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“A Good Poem Understands Itself” — Emily Berry

“A Good Poem Understands Itself” — Emily Berry

November’s edition of Dear Poetry Editor at the Chicago Review of Books introduces us to Emily Berry, editor of The Poetry Review since December 2016. This ongoing series offers readers insight on poetry and publishing from editors who shape the content in literary magazines and institutions around the world.

Emily Berry has published two collections of poetry, Dear Boy and Stranger, Baby. A selection of her work appears in If I’m Scared We Can’t Win: Penguin Modern Poets 1.


On Perspectives of Poetry 

A misconception people may have about poetry has to do with understanding, as some of your other correspondents have suggested. That poetry is hard to understand, or poems are difficult. People often think they don’t ‘get’ poetry — like a poem is a puzzle to be worked out and if you don’t know the rules you’ll never find a way in.

Maybe it’s because of the expectations people have of language. Probably no one would complain they don’t ‘get’ classical music — they might not like it, but it wouldn’t be framed in terms of understanding. But you can still understand a piece of classical music if it moves you, just like you can understand a poem even if you can’t explain what it means. In a sense, it’s not a misconception that poetry is (or can be) hard to understand, but it’s a misconception to assume that poetry’s aim is to be understood — at least, in rational, explicable terms. A good poem understands itself. I like this quote from Robert Von Hallberg’s Lyric Powers:

“Poems are at odds with language in that, when they succeed, the process of absorbing textually coded information come to a halt, and one is left alone with one’s thoughts.”

I wouldn’t claim poetry is for everyone. There are some art forms that don’t do much for me, and I’d be annoyed if people kept saying “Oh, it’s because you haven’t understood the terms of engagement.” Maybe I haven’t, but maybe I can’t be bothered to.

On Poetry 

A poem has to move me in some way — emotionally or intellectually (preferably both). I keep trying to work out what it is to be moved. It has to do with the body, obviously. It’s like a wind sucks a little door open inside you and a few autumn leaves blow in.

On Publishing 

The Poetry Review was established in 1912, and as the magazine of The Poetry Society, it is seen as part of the UK poetry ‘establishment’, for better or worse. This can mean that while many poets are very keen to be published in it, there may be just as many who feel that it isn’t for them, or that their work would not be welcome in its pages. I have been editing it for just under a year, and I really hope to change the latter perception by increasing the range of voices that we publish, as well as broadening the scope of the magazine’s critical engagement. We print an equal amount of poems, criticism, and essays every quarter.

I want the magazine to be seen as a home for exciting writing about poetry — something for which there are currently too few outlets in the UK — as much as for poems. So far I have had mostly positive responses, but no direction is going to please everybody. There are still a surprisingly large number of people over here who have not accepted that poems don’t have to rhyme.

On Regret

Not so far, but it’s early days! I hope I won’t ever regret a publication as such, but I can’t see into the future, fortunately. It’s certainly possible that I could at some point change my mind about something I’d loved at the time of choosing it. Maybe in twenty years, I’ll look back on the issues I’ve edited as the poetry equivalent of a ’70s dinner party. I hope so because I like a prawn cocktail.

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