The HyperTexts

Rejection Slips: "Fine, even beautiful," just not for us ...
                                 an update of
Drats, Rejected Again! (the bias against formal poetry)


by Michael R. Burch

This is a true story. The names of the journals have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

In my advancing age, I seldom submit poems for publication unless I know the journals and their editors. But every now and then, I decide to take a chance. When I do, strange things can happen. For instance, in recent years I have had poems rejected by editors who said:

"I do believe your poems are fine, even beautiful ..."
"Your poetry is evocative, but not what we're looking for ..."
"Your poems are wonderful, but not right for us ..."
etc.

Drats, another rejection slip! But was the slip-up mine, or the editor's? I probably shouldn't complain, since I've been published more than 1,800 times in literary journals and sundry publications around the globe. Lately some of my poems have been "going viral," as people cut and paste them to blogs and other websites. It seems teachers, students, ministers, rabbis and peace activists like some of my poems enough to "borrow" them, and of course I find it pleasing and gratifying when they do. But I still find myself a bit irked when editors who should know what to do with good poems (publish them) tell me that my poetry is "wonderful" but "not right for us." How can poems be "wonderful" but "not right"?

I'm an editor and publisher of poetry, and my literary "Spidey sense" tells me that I'm the victim of pseudo-intellectual snobbery. What I suspect certain editors are telling me, in a weird sort of Morse code, is: "I really like and admire your poems, but if I publish them people may no longer consider me to be the über-reader that I want them to believe I am, so I'll have to pass in order to keeping projecting my desired image."

Because I'm a poetry editor myself, I believe I understand the most basic function of poetry editors everywhere, which is to publish the best possible poetry that meets their stated guidelines. So, for example, if a journal publishes only haiku, any poetry submitted must fit the editor's definition of "haiku" while being worthy of publication in his/her opinion. I would certainly have no objection if the editor of a haiku journal rejected my submission of a sonnet: indeed, I would have been foolhardy to submit a sonnet to, let's say, Haiku Heaven. But what about a journal whose guidelines say that it "includes all fronts of poetry with as little bias as possible." I might expect to be published if the editor of this journallet's call it Biasless Schizophrenic, or BS for shortfound my poems to be "fine, even beautiful." Alas, this was not the case, and I fear it's because some editors still consider poems that employ meter and rhyme to automatically be "archaic." But if this was the case, most popular songs and many TV jingles would be automatically archaic. Since Mick Jaggar and Eminem are not considered to be antiquarians by any measure, I disagree that such a strange, unjust rule should be applied to poets. And because my best poems are written in grammatically correct modern English, I take issue with what seems to be a knee-jerk reaction against rhymed metrical poetry. Here are some excerpts from the BS rejection missive I received:

"Mike, Thanks for your response to my editorial spewings ... and thanks as well for the additional submissions. Returning now to your work—the larger volume of pieces to review—it comes to me that there is simply a stylistic difference here, with no real argument ... My own taste is toward a more decidedly modern or current speech usage in poems, a poetry that may still be beautiful but perhaps not in the same ways that it has been in previous times. I imagine you might actually do well to submit to more classically leaning journals like Poetry. Perhaps it's my oddball aesthetic philosophy at work here. In any event, I do believe your poems are fine, even beautiful, and no sense splitting hairs over phrases. It's just that these aren't fitting into the evolving collection as I see it, and I am sorry not to be inviting you to include your work in this paticular [sic] issue of BS. I believe at present I'll be guest/contributing editor just this one time for now, so things are always changing ... Anyway, thanks again, and may the Muse be with you!"

I will let the reader judge whether the work I submitted was written in anything other than good modern English. Here are two examples:

See

See how her hair has thinned: it doesn't seem
like hair at all, but like the airy moult
of emus who outraced the wind and left
soft plumage in their wake. See how her eyes
are gentler now; see how each wrinkle laughs,
and deepens on itself, as though mirth took
some comfort there and burrowed deeply in,
outlasting winter. See how very thin
her features are—that time has made more spare,
so that each bone shows elegant and rare.

For loveliness remains in her grave eyes,
and courage in her still-delighted looks:
each face presented like a picture book’s.
Bemused, she blows us undismayed goodbyes.

Violets

Once, only once,
when the wind flicked your skirt
to an indiscrete height

and you laughed,
abruptly demure,
outblushing shocked violets,

suddenly,
I knew:
everything had changed . . .

and as you braided your hair
into long bluish plaits
the shadows empurpled,

the dragonflies’
last darting feints
dissolving mid-air . . .

we watched the sun’s long glide
into evening,
knowing and unknowing . . .

O, how the illusions of love
await us in the commonplace
and rare

and haunt our small remainder of hours.

Reader Reaction:

With regard to those two wonderful poems of yours that the BS publisher refused, all I can say is that having them on THT is our gain and his loss. Both poems are exquisite. The first, "See", brought tears to my eyes and an aching to my heart as I remembered my grandmother, my mother, and now myself trying to approach old age with courage and bemusement. The stanza: "suddenly/I knew:/everything had changed" in the other poem, "Violets", is so transcendent, so universal, that, regardless of the fact that my moment had nothing to do with violets and everything to do with football, it made me feel again like that 15-year-old girl whose illusion of love was born on an unremarkable Friday night in 1965.—Catherine Chandler

I also, by the way, particularly like the closing lines of your opening poem: "O, how the illusions of love...haunt our small remainder of hours." I think those lines are excellent.—Tom Merrill

“See” is quite extraordinary!—Zyskandar Jaimot

I liked both [poems] a lot, especially "See" for its extraordinary delicacy.—Richard Moore

"See" is very lovely, the "elegant" and "spare" portrait, with all that emu fluff and burrowing mirth.—Marly Youmans

“Exquisite!”—Esther Cameron

This poem ["See"] is very clear, very simple, very loving, keeps the reader abreast—and charmed—and the language as well as the meaning flows smoothly from beginning to end. And the end is lovely. A very nice one, my compliments.—Tom Merrill

“Great news [about “See” and “At Wilfred Owen’s Grave” finishing 3rd and 7th in the 2003 Writer’s Digest Rhyming Poetry Contest] and a worthy recognition for your beautiful poetic touch.”—Chesil, editor of Poetry Webring

"My sincere compliments to Mike Burch on his award-winning poems, "See" and "At Wilfred Owens' Grave", which seem to me deep, qualified, interesting, and well crafted. I found "See" particularly touching—rarely does one come upon so perceptive a portrayal of old age—and "At Wilfred Owen's Grave" becomes a clarion battle cry. For a better day. Clearly, these two poems deserve repeated and frequent rereading. Many thanks for letting me see them."—Rhoda Bandler in a letter to Yala Korwin

Rarely does one come upon so sensitive and sympathetic a portrayal of old age ... poems about old age express often pity, derision, even revulsion. Yours is a lovely portrait, not a caricature."—Yala Korwin

"See" is a marvelous poem.—Greg Brownderville

This, Michael, is nearly faultless. I can't advance a single reservation as to its diction, meter or general execution. One senses that you accomplished precisely what you set out to do. From see how each wrinkle laughs until and courage in her still-delighted looks, your individual style and sensibility truly shine. A great poem.—Jeffrey Woodward

Oh these are so beautiful. Like you I still believe that love is what matters and your poems glow with it. I'm old enough to be deeply moved by 'See'. How strange that a comparative child and an old poet like me should see the world the same way and how grateful I am to you for crystallising the link.—Janet Kenny, poet, opera singer and peace activist

My many thanks for the opportunity to read Mr. Burch's two poems you sent. I have read them many times—each reading a further revelation of his sensitivity and word usage to convey each separate poem in each separate tone. To break down the flavor of each this follows: SEE. This poem is a tender paean to an elderly, lovely woman. It is so full of love without actually saying it, and that in itself is intrinsic to its tug of the reader's heart. It presents a vivid picture of the gallantry and courage of the aging. I quote a few lines that I found unforgettable: ‘see how her eyes are gentler now.’ So sure in youth but quieter with the acquiring of a certain wisdom. The image of wrinkles: ‘burrowed deeply in, outlasting winter’ leaves a mark on the uncritical mind, that accepts and sees the beauty carved by life. AT WILFRED OWEN'S GRAVE. Thoughts of war and death in the years of youth can bring nothing but an ache in the heart. This poem presents it with perfect pitch. The use of language to depict the horrors of war without saying the word horror, but by describing existing in its midst, trying to survive, yet almost surely knowing survival would be a miracle, that death in wars denies life to the ordinary unsung as much as to the gifted cut short untimely, fighting side by side. These are boys lived by family and friends no matter what status in society. This poem is almost a painting using words instead of oils to depict murder while the initiators stay home mouthing phrases of patriotism. Yala, I hope I'm not too wordy. I am deeply affected by both poems.—Emma Landau, in a letter to Yala Korwin

In Conclusion

These are the thoughts of accomplished poets who care deeply about poetry, so it's hard for me to understand why the poems they admired would be rejected, especially when the editors who rejected the poems called them fine, beautiful, evocative, etc. It's also hard for me to understand why an editor whose guidelines welcome all forms of poetry would reject poems he considered "fine, even beautiful" on the grounds that he wanted something "decidedly more modern," when both poems are written in perfectly good modern English. Perhaps the editor was afraid someone might think he wasn't sufficiently sophisticated if he published rhyming poems that convey a good deal of sentiment. But of course some of the best poems of all time are rhyming poems that convey sentiment. I think the editor of BS is full of BS. I also believe that a bias against formal poetry has resulted in my poems being banished to the back of the bus.

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