Five Marks of Oft-Rejected Poems

There’s a bug going around the IR office. We’re drinking plenty of fluids, popping lots of pills, but everyone’s on edge. Just yesterday, I shook hands with Fiction Editor Joe Hiland, and I think I caught it: I caught the grouchy bug. So, I think it’s time for a poetry take on Joe’s post about what we often reject:


Write a few words about yourself. What’s called “intro” – a couple of sentences in the questionnaire, which, along with your photos, will let people know what kind of person you are. Here we remember our goals and write according to them. Keep in mind: “I want to get married and have eight children” is better sniffles hookup replaced by “serious relationship only”. Decided to just find a friend in another city or by correspondence, so let them know, so as not to waste time on endless: “Pretty Woman, I’m at your feet!” Do not: add banal quotes from public “Facebook”, put a fence of emoticons and emoji, list an endless list of requirements for a potential candidate. You can: write your weight/height, if this is important to you (although it is actually better to choose photos that already show everything).

1. Boring first lines. I get that the first line often needs to set up the scene or narrative or conceit of the poem, and so there’s a desire to use it as a kind of exposition, but if I, while getting paid to do this, don’t want to read past your first line, potential readers probably won’t, either. Don’t just tell me you met Janine when you were twelve, or that the moon was overhead, or that May became June. Hook me, flatten me, fuck me out of my senses with your first line. It should be one of the best lines of the poem.

2. Over-associating. I’m not a minimalist by any means, but I do believe in earning your fireworks. Your winter breath is not a constellation of fireflies axeing their way through the winter like little lumberjacks. There’s not a hot air balloon filled with jackrabbits in your chest every time she looks at you like a prison guard bleeding sugar. I don’t care that it’s Tuesday. A poem ought to be, I think, more than just a collection of assorted images. What is your poem doing? What does it add up to? How is it governed?

3. Abstractions, clichés, stale language. This one should be obvious, but, apparently it isn’t. Fire licks, smoke curls, sunlight dances and dapples. Clouds of grief. I receive so many poems that are generally interesting and well-crafted and then drop a big fat cliché in the middle. Regardless of how honest, genuine, or deeply felt these phrases are, I’ve read them many times already. Be fresh.

4. Refusal to transcend. Whether a poem originates in a painting or myth or fairy tale or memory of the poet’s first boyfriend or phrase in another language, it ought to transcend its originating material. How is the poem, the poet, the speaker, or the reader changed by the end of the poem? Where have we gone? I want to be MOVED, in any and all of the wild and various ways a poem can do that to a person.

5. Weak endings.  I think the phrase “but the ending…” is probably the most-said phrase in the IR office. Across all the genres, we get so many pieces that are killed by their own endings: pieces that sputter out or say too much or don’t say quite enough, pieces that end on a confusing phrase or an abstraction after so much crisp imagery, endings that go in a whole new direction and leave that direction undeveloped, endings that repeat what the whole piece has already said, endings that aren’t emotionally resonant and endings that are manipulative. Anything less than a great ending is probably going to kill the poem, for me. Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.

I don’t mean to suggest that these are all-important rules for making a good poem, that there is never a reason to do one or more of these things. But a great number of the poems I reject from the slush pile, or that don’t make it out of our editorial meetings, are turned down largely for one of these five reasons. Hopefully, this gives you a better idea, via negativa, of what kinds of poetry we like.

40 Responses to “Five Marks of Oft-Rejected Poems”

  1. C Hogan`

    One question: Do you read/accept poetry based on the work itself or the resume of the writer?

  2. Leann Higbee

    I love this! I completely agree about the first line and the last line. I always try to tell people that the first line is the most important. Although I never said anything quite like “fuck me out of my senses with your first line” – now I must say this to someone, at least once.

  3. Ash

    I agree. I’ve been preaching the importance of the first line for years. Weak verbs=stale language.

  4. Rick Rofihe

    “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
    T. S. Eliot

  5. Ian Bodkin

    6–American journals and periodicals are not interested in psalms, which is to say pages plucked with abstract ideas or metaphors that do not in some way elaborate upon the overall arc of the narrative. To clarify major American publications are a kin to that horrible classroom in a secondary school of your choice, where you will remember such phrases as “Frost repeated the line to fit the form,” or “Nobody reads the ‘Confessionals Anymore'” or “she was just talking about how her letter was going to take a Route that passes out of sight,” etc. In other words, Major American Publications, no offense Indiana–on a side note I’ve never submitted or been rejected by you, so maybe you’re the outlier–are looking for Narratives because your English teacher just “didn’t get” poetry unless he or she could explain a conflict, show you the crisis and how everything leads to a climax. If Rilke, Li Po, Whitman, W. Carlos or John Williams submitted their poetry today, again to major publications, they would be roundly rejected especially if we are to inspect item #2 and 4 with a strong argument for 3. Those are both subjective, actually all five are, but I do agree in having read slush piles that strong endings and openings are key, however, I turn the camera to myself, do I say that because I learned it in an undergrad Fiction workshop, or because it’s what poetry SHOULD DO? I’m a neo-neo-neoteric, disciple of Sappho–who would also be rejected–I want the poetry I read to speak. I wake up at 5am, run, go to teach, return around 4pm and read, hope to write between 6 and the night and somewhere I eat, read again or stumble into sleep, but if I open another damn America journal and the first poem is a narrative, I’m going to make an ultimatum. We need POETRY it’s the first art form ladies and gentlemen, cuneiform or pictogram, blind man before the Grecian fire, our peoples were wanting poetry. Jack could see him a hill and the beauty of Jill, he didn’t even have to move, but look upward, make one of those over associating metaphors about a well and the possibility of an American taking the climb. By the way in French Poetry there are poets fighting, yes, fighting, against the use of metaphor, other than a position in an MFA or place of line at AWP, prey tell my loves, what are American poets fighting for? By the way I say this all in respect of what is said above and below, I write out of a need for answers because I am an ignorant fool. I can’t imagine a warrior with an ax(#3).

  6. Greg Grummer

    Of course a poet, if there is such a thing, would take all of the above admonishment, put instances of them in one poem, and it would make us weep.

  7. J.R. Helton

    who cares what you or any self-absorbed piece of shit lit mag in america thinks of poetry?

  8. Monica Petersen

    I love this post. Everything is 100% true of poetry and can easily be translated to short fiction, essays, even the back matter of New York Times bestsellers. Any short work that needs to grab attention should do just that. The worst offense is probably #5, a work turns stale when the ending does not deliver.

  9. Shriram

    Very insightful. Would help us a lot. Thank you!

  10. Bill Knott

    no wonder you rejected all the poems I sent you!

  11. Seth Tucker

    God–I hope that’s THE Bill Knott that just posted!! So funny. I actually teach pretty much this exact list to my beginning poetry students, although I talk about “what is at stake” for the reader.

  12. lizz

    Tonight at the bar I’m going to randomly tell strangers “There’s not a hot air balloon filled with jackrabbits in your chest every time she looks at you like a prison guard bleeding sugar.” This made my day. Thank you.

  13. Mary Jo Firth Gillett

    From another rejectee: although some good points were made, for me, poetry’s all about the leaps…metaphor. And of course, sound, sound, sound.

  14. Scott Russell

    All the Mistakes

    It was a dark and stormy night
    Your face like a sledge hammer bell fart
    Curled by the fire
    But this was Toledo
    Dang it.

  15. Samantha Kolber

    axing…those fireflies, or a constellation of them, were axing their way through the winter like lumberjacks. Great post all around though, and I plan to quote it in a critical paper of Carolyn Forche and Robert Frost.

  16. Ian Bodkin

    I will say that I am well aware of the 99 rejections, and a poem ain’t one, though on a hundredth attempt that same often rejected poem may finally find its audience. I get that. My point above is that I don’t think American journals do a very good job in the “what we look for” column. I can read your magazine and be bombarded with narratives, but like all writers I’m thinking I might have the gall or the fire with a modicum of talent to open “your” eyes to poetry. I have a sense of humor, the main post is funny, but it’s also what I think is wrong in poetry today; the irony of the skittery line. Sure it’s funny, but then what? One of the greatest lines ever composed is Stephen King’s “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” We are engaged, we know that two forces will meet; fireworks sure to ensue–on a side note, King wrote his Gunslinger based off of both Dorn’s The Gunlsinger and Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Both with beautiful narrative arcs. But Poems don’t necessarily need to do that. Find the arc in one Dream Song, not the collection but #7, #14, or #77, it’s not clean because it’s the journey of a thought. I think tomorrow and remember many years, somewhere think now, I am not following my greatest problem to its ultimate tension. I am trying in the art of words, maybe I’m some illegitimate disciple of Chomsky, but I believe we chose to express ourselves. I can point to a man on the street where you have the potential to infer what I mean, or I can write a story about his up and downs, or I can have a poem on the justification I find in pointing, for better or worse. The narrative arc is a roll-a-coaster full of inevitability, while the poem can shoot out into space to seek out new worlds, new lives, new ideas, boldly go where words have feared before. I think that’s what we find in our American lineage as poets, so again why do major publications turn from a little ingenuity? In other words I can dig Master of Puppets, but after that, eh.

  17. Sophia Thomas

    I’m guilty of using clichés and having weak endings. I always think my poems have to have some kind of great ending that I over think it and I usually end it with a phrase or something that doesn’t go with the rest of the poem.

  18. Kristi

    Scott Russell, that’s the best poem I’ve read all week.

  19. Mark Allen Jenkins

    I would add a #6 to your great list. Most editors have pet peeves, things they just hate to see in a poem. It’s usually random, if not a bit personal. I can remember reading for a journal a few years ago and debating with other readers over a poem that imagined Jesus as an action figure. I don’t remember much else about it, but I found the use of religion just be be cute or edgy not especially effective and cliche. So readers and editors are human.

    Also, I get Bodkin’s frustration that journals aren’t often more explicit about their aesthetics, but I think most editors want to be surprised by a random submission. I hope so anyway.

  20. Jan Steckel

    Thank you. I’m posting this article on my office wall.

  21. Krystie

    But what if a flock of scarlet pigeons really did thunder round my thoughts.

  22. Michele K.

    Terrific reminders… and am now obsessing about my most recent submission. Hm, yes, that ending could be stronger.

  23. peter oram

    1think you could add a few other rules of thumb to that list…
    don’t use …

    any word unless your quite sure what it means, especially if it comes from some specialised field – do you really know what a basso continuo is, or a gibbous moon?

    foreign words unless you’ve got a damn good reason

    fillers, even if you “need” to for the metre or whatever – words like just, perhaps, somewhat, a kind of….etc

    intensifiers or modifiers – ever so; slightly, etc

    tautology : melodious tunes?? a deep, profound silence???

    archaic inversions – when he to the forest came etc

    avoid too many adverbs unless essential. and prefer…short words to long, indigenous words to imported, vernacular to “poetic”, contemporary to archaic

    one could go on and on – but remember these are not rules, simply useful for quality control!!

  24. Peter Sherrill

    I think it was James Baldwin who made this observation. It has been a touchstone for both my writing and (occasional)judging, but it resonates nicely with Michael’s essay:
    “A poem may be divided into four parts, of roughly equal importance: the title, the first line, the last line, and the rest of the poem.” You gotta love James.

  25. Dok Tael Stevens

    #7. Don’t use the word “scream…” or any other ordinary word when a more specific one exists. One of the only things I remember from the countless poetry classes and workshops from college 20 years ago, was the pervasive and insistent persistence of the word “scream” in almost every angst-ridden poem. Why not “screech?” Or “wail?” What kind of “scream” was it – screaming in anger, screaming in surprise, screaming in horror? Use the goddamn thesaurus and think about what you are trying to describe, and don’t use such common, blank and empty words for specific actions or emotions.