So imagine you are a poetry editor for a literary journal. Say the journal is published twice a year, and in each issue you run about forty poems. You publish eighty poems a year and receive about 5,000 poems a year. You can do the math. Imagine how many poems you must read in a given session, and imagine the shortcuts you would create to separate the wheat from the chaff. What do you think you’d look for?
Michael Mleckoday of the Indiana Review has written a short piece answering this: “Five Marks of Oft-Rejected Poems.” The first thing he looks for?
Boring first lines. I get that the first line often needs to set up the scene or narrative or conceit of the poem, and so there’s a desire to use it as a kind of exposition, but if I, while getting paid to do this, don’t want to read past your first line, potential readers probably won’t, either. Don’t just tell me you met Janine when you were twelve, or that the moon was overhead, or that May became June. Hook me, flatten me, fuck me out of my senses with your first line. It should be one of the best lines of the poem.