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Poetry Magazines: A Survey

Online poetry magazines provide a publishing platform for poets and wannabe poets, but also a insight into themes and styles currently favoured by the serious poetry world. It was these themes and styles that interested me in the 44 poetry magazines I reviewed in 2013-5 period, using whatever the magazines put out themselves and (in the case of British magazines) the representative examples republished by the British Poetry Society. I tried to be exhaustive in my search, using all the material freely available at the time. I tried to be fair, and as appreciative as possible to the many styles, genres and notions as to what constitutes poetry. And I tried to be as enthusiastic as possible, even with styles I didn't much like: these poems were, after all, the 'best of the best', given that magazines typically accept only a few percent of submissions, and presumably showcase the most enticing in their 'representative selections'.

Findings

Readers can draw their own conclusions by dipping into the 44 reviews listed below, but these were my general findings:

1. Themes and styles ranged from the traditional (Poetry Cornwall) to the Post-modernist (Jacket) but belonged mainly to those described under prose-based poetry, {1} i.e. unpretentious, with minimal aesthetic shaping.

2. Quality varied, though few were so good that I should want to read the material again. The more prestigious magazines did not necessarily have the best poems, moreover, though verse craft was more obvious in older and/or better-known poets.

3. In general, the poems carried little raison d'etre or emotional charge, but could perhaps be called inconsequential, undemanding but sometimes intriguing.

Audience

Material is clearly not being published with the general public in mind. Most small presses have readerships in the low hundreds, where the business model is 'inside out', i.e. let us tell what you should be reading, i.e. rather than ascertaining their readership's real wants by market research. Increasingly, translations, collections, even the winning poems in competitions can only be 'bought unseen', being promoted by a few words of commendation from some recognized authority. The small presses doubtless know their own business best, but the approach is that of prestige products, which have to be discretely pushed by massive advertising elsewhere. No sane person outside the 'converted' would seriously consider buying a product in this manner, not when reviewing is in the hands of poets belonging to overlapping circles of practitioners doggedly promoting each other. {3}

2. Certain world-views, styles and standards are expected, as they are in academic journals, which the small presses increasingly resemble.

3. Most magazines operate as publication does in the academic world, where authors strive to get their papers into the 'better journals', thus increasing their prestige and job prospects.

4. Some magazine are probably bought for display, and to support worthy causes. But it's hard to know. There is little or no feedback, it being left to contributing poets to explain themselves through individual literary blogs, which again seem not over-popular or long-maintained.

DIY Kit for the Contemporary Poems

Because published example are somewhat varied, and only good in parts, let me indicate how today's poems are constructed. I wouldn't claim too much for the first poem but it may (if I understand correctly the work in magazines listed below) demonstrate what is being aimed for.

Hot House at Kew Gardens

Here they hang in frank
protuberance of lobe, leaf, root,
and dripping moisture from the air itself,
so that you can come back weeks, months later
to find them still plumply distended, heeding
nothing of what we cultivated ones observe
in wild avowals and extended pain.

Here they go on extruding their thin wraps
into tough, leathery trajectories, each mass-
packed factories of intricate production
with only a clean white oxygen
issuing as the leaves learn to noiselessly spiral
in green luxuriance toward the light.

Which of course bathes us walking this filtered
dominion of light and shade, pointing out
to our tired, fretful child this interchange
of gasses into matted chlorophyll.
But he can only feel my hand holding
his, guiding and urging him to go
on outward in this world of rule-bound
reticence and everyday pretense.

Where certain words and gestures are required,
some banned explicitly, and some reserved
for that acquaintanceship that all our lives
is more entrancing than this plumed display
of seed and husk and slow-dividing stem.

Note that:

1. There is no rhyme or metre: the lines are strictly prose, but nonetheless have some integrity. The rhythm subtly alters as it runs as long sentences through the lines, but the individual lines also have balance, cohesion and independence.

2. There are no meta-narratives or grand statements, no lift into elevated feelings: sex is something larger than biology.

3. The poem has structure: a clear beginning, a pondered middle section, and subsuming conclusion.

4. Textural effects (in green luxuriance toward the light, etc.) serve semantic purposes.

Is this the way to go? Not necessarily. Stronger effects can be achieved with free verse:

Other People’s Lives

The mourners mostly have gone home, but here
about these plots of other people’s lives
I pick my steps, now noticing the trees
arrayed in canopies of sun-warmed leaves,
how sky beyond goes on diminishing
to placid but unbending blue,
beneath which lie the raw earth graves
and flowers large with messages:
’Much missed.’ ‘You were the best of mums.’
‘Devoted to the family.’

All trite, and heart-felt, hurting those
who must not think of that soft body there,
with scars for eyes now wide asleep.
Nor let themselves feel older, sensing
that the dead are always travelling on,
beyond the body or its troubled nights.

Otherwise, our lives stay much the same:
we get up, go about our business, nightly
turn to sleep, as through a world
become more porous and intractable,
more filled with gaps as lights about the evening lands,
in farms and suburbs and apartment blocks,
go abruptly into darkened rooms,
to after-images that wake us with their sudden
falls to emptiness and numbing pains.

And so it’s quietly, one by one,
the living take their leave of us
and go out into instances,
adrift and tangled as the sunlight is
about these wind-touched trails of leaves:
beautiful and impenitent
of time’s involuntary affections.