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When the Center Cannot Hold (a note to poets)

tl:dr Writing poetry center-aligned drives (most) modern poets and editors crazy. We at The Weight Journal will still read them, but we cringe a little. Other editors will just reject a center-justified poem the moment they open it.


Our editor-in-chief posted the following question on Twitter:


What's the nicest way

to explain

to young poets

that

center-aligning

their writing

does not

make it

"look better"

or

"more poetic"

to an editor?



The whole thread can be read here, but below are some of our favorite explanations and bits of advice from poets, teachers, and professors, as well as readers and editors of various print and online litmags. We'll organize these responses into four (4) interrelated categories:

  1. Editors hate it

  2. It's out of style

  3. It looks weird

  4. It's not intentional (unless it is)

1. Editors hate it


Not much else to say. They/we hate it, largely for the other three reasons we'll discuss below. But here are some other people talking giving their rationales:


  • "Criiiiiiinge"

  • "Tell them certain editors immediately reject poems submitted this way. I know of one editor in particular who does this regularly."

  • "Appeal to their sense and desire to get published by explaining a majority of lit mags don't format that way, and since they try to honor a poet's style, no matter how good the writing, they’ll reject it on that alone."


We at The Weight Journal will read center-aligned poetry, we don't reject it immediately for formatting. But we do immediately groan when we open the document: we judge the book by its cover (the poem by its formatting).

2. It's out of style


Like everything, trends come and go. Back in the 16th-18th centuries, most poems were presented in the center-aligned fashion. Many of you may have seen some of these poems in school (or your teachers center-justified left-justified poems for some terrible reason). However, as with many things from hundreds of years ago, things change. Modern poets don't center-align a whole poem without a specific reason for doing so. Or put another way:


  • "...writing is subject to fashion like any creative field, and that center justification has been “out” for a long time, but...they’ve probably read centered pieces in school because it used to be “in.” So, by centering without a clear/compelling reason to do so, they’re marking themselves as amateurs, unaware of the current literary landscape."

  • "I sometimes just say it’s like making a poor fashion choice..."


Maybe it will come back in style (God, we hope not...), but right now center-aligned poems are so three centuries ago. It's like people who still say "on fleek" without any trace of irony.

3. It looks weird


This one is closely related to the next, but will be discussed on its own.


Right or wrong, one of the ways that poetry is often distinguished from prose is how it looks on the page. One major hallmark of this is that line breaks should be intentional: poets hit "Enter" at specific times, not just when the piece of digital paper says it is out of space and begins a new line. This is part of the appeal of center-justifying poetry: it looks different, which is why some young writers choose it. However, related to #2, today it looks weird. There are other considerations:


  • "It changes the amount of physical distance the eye has to move to get from the end of one line to the beginning of another, which undoes the poem like pulled up shoelaces."

  • "It distracts the reader and takes them out of the poem, because it makes them focus more on the form and less on the content. "

  • "Every big stylistic choice like that distracts from their well-crafted language, and actually make it harder to read."


All of this leads to the biggest, most important reason to not center-align poems.


4. It's not intentional (unless it is)


Let's be clear: we are not saying "never have a center-aligned poem" or "no one should ever write one." We are asking, "why did you center align that whole poem? What was your purpose or intention?"


Modern poets sometimes center-align specific words, phrases, lines, and/or whole poems, but the reader should be able to see this as a conscious choice made by the poet, not the result of clicking a button Microsoft Word or Google Docs.


Or as our crowd sourcing echoes


  • "You could ask "What is the expressive purpose?" (One could ask this about any line/stanza management choice.) What about the text asks for "symmetrical" or "centered"?"

  • "It relinquishes authorial control of how a poem looks on the page."

  • "The only thing I can think of to say to such poets (as this comes up in class a fair amount) is that to center justify means you're abandoning the possible pressure (or release of pressure) on sentences that line breaks enable in the first place."

  • "Just tell them, and encourage them to focus on their word choice and line breaks to make their poems look and sound better."

  • "The right break is often understood a very small pause, and if you center the poem, you double the break, in which it loses its power. Centering also masks inconsistency in line length, so the line is no longer a structural unit.”

If poetry is anything, it is an intention expressed. There is a moment, a feeling, a relationship, a sense, an idea, a happening, a reality, a something that you have decided to capture on the page. You labor over finding the perfect word, the most vivid images, the appropriate metaphors, the insightful turn of phrase.


Why would you not give the same attention to how those elements are presented to your eager readers?


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