Welcome back to POEMHACK! This column looks at poems that have been rejected for publication, and tries to figure out why they’re not working. I welcome reader-submitted poems; deets are at the bottom of the post.
Original Poet writes:
i do not know how to translate my wisdom for lesser minds to grasp
i know this poem is great but maybe you can tweak it a little bit to be less intimidating
i wrote it while i was eating cereal and i don’t even like cereal or milk
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I really enjoyed, even on my first read through, how the ordering and choosing of the different letters in the words was accomplished. It makes the poem totally easy to read, and at no point am I like, “hey, is that even a word?” and I don’t have to go, “I wonder if the poet meant this other word instead.” and I’m not muttering, “this is all just straight up gibberish,” even on those reads when I accidentally skip a few lines. Even difficult words like “patiently” and “boyfriend” are spelled perfectly. Nice!
The poem is at its strongest when it’s being condescending. It takes a lot to surprise a reader these days – what, with the internet and all that – and it’s rare that a reader encounters a poem in which the speaker is so clearly sure that what s/he is thinking at that very moment is true for every person, everywhere, and for all time. I wouldn’t mind seeing the speaker go even further with this – there are hundreds of thousands of things that could discourage any but the most grandiose 15- through 22-year-olds from developing a personal relationship with poetry.
But most astonishingly, this poem, and I don’t say this lightly, is sexy. Sexy sexy sexy. Like, undeniably. It’s no small feat to write poetic erotica – how many times have you taken a poem into the bedroom for that kind of reading? Or just schtupped a poem itself? – but to make something so hot so universally accessible? I showed your poem to a group of friends – a group of various ages, genders, professions, and orientations – and they all started making out. And that, I’d say, is a feat.
WHAT’S NOT WORKING
I’m not sure about the lack of standard capitalization here. On one hand, it does signal that you are a brave and unique person who doesn’t even think a thing about swimming against the societal norms prescribed by the all-mighty dollar and enforced by sheeple in neckties and galoshes. On the other hand, it seems to undercut the condescension a little. One thing to try would be to imagine all the words as little snakes, and then imagine the snakes biting onto each others’ tails and becoming bigger groups of snakes, and then imagine which snake would get to go to the front of the line where he can slither along and breathe as much fresh air as he wants to. It wouldn’t be the littlest snake, not for a comfy position like that. It’d be a Capital Letter Snake.
But also, almost more than anything: There’s so much missing from this poem. For instance, what if you included something about the old schoolhouse, prim and still as a nun on top of that hill, letting the sun and wind breathe her boards away, one gospel-thin paper at a time? Something like that could really paint a picture.
But also, more than anything, this poem needs about! a! hundred! exclamation points! Put them on top of the words if you have to, but what a shame to miss the opportunity! It’s like it’s a tied game, bottom of the ninth, and the bases are loaded, and you walk out with your big ol’ bat, the one you’ve had since your father passed it on to you (“Son,” he said, gasping for time, eyes growing white, “I’m dying, but I want you to know I’ll be hovering around this bat doing magic after I’m gone…”) and the other team’s pitcher fixes his eyes to yours and pushes his vision right through your pupils shivering you to your baseball-bat-like bones, and you are standing just outside the batter’s box trying to find your breath, and the pitcher is suddenly all like, “Wait, hold on!” and then comes over and hands you the ball and is like, “We support you, buddy. Do your old man proud,” and you can hear your ghost-dad’s happy, satisfied laughter, and your coach, who’s like a-whole-nother dad to you, gives you the thumbs-up to hit that ball outta the park… And so how are you going to be? All like, “Oh, well, I guess I could do that, but maybe we’ll see if I get around to it.”
Don’t be like that.
WHAT I’D DO
With my revision, I tried to focus on changing the color of the gradient in the background. If you look closely, you’ll see I also changed the curve of the corners of the rectangle. The sharper points give a sense of seriousness that the more rounded points don’t. It’s like, the sharper points are a desk, and the rounder points are a fern planter.
I also changed the title to be kind of better. The echo of “want” through the prosaic churn of the poem’s body is the kind of thing that produces a feeling that’s not “oh gosh but am I getting blabbed at and judged in a kind of avuncular challenge to my manhood type way,” which, haw haw, is what I “want.” Now that I’m thinking about it, I wish I had added some quotation marks to the poem, but it’d be kind of out-of-spirit with the original poem to revise all too much.
If you’d like me to take a look at a poem of yours that’s getting no love but you don’t know why, please send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject “POEMHACK”. By doing so you acknowledge that it’s your own unpublished work, that you give me the right to post it here and do whatever I like to it, and that I am just a dude talking about one poem of yours, not your entire career or potential as a poet! Any poems I choose to write about will be posted anonymously, but feel free to out yourself in the comments.