Sep 9, 2020 | Observations

A Publisher Reads

A recent article by David Musgrave, poet, publisher and academic, offers insights into how he reads poetry submitted to him for publication and provides examples of how his preferences might be discerned in a particular poem – (1).  As someone who wants to be published, I was a natural audience for the article.

Musgrave makes clear at the outset that he doesn’t particularly enjoy reading of this ilk – he has to wade through much low-grade ore to uncover the gems he wants to publish.

His criteria are straightforward in recitation, though problematic in realisation:

 Does the work demand his attention?

 Is there originality? (“This is perhaps where the most difficult aspect of reading for publication comes in – where is the cutting edge? Where is the poetic wave breaking?”)

 Who is the audience?

 Does it say something that ought to be said?

These range from the subjective of personal appeal to the contextuals of a place in poetry’s larger orbit and the perspective of other readers, presumably including those who might think of buying the volume in which the poetry is published.

As to the former Musgrave focuses on “sentience”: “poetry that is aware of itself, of its voice, of the tradition and culture from which it arises and to which it is addressed”. We all have influences but they must be “assimilated” and distilled into native expression.

In the latter regard, he provides an example of work that impressed but for which he wanted a second opinion, given that it harked back to rhyme, albeit innovatively and with accomplishment, and might have clothed a hoax.

Perhaps naturally enough: “Good poetry, to my mind, demonstrates a way of thinking about the aesthetic possibilities of language – in all its aspects – that is there in the reading of it, or in the hearing of it: how one word looks at another, how sound and sense combine and dissipate … “ – (2).  Poetry is an exercise in language if anything at all.

After all this, Musgrave unexpectedly arrives at poetry as play and recalls from John Huizinga that culture coalesces from play, and “the more vital and creative the games involved, the greater the cultural benefit”.

His last comment laments “the near absence of genuine criticism” of poetry in Australian letters.

There are several challenges here for the would-be published poet:

 Musgrave sets a very high hurdle for an individual poem but makes more sense for a collection, I think.

 We have all experienced the tug of a poem on our subconscious and this might be the first evidence of its attention-worthiness.

 While I might be conscious of my influences in writing a poem, I almost never envisage a place for it in the pantheon. Such thoughts might flash through the editing mind or arise once the poem has settled for a while, but such a perspective probably requires another’s eyes.

 Genuine originality is rare as a total entity but there might be small increments at work in different places in a poem. I think a poem that is additive in some small way might be a reasonable ambition.

 What I might want to say might not need to be heard.

As to play, children use it to re-order the world into a form that makes sense to them. It is not much of a leap to see poetry in that light, and it is helpful to be reminded that there is this dimension to it and that it should bring enjoyment.


(1) David Musgrave, “Reading for pleasure, reading for writing and reading for publication: notes on Murphy, Murray and Kinsella”,

(2) I was reminded of Louis Zukofsky here: “If read properly, good poetry does not argue its attitudes or beliefs; it exists independently of the reader’s preferences for one kind of ‘subject’ or another” – Louis Zukofsky, ‘A Statement for Poetry’ (1950) ín Propositions (Berkeley: University of California,1981).

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