Poetry News

Editor-In-Chief of the Southwest Review Tells All

By Harriet Staff

Willard Spiegelman,the editor in chief of the Southwest Review, gives a veteran's account of today's poetry scene at the Virginia Quarterly Review blog. Spiegelman is blunt and unapologetically pro traditional form. He devotes a large portion of the essay to a description of the poems submitted for the Morton H. Marr contest, which requires poets to submit poems written in a "traditional" form.

Over the years, the number of poems, and poets, in this contest, has not noticeably increased. As with our total annual submissions, the number of Marr contestants may have leveled off. This year, we received about 1,000 poems by more than 200 individuals. What has changed, however, is how the poets read and interpret, or misinterpret, the rules of the game. Ten years ago, most entries hewed to those rules. Today many do not. Is it a predictable fact that desperate people will do anything to get into print, even if they must pay an entry fee to qualify? I was surprised at first, but then I realized that perhaps I should not have been. They must think of the contest as something like a crapshoot, which indeed it is. They ask: “If I spend $20, I may hit the jackpot and get $1,000 back.”

We not only give a rule for the contest (a “traditional” form) but we also spell out that rule for the benefit of those who are uncertain what a traditional form might be. Do their poems even qualify for admission? Never daunted, an increasingly larger annual percentage of contestants send in work that we must reject out of hand, at first sight. The entrants submit their poems, often sprawling anarchic things that no formal net would capture or enwrap. Do these people not know the difference between “form,” however generously defined, and its antithesis? Do they not care? Or do they think that we won’t notice? In any case, the contestants’ foolishness eases my work in the office. I winnow the number of submissions down to the roughly ten percent that will be sent—anonymously—to the annual judge.

Some poetasters do not know the difference between a sonnet and something that is not a sonnet, or between a line of even loose iambic pentameter and what is not such a line. But I have made another interesting discovery about our decade-old contest, namely, the fact that villanelles and sestinas, not to mention more ordi- nary sonnets, blank verse narratives, and less ordinary pantoums, ghazals, centos, plus old-fashioned clerihews, rondeaux and the occasional haiku (and even some ingenious variations or modifications on older forms) have become in some circles mother’s milk. Many poets hanker after form.
The poems that inundate our office for the Marr prize seem to flow in from several tributaries. I intuit from those cover letters that provide biographical detail that about half of the contestants do not come from an immediate academic background but rank among the amateur Sunday poets whose work will in most cases never see the light of day except in the blogosphere or within the confines of a family circle. This home-grown, garden-variety poet, like Dr. Johnson’s beloved “common reader,” still hews to what John Hollander in Rhyme’s Reason calls “verse” rather than “poetry” pure and simple; that is, something defined by “schemes” rather than “tropes,” by music rather than metaphor. These works exemplify, at best, a charming naiveté of the highest order.

Another non-surprise: the quality of the “formal” poems, once they have passed the test for a more serious reading, varies enormously. Many people—was it always thus?—think that honoring the letter but not the spirit of the law suffices. Everyone acknowledges the challenge of getting the line-endings right in a sestina, or allowing the repetitions within the villanelle’s nineteen lines a chance to breathe, expand, and move in mysterious ways, but few people can rise to the occasion. The verse that is both rhymed and metered sometimes reminds me of the fledgling efforts of university undergraduates who, when asked to produce a sonnet (or, as I have occasionally demanded, some Spenserian stanzas), think that if they get the rhyme scheme down they have fulfilled the assignment. Those occupying a slightly higher place on the slope to Parnassus aim for both the rhyme scheme and the right number of syllables. As the air on the ascent becomes thinner they also know that they must write something called iambic pentameter. Only a small percentage can satisfy the technical prosodic demands and also write a syntactically accurate English sentence.

Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it. Read the full essay here.

Originally Published: July 16th, 2012