Presenting your poetry
By J. Paul Dyson
Managing Editor, firstwriter.com
firstwriter.com – Monday December 27, 2004
As an editor of a literary magazine you see all sorts in the submission pile: from annoying little errors like "to" instead of "too" or "your" instead of "you're" (and no, that's not being picky – being able to write is a fairly basic requirement of being a writer), to the classic faux pas of submitting material entirely in capitals (in case you don't know, standard practice in the publishing industry is to reject anything entirely in capitals without even reading it). Recently, however, I've noticed a new aberration creeping into the poetry submissions – and it seems to be coming out of the new "phone text" language…
What I'm talking about are poems littered with abbreviated words: ampersands ("&") instead of "and"; the number "4" instead of "for"; the letter "u" instead of "you"; and, just as lazily, the word "I" typed in lower case.
For most of you, I'm sure, it doesn't even need to be explained that this is a bad idea – but others are probably asking why it matters what symbols you use, as long as your message gets across? Leave the poetry to the poets and the picky little bits to the editors, right?
In poetry, everything matters, no matter how tiny – and every little choice you make about words, punctuation, and line breaks, etc. alters the message you are sending. Using ampersands and phone text abbreviations in a poem is fine – as long as there is a reason for it. If you're writing a poem about the speed and superficiality of twenty-first century life – or how emotions and relationships are being condensed and reduced (like words) in the age of electronic communications – then these kinds of phone text abbreviations provide the perfect vehicle for your "message". But if you use phone text abbreviations you evoke these things whether they're the subject of your poem or not – so if your poem is about spiritual revelations or the beauty of nature you've effectively just stuck a mobile phone in the middle of it. You've detracted from your "message", confused your readership, and made them think you're trying to say something that you're not. Your poem is a failure.
For true poets, every single detail is important. There are documented examples of great poets from history sending letters back and forth to their editors debating, discussing, and repeatedly amending single punctuation marks: should it be a comma? A full stop? A semi-colon? In poetry, where balance and structure are so important, these things are a huge consideration – so by using the number "4" instead of the word "for" you are making an enormous statement. You need to be sure what that statement is and why it needs to be made at that particular point of that particular poem. If you're not thinking carefully about what impact it's having, you're not much of a poet.
The point is that poetry is not like fiction, where the words are transparent windows to the ideas behind them. What makes poetry different is that the words themselves are absolutely key – and in printed poetry the appearance on the page is critical (not all poetry is printed, of course – some is verbal, which is fine – but you can't submit verbal poetry to a magazine and they can't print it on their pages, so we can set that aside for the time being). In the time of Shakespeare, for instance, the printed letter "s" looked very much like a letter "f". This led to lots of jokes in poetry of the time involving the word "suck", etc. but they don't work if you change even the typeface of the print. When Herbert wrote his "Easter Wings" the poem was shaped like a pair of wings and set sideways across two pages, so that the wings would open as the page was turned.
Printed poetry can often verge on being visual art, and the appearance of the poem on the page and even the blank space around it is always important and will always have an impact on how that poem is read. A good poet will always understand this. Anyone who thinks that "&" and "4" are interchangeable for "and" and "for" is merely demonstrating a deep insensitivity for the language. Editors who see this will reject these pieces out of hand – not because they are being picky, straight-laced, or anally retentive – but because the person who has written them clearly has no understanding of poetry whatsoever.