narrative will still have a beginning, middle and end but it may allude to wider concerns, and it may not tell us everything. I like to think of a good story poem as being like an art house film, it is immensely satisfying but leaves some questions unanswered. It will also create a very particular mood or feeling that draws the reader in. Two good examples of this are: "At Roane Head" by Robin Robertson and "The Tyre" by Simon Armitage.
  • Feel true - that doesn't mean they have to be true. I have a sequence of prose poems in my collection that people often think are true - they aren't. I think of a poem as a tiny work of fiction. That doesn't mean that it can't be about something real but one of the most common problems in poetry workshops is people getting hung up on not changing things or leaving things out because the poem is about something real. If you are writing about real events and are attached to the back story and all the details then perhaps you should consider writing it as part of a memoir. I have sometimes written about events and then changed details because they felt better for the poem. Similarly you can use real concrete details as basis for or to flesh out fictional works. For instance in my prose poems I have used concrete details from my own childhood to make the story feel more real and believable. For me what matters is the truth of the poem not the actual truth. I love a poem if it sweeps me up and makes me believe in it. It could be a mythological story or a poem about going to the shops with your grandmother, whatever, just make me believe it. It has to resonate with the reader. I have read countless poems about real (and sometimes sad and dramatic events) that haven't achieved this. Even Sharon Olds - probably America's most famous and current confessional poet has said in interviews that not everything in her poems is true.
  • Not take itself too seriously but not try to be funny - If you had asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I was a 'serious writer'. However, I have come to see that much of my poetry has a dark humour in it. It is not in every poem, and I don't usually set out to write something humorous - if it happens it happens. Poetry that doesn't do it for me is poetry is that tries too hard to be funny, that works at it, or has a clever punchline - those poems are rarely memorable. Similarly poems that take themselves too seriously and are overburdened with portentous description and abstract nouns. You are not Edgar Allan Poe, and he might not have been so big if he was writing today. There is a lot of humour in everyday life and I like poems that reflect this without whacking me in the face with it. Poets that can take a serious subject matter and inject a little humour into it but retain its seriousness. A great example of this is the poem "Somewhat Unravelled" by Jo Shapcott from her award winning collection Of Mutability.
This blog post has grown way bigger than I intended so I am going to stop now. This, of course, is purely my own opinion on what makes good poetry - and because humans are fickle, my opinions might be different next week or next month. It is as much a meditation on poetry for myself as anything else, but if it helps anyone to think about what they are submitting to journals and why, that would be an added bonus. I haven't touched here on ways people submit or whether submitters have actually read the journal to see if their work fits with it. That's a whole other post.