Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The long and the short of it

A few things this last week have set me thinking about the length of poems, and to what extent there's a sort of default size preferred by editors and publishers (not necessarily entirely consciously - in fact, almost certainly not).

It was all sparked by this blog piece by American poet LouAnn Muhm at the excellent Loft Literary Centre blog. I think LouAnn makes a great case for the short poem (I'm thinking 10 lines or less), and hits on pretty much all the reasons why I like them. But, looking back through my own poems, the vast majority clock in at more than 10 lines, but less than 40. Why is that?

In part it's because, as you start out as a poet, you see a lot of UK poetry magazines full of poems that fall within that range. Some specifically ask for poems of no more than 40 lines (that's certainly true in many competitions), and seeing this, you naturally try to fit in with what's gone before.

At the other end of the scale, I can remember feeling that, in a submission of maybe four poems, it doesn't make sense to send something that's barely there at all. In fact, I can remember having felt that despite the fact that, frequently, editors took the briefest (but almost certainly the most tightly written) of the selection I sent them. Clearly, then, a large part of the problem is mine - I should get used to the fact that a good editor can tell a good poem regardless of its length, and fire away with the short poems.

Having talked to a few other poets about this, though, it does undoubtedly seem to be harder to place really short and really long poems in magazines. I suspect it's purely because editors are seeking to strike a series of balances - give too much space to one epic poem, and you'll get complaints from readers who wanted more variety, and leave too many of your pages as a snowscape with a tiny poem huddled in the top-left corner, and you'll get readers telling you your magazine isn't worth the money.

I get the impression that things are changing a little, maybe partly as a result of the gradual breaking down of divides between different schools and styles of poetry. For a start, sequences seem to be much more common than 10 years ago, and they can allow the poet to have the best of both worlds, with each section being highly concentrated, but effectively adding up to a single, long poem. I've been tinkering with one myself, using very short verse forms to make up a connected whole.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this ("you don't say?", I hear you thinking), except to say that I'd be interested to hear any views. Are short poems seen as somehow less substantial (in terms of literary merit, rather than quantity of ink on a page)? Are long poems seen as inevitably overwritten? And why, if I'm preaching the virtues of concision, can't I make my blog posts a bit shorter?

NB LouAnn's also running an online workshop on writing short poems - you can read more about it, and sign up, here.


litrefs said...

I think I must have been influence by UK magazines. Rialto's format (with some 2 column pages) encourages thin poems, and they sometimes have 4 poems/page, which gives short poems a chance. Other mags have a 1 poem/page rule, so unless your haiku's astonishing, you'll have little chance with them. I've had poems rejected at least in part because they go a line or 2 over the page.

I often send a short piece with 2 longer pieces when I send to mags. I've sometimes bundled some very short, barely related pieces into a sequence.

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, I think you're right that the 1 poem per page rule at some mags works against both short and long poems.

When you send a short with two longer poems, have you noticed any particular rate of success, Tim?

litrefs said...

Rialto once accepted a haiku that I sent with 2 longer pieces - 20 quid for 17 syllables! I don't recall my success rate with that particular tactic, but I do ok with the more general idea of including something a bit different - comic, short or rhyming:) - in an otherwise standard batch of poems in case the eds are looking to plug a particular gap. Larkin said he was surprised how often eds accepted the poem that he'd sent in only to make the others look good.

panther said...

It may be something cultural, but I think a lot of Westerners (I know that's a very general term !) feel we haven't got a proper poem on our hands if it's only 4 lines, say, or 6. As if we're short-changing the reader ! I know this is rubbish, really, because if all poems hovered around the 40-line mark, how tedious THAT would be !

I'm like you, Matt : I tend to write poems that end up being maybe 20-25 lines. Not because of any advanced planning ! Short poems (under 10 lines, say) are in many ways the hardest because a single "wrong" word (like a wrong note in a short piece of music) is very, very obvious.

Alan Baker said...

Hi Matt, I'm guessing your referring print magazines. The only print magazine I submit to is Tears in the Fence, and they accept poems that run into several pages. In fact, apart from TIF, I only read online magazines, and there, of course, there's no restriction on length and a lot more scope in terms of presentation.

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, sorry Alan, I should have specified print mags. I think you're right that one of the great things about online mags is the scope they give for innovative presentation, including publishing much longer poems.

With you all the way on Tears In The Fence, too. It's not just the longer poems - the space they give to reviews and essays is refreshing.