By Major Jackson
I have a guilty confession: on average, I spend about two minutes on each submission I read as poetry editor of the Harvard Review. My guilt arises out of the disparity of time some optimistic poet put into drafting and redrafting their poems: fine-tuning line breaks, retooling similes, tweaking syntax, questing for the bon mot that would land the poem into pages that would afford the poet a national audience of readers. The longer the poem, the greater my guilt. Using my own ROW (rate of writing, when I am writing) as a standard measure, I imagine five poems (average number of poems per submission) probably took a month out of someone’s life, sitting mornings deliberating by a window listening to birdsong with a cup of coffee, while they transcribe what they consider to be their most profound and cherished thoughts. Every submission is a container of time. In the days before online submissions, add an additional forty-five minutes to an hour just to write the cover letter, stuff the envelope, and drive to the post office to deposit into the big blue mailbox.
What happens when it arrives on my desk or across my screen? Truth is: I barely get beyond the fifth line of a poem. I’ve already assessed its value, determined its fate, predicted its performance. Poems are actors on stage before my mind’s panel of judges. I’m the casting director who interrupts the young actress performing a monologue by Masha from Chekhov’s The Seagull, who says, “Thank you. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Only the poet is never present or privy to the swift means by which I have made my decision to send a polite rejection letter. What happens in that two minutes? I’ve discounted the poems in that submission as derivative, unsophisticated, underwritten, inauthentic, feeble, mediocre, lacking substance, hyper-articulate, dispassionate, overly demonstrative, overly inventive, too familiar, given to abstractions, inadequately composed, lacking music, excessive, bloated, banal, unimaginative, lacking vision, and so forth. I exercise judgment faster than I can read, faster than a microchip carrying its 0s and 1s. I feel rude and compulsive, and often question the authority that forces me to play literary gatekeeper.
Then again, it is virtually impossible to read every word, line, and sentence from beginning to end. The Harvard Review receives hundreds of submissions per month. The journal has one and a half full-time staff, and only a handful of interns. Generally, I have refused graduate students and interns as readers. We can only publish a small fraction of what we receive. The dirty secret of journals and probably what defines most of the literary world: we are a culture of rejection, and I am doing my small part to keep the status quo.
But then occasionally, very rarely, a poem, by the sheer force of its aesthetic and thematic power, will grip me so tightly as to very easily have me drop all of my critical walls and waltz me beyond my normal stopping point, all the way down to the last line. During such moments, while I am reading, I can hear my heart racing and a lump forms in my throat; I do not want this poem to drop me, to falter, to make the false move. Yes, the feeling is transcendent. I do not feel time impinging. I marvel at its performance of language, the pitch and uniqueness of its song; I gather and attune my spirit to the contours of its cadence and measures. The implications and arguments inside the poem interweave and graft like branches across the tree of books and memorable lines of poetry that I have read before. Its implications are manifold and I know it to be the most inevitable object in my hand or before my eyes; as inevitable as the magnolia tree outside my backyard that I am looking at right now. By poem’s end, I have had an experience with language that feels unparalleled. I’ve determined not to reject, but to publish this poem. I must play impresario and introduce the world to this most authentic utterance that testifies to our very existence, either as a reflection of our raw existence, or as a word creation that advances the technology of human expression.
Who is this person? It is then that I go to the cover letter. (I almost never read cover letters; I do not want my reading of a poem to be influenced by where the poet has gone to school or in what journals the poet has previously published. Frankly, I wish cover letters were banned and that only poems were sent as representative of the poet.) Mediocrity is rampant and a reality of modernity—a phenomenon to which I am accustomed and have acclimated. Yet, when one encounters a work of art that challenges and reaffirms, that seems magical by its mere existence, one can only say Amen and feel blessed for once again having been baptized in the art of poetry.