I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up to Monday’s post about reader response, but it’s new-issue week for me — typesetting Rattle #31 before we send it on to our brilliant team of proofreaders — and time has been scarce. This is an important topic, and I really don’t want to half-ass it, but half an ass is better than no ass, right?
In listening to the feedback on issues of Rattle — whether in print or online, whether the commenters are writing letters or talking to me after readings — I always get the impression that there’s one thing people don’t understand: that the hardest part of an editor’s job isn’t picking poems he or she loves — those poems leap out at you immediately with a gong and a bullhorn — it’s finding poems you think others will love, even if you don’t.
My tastes in poetry are as narrow as anyone’s. I like lyrical poems, with a good sense of music and rhythm, a bit of surrealism, maybe, and a sense of ineffability — poems that are indescribably more than the sum of their parts. I don’t like certain other things, like a prosy narrative, or a heavy reliance upon allusion. As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, while picking apart an Ashbery poem can be fun, it’s not my kind of poetry. But it is someone‘s kind of poetry.
Rattle publishes nothing but poetry and essays on poetry, and with around 200 pages per issue, there’s room for everyone. The goal of the magazine, every single time, is to have anyone who speaks the English language be able to pick up a copy and find at least a few poems they enjoy. That includes people like my mom (Hi, Mom!), who never read poetry except when her son is involved, and people like Richard Wilbur, who won his first Pulitzer Prize over 50 years ago and, I’m told, complimented a poem in Rattle just last week. The fact is, neither of their sensibilities match my own — Wilbur’s tastes are too erudite, my mother’s too sentimental.
And yet, limited as we are to the submissions we spontaneously receive, we try to satisfy both of them, and every potential reader in between.
So when I say that readers are hypercritical, I think they’re just treating the subjective too objectively. “Death and Tacos” might not be the poem for you, but it’s the poem for a lot of other people. And if you turn the page to the next poem, hopefully the roles will be reversed. People tell me which poems they enjoyed and which they didn’t all the time, which is great feedback, and I always listen. But it seems like they don’t realize that, the day before, someone else told me the exact opposite. That’s just how poetry is.
It happens with my own book, too. When my thesis advisor read American Fractal last month, he pointed in particular to “Hiking Alone” as a kind of poem he didn’t care for — too closed, and straightforward. He preferred the more “open” poems, the scattershot pieces, which he seemed to genuinely enjoy. In the time since, several people — including my first Amazon.com review — pointed specifically to “Hiking Alone” as one of their favorites.
There’s no way to get around this broad spectrum of poetic taste — so I think we should always try to embrace it. And that’s what we do. Sometimes I’m fumbling around in the dark, trying to find the right poem that’s extremely accessible, but still interesting; sometimes I’m publishing a poem that I don’t quite understand. And I’d say that I’m sure sometimes I screw up, but so far, it really does seem like every poem is someone’s favorite. There hasn’t been a poem yet that’s been panned by some, without being lauded by others.
There are probably two schools of editing, that could each be summed up with famous quotes:
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.
(Did Rick Nelson really say that first?) And:
You can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time.
I had to revise Abe a little, but that’s the route I want to take.