CURRENT POETRY: AN AGE OF PLENTY

current poetry: an age of plenty

We live, if we believe the poetry press, in a age of plenty, where talent exists in a scale extending from Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, through names displayed by prestigious magazines, to those featuring in small-town writing circles and the accommodating pages of www.poetry.com. We start with the recipients of its more glittering awards.

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney has published well-received collections of poetry, translations and critical essays, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. {1} {2} {3} He is often regarded as the successor to Yeats, though he writes a more mundane poetry, without the pondered symbolism. None of the poems showcased on The Internet Poetry Archive is negligible, but to my mind the best is Casualty {4}, from which I quote parts of Section II and III (click on the link to read the whole poem).

Casualty

It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
Surplice and soutane:
Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Lapping, tightening
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.

I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond...

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.

From Casualty by Seamus Heaney.

There is much to like: the subtle a b b c c d e f e g h g h rhyme/pararhyme scheme, the aptness of Like blossoms on slow water, the exact, almost eidetic imagery, and reluctance to make emotional or political capital from events. But before asking whether Heaney's account should not rise more to the occasion, let's look at another poem. Less well known that Heaney, Jim Barnes has combined a successful academic career with a steady output of poetry, stories and translations. I quote from the opening section of Heading East Out of Rock Springs. {5/13}

Heading East Out of Rock Springs

On a high plateau where the earth rounds off
the edge of nothing and the sky pours down
like hail so heavy that the pickup squats
on its springs and groans toward the horizon,
you think of Andy, all those years long gone.

What had he thought when he left Missoula
and headed toward a millennium of doubt
he called poetry?--his own old Ford fooling
itself under the hood and gasping out
of the long valleys then turning south

Heading East Out of Rock Springs by Jim Barnes. Published in Quarterly West (Fall 2000)


Like Heaney's, the poem inhabits a a definite place, but that place is brought to us by elements of a landscape conjured up by emotions less obviously sought for.

Heaney has written a poem commemorating a friend killed at a bar during curfew hours. The incident came three days after the Derry murders, and it's the funeral of these thirteen that the quoted section refers to. An amateur might have found himself looking for words to express the obvious emotions — shock, grief, anger, sadness — but Heaney is a practiced writer, and his solution has been to evade such difficulties. The first stanza describes the friend, his behaviour in the bar and his love of fishing. The second alludes to Heaney and friend fishing together, and the third says simply: He was blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew / Others obeyed, three nights / After they shot dead / The thirteen men in Derry. Then comes the description of the cathedral funeral, followed by But he would not be held / At home by his own crowd, which leads to a brief description of what happened and concludes with I hear him say. 'Puzzle me The right answer to that one.' In the concluding stanzas Heaney muses on his friend's funeral and more on their fishing together — both are exactly described — and ends with Question me again. Very apt, of course, sending us back into the poem to mull over the pointlessness of the murder.

But the funeral section ends with Unrolled its swaddling band / Lapping, tightening / Till we were braced and bound / Like brothers in a ring, which is too obvious a contrivance, in the clumsiness of the writing, the Christian symbolism dragged in and the heavy alliteration, to achieve the emotions wanted. We may recognize our common humanity in public funerals, but those feelings need to arise out of the particularity of memory. What is swaddling band doing with the boxing image of in a ring? The poem is about the unbrotherhood of man, or possibly brotherhood despite sectarian differences. Public poetry is extraordinarily difficult for Modernism, and even Yeats was often unsuccessful. Is the ending of Easter 1916: {6}

Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

not too deliberate, too strident in rhythm and rhetoric? And is 'beauty' the right word for something that was widely condemned at the time, and led to the squalid murders and retaliation of the Troubles?

In Heaney we have He was blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew, the banality of which is perhaps intended to shock us into thinking on the precariousness of life, and on the affections through which we live it, but instead opens a hole in the poem.

We could say that the better work of a Nobel laureate should be more accomplished. Or that Heaney's modest art of reportage, of drawing significance from the quotidian and personal, does not merit so enthusiastic a following among critics and the reading public. But we should also be grateful for what poetry does achieve, occasionally, and here with a difficult subject. In short, the villain is not Heaney, or the publicity machine of the poetry establishment, but ourselves — what we will not demand or expect of poetry today.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Charles Wright

Charles Wright is the winner of numerous awards, {7-14} {8-15} {9-16} including the Pulitzer for his Black Zodiac (1997). I reproduce two sections of a poem on The Academy Of American Poets site, {13} itself excerpted from a longer piece.

Body and Soul II

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
                                seamless, invisible.
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears--faith of the eye, faith of the ear.
Nothing like that in language,
However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms
Blown by the wind.
                      April, and anything's possible.

 

Every true poem is a spark,
                            and aspires to the condition of the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.
Shooting stars. April's identical,
                                celestial, wordless, burning down.
Its light is the light we commune by.
Its destination's our own, its hope is the hope we live with.

Wang Wei, on the other hand,
Before he was 30 years old bought his famous estate on the Wang River
Just east of the east end of the Southern Mountains,
                                                                           and lived there,
Off and on, for the rest of his life.
He never travelled the landscape, but stayed inside it,
A part of nature himself, he thought.
And who would say no
To someone so bound up in solitude,
                                             in failure, he thought, and suffering.

From Body and Soul II by Charles Wright. Excerpted from A Short History of the Shadow by Charles Wright. Copyright © 2002 by Charles Wright.

Two quotes to start with:

"The various landscapes of Wright's life — the South, California, Italy have inevitably found their way into his poems, but his landscapes are deeply interior, often surreal. . . As Helen Vendler has said 'they defy exposition.'" {17}

"Charles Wright is a poet of lyric impulses. . . His poems are structured associatively rather than narratively, and he has created a poetics of luminous moments. . . They mark and isolate the self, transporting it to another realm, weakening its boundaries. They are inchoate and asocial — defying language, destroying time. . . Over the years his work has become larger and more inclusive, with narrative overtones rather than undertones, though from the beginning he has written a poetry of flashes and jump-starts, of radiance glimpsed and noted down — transcribed, transfigured." {18}

I like the tone of this poem, whatever my doubts over Wright's scholarship: Wang Wei {19} did not see himself as a failure, {20} or a traveller within his own landscape (the Chinese painter's relationship to his creations is much more fascinating. {21}) My difficulty is with the first section, not with what it means, but where it leads. We can call it surrealism, but a blunter phrase might be rigmarole. A landscape may be subdivided infinitesimally, perhaps, but is not so constituted. The structure of music is not seamless, or not unless we are interested in the mathematical expression of its chords and harmonies, and it is not audibly invisible, which is the only sense worth considering. What sutures (stitchings) can the rain have, and what is faith but one of the great Romantic verities smuggled into an alien setting? In fact, contra Wright, there's good deal of faith inherent in language, it being a tenet of one philosophy of language.

Of course we can go sleepwalking through the poem, taking things we stumble over as profundity, but the inaccuracies and obscurities are disquieting. Poetry is not philosophy, but we want to feel the emotional particularity of an event has been properly sought for. Moreover, though Zen masters do jolt pupils from mundane stupor by provocative questioning, {22} {23} the technique forms part of a spiritual discipline not to be acquired by simple reading.

US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky's work is well known, and he has done much to further poetry as US Poet Laureate. {7} {8} {9} I quote from the start and end of his poem The Refinery. {10}

The Refinery

Thirsty and languorous after their long black sleep
The old gods crooned and shuffled and shook their heads.
Dry, dry. By railroad they set out
Across the desert of stars to drink the world
Our mouths had soaked
In the strange sentences we made
While they were asleep:

 

The muttering gods
Greedily penetrate those bright pavilions--
Libation of Benzene, Naphthalene, Asphalt,
Gasoline, Tar: syllables
Fractioned and cracked from unarticulated

Crude, the smeared keep of life that fed
On itself in pitchy darkness when the gods
Were new--inedible, volatile
And sublimated afresh to sting
Our tongues who use it, refined from oil of stone.

The gods batten on the vats, and drink up
Lovecries and memorized Chaucer, lines from movies
And songs hoarded in mortmain: exiles' charms,
The basal or desperate distillates of breath
Steeped, brewed and spent
As though we were their aphids, or their bees,
That monstered up sweetness for them while they dozed.

From The Refinery by Robert Pinsky. The Want Bone, published by The Ecco Press. Copyright © 1990 by Robert Pinsky.

Pinsky's poem is an entertaining personification of petroleum, which is pictured rising from its long sleep underground and taking a journey across the continent to a waterside refinery. There is much to enjoy — the variety and control of the rhythmic phrasing (The old gods crooned and shuffled and shook their heads./ Dry, dry.), the extended play on liquid (dry. . . drink. . .soaked. . . slurry. . . snake oil. . .lymphless breath. . .ichor), and word colour (Libation of Benzene, Naphthalene, Asphalt, Gasoline, Tar). With some excellent phrases — crooned and shuffled and shook their heads, desperate distillates of breath — and some sly humour — Lovecries and memorized Chaucer — it would be dishonest not to praise the light-hearted ease with which the poem succeeds in its object.

But is the next poem also a piece of fun? Again I quote from beginning and concluding sections. {11}

Ode to Meaning

Dire one and desired one,
Savior, sentencer--

In an old allegory you would carry
A chained alphabet of tokens:
Ankh Badge Cross.
Dragon,
Engraved figure guarding a hallowed intaglio,
Jasper kinema of legendary Mind,
Naked omphalos pierced
By quills of rhyme or sense, torah-like: unborn
Vein of will, xenophile
Yearning out of Zero.

Dire one. Desired one.
Savior, sentencer--

Absence,
Or presence ever at play:
Let those scorn you who never
Starved in your dearth. If I
Dare to disparage
Your harp of shadows I taste
Wormwood and motor oil, I pour
Ashes on my head.
You are the wound. You
Be the medicine.

Ode to Meaning by Robert Pinsky. Copyright © 1997 by Robert Pinsky.

The concluding lines make it difficult to think so. {12} Just a listing of various types of meaning, or a sustained meditation? Taking the words/phrases in turn:

Dire oneone who is urgent, ominous or calamitous
Desired onebut also desired: who/what is: meaning?
Savioursets tone of poem: this is serious
sentenceremphasizes seriousness
allegorydescription of one thing under guise of another: not quite a meaning
you would carrywho would carry?
alphabet of tokensletters don't act as tokens, or not usually
Ankhpharonic symbol of life
Badgemark worn as sign of office or membership
Crossreligious emblem etc.
Dragonmythical being, threatening or beneficent
hallowed intaglio engraved design, hallowed for something
kinemamoving image, Ezra Pound quote?
legendary Mind Platonic conceit, admired or disparaged?
Naked omphalus a snake with tail in mouth, signifying centre of earth, is by nature naked
piercedmetaphorically, physically?
By quills you can't pierce an omphalus by quills or anything else
of rhyme or senseor anything else we might think of?
torah-likelike the revealed will of God
unborn Vein of willGod does not carry out His purposes?
xenophilelover of foreigners
Yearning out of ZeroGod, creation of the world?

The piece is professionally crafted, with words progressing through the alphabet and growing in conceptual range. The unquoted middle sections are rather different, more personal and perhaps grander, with references to the poet's mother, Greek mythology, the occult, Arthurian legend, airports, videos, etc., and then we are back to the last section, with its harp of shadows and Biblical echoes.

So: a parade of mock seriousness? That is what we might suppose {32} if we looked at it with the wrong viewpoint. Or supposed it was a piece of postmodernism where the ostensible meaning were undermined by the playful nature of some lines.

In fact, the poem is straightforward and serious. Most lines are simply examples of our thirst to find meaning in the world. To appreciate this poem, we have to put aside previous conceptions of poetry, what I called in the translation of Ronsard's sonnet: 'that fusion of beauty, narrative power and emotive appeal that alters the state of our reading consciousness', and read it on its own terms. But how do we distinguish the genuine article from 'chopped-up prose'? One test is surely the coherence of the piece. However unexpected the individual phrases or lines, they must create a recognisable world seen in new contours.

Here, perhaps, is the matter that we might query in this poem. It is notorious difficult to say something new on grand abstractions. Consider the line Yearning out of Zero. If we take Zero as the unreality of this passing shadow world of ours (Buddhist tradition), or the one who can only be partly apprehended by our imperfect natures (Christian tradition) or the quiet centre of a world that is always moving and transforming itself (Chinese or Zen tradition), and no doubt many other religious viewpoints, the phrase is simply underlining our yearning for understanding. Before understanding there is no understanding, a nothingness. That need for understanding is itself the yearning. The line is not so much tautological as by its very reading creating its meaning. We are pleased by the self-reference.

But, unfortunately, there is no compelling reason why we should take it as such. Zero is a mathematical concept, quite different to nothingness. We wouldn't say, for example, 'to the elevated mind this world is zero'. Yearning also implies a sentient activity, as only by metaphor would we say 'the water yearned for its fall', etc. An animal activity cannot be a zero, and cannot emanate from a zero. Only by considerable licence can we accept that the line has true meaning. But suppose we do accept the line, and move on. Consider these:

Let those scorn you who never / Starved in your dearth.

The lines seem to mean 'let those who never looked for meaning show scorn for such a search'. But that seems only a let-out clause, that some will not share such a thirst, and indeed show a scorn for it. Following that we have: If I / Dare to disparage / Your harp of shadows I taste / Wormwood and motor oil, I pour / Ashes on my head, which, as far as I can understand it, means 'but I am different, and would suffer grievously if I were to disparage meaning'. But this 'grievously' is difficult to follow. Wormwood and ashes are clear enough, but why harp of shadows and why motor oil? In the first we have sound conflated with light. In the second we have an ancient symbol of grief appearing beside a modern concern. Is the overall meaning again the universality of meaning, across the spectrum of the senses and across time?

That spectrum is of course set in human terms by the opening lines:

Dire one and desired one, / Savior, sentencer —

But here I think we should pause. An abstract noun ('meaning') is being personalized. That is common enough in metaphor, but these lines not metaphors. They do not share a common feature, and the linking does not vitalize any aspect of 'meaning' (beyond saying that 'meaning' extends over the full range of our feelings, which is largely untrue).

But perhaps we are being ungenerous. Poems are not legal statements (where the aim is to make misunderstanding as difficult as possible) or even scientific papers (where terminology and rules of accepted practice are enforced) but a free creation of the mind in its fullest conception. The lines are simply saying, but saying commandingly, that meaning is all-encompassing, from fear to desire, from saving and sentencing us. The opening sets the scene and tone of the poem.

But the lines don't ring quite true. 'Meaning' has been shifted into other categories, each with their different contexts, and those contexts do not reinforce each other so much as to extend and fade out into shadowy conceptions. The first lines conjure up a deity or personage that 'meaning' can never be. Nor is that helped by what follows: In an old allegory you would carry / A chained alphabet of tokens: If the sense follows the line order, we would have to read this as the deity carrying the tokens. Token has a variety of usages (representation, voucher, individual occurrence), but none of them can be carried by a deity'. 'Allegory' is of course starting with the first letter of the alphabet (at least in English) but an allegory cannot be an 'alphabet' unless we read alphabet as simply a full range of possibilities. But that would make allegories into tokens, which is again problematic. Words being used beyond their proper remit.

There are further difficulties if we look at You are the wound. You / Be the medicine, with its religious connatations. We might at this point ask if there is anything that can't be meaning, when the poem's assertion comes perilously close to the postmodernist view that words make our only reality, only in this case it's not words only but meaning expressed as cultural creations: Ankh Badge Cross./ Dragon, / Engraved figure guarding a hallowed intaglio, etc. No one expects philosophical exactitude in a poem, but the poem's assertion does run into a thicket of questions.

In short, the poem does not add up. The piece is popular, and has been greatly admired and added to anthologies. Certainly it is imposing and, at first reading, wide-ranging and pleasing. But what we are offered is in fact, I'd suggest, a counterfeit, splendid in appearance but made of contrivance, a enjoyable playing fast and loose with language where, alas, seriousness and sincerity are called for.

Devotees may think the above is irrelevant or nit-picking. {32} They begin by intuiting the meaning of the poem as a whole, and then consider how its phrases create that meaning, much as tesserae that only partially but still sufficiently make up the whole mosaic. It's a common and possibly required strategy in rereading a poem, naturally, but those phrases must fit in, make a complete picture, to continue the mosaic analogy. But the lines here are not in any sense tessarae but simply examples of an asserted universality of our thirst for meaning. We find ourselves going round an increasing circle of assertions.

The following comes from a site despised by serious poets — for publishing practically anything, for its money-making activities, and for being immensely popular, with five million or more visitors per month. But occasionally we find something like this: {13}

After Reading a Book of Old Chinese Poems

Moonlight falls on Claremont through the clouds.
I remember Po Chuiís poem about the cranes.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
the garden-boy is leading the cranes home.
How strange and powerful, the love of home.
Stranger still to be alive at all,
to be anywhere, in all its endless detail,
and the millions of tiny locks that will be broken
before you can be released from where you are
to return again to the place,
so many years ago, you started from,
the nothing that is everywhere but here.

From After Reading a Book of Old Chinese Poems, I Stay Awake Tonight and Write This Poem by Michael Creagan

Unpretentious, sincere, ending with the probing conundrum. Work on www.poetry.com is generally not better than Pinsky's, of course — quite the reverse — but sometimes its poetry speaks to us in a way that playing with words does not.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Charles Wright

Charles Wright is the winner of numerous awards, {14} {15} {16} including the Pulitzer for his Black Zodiac (1997). I reproduce two sections of a poem on The Academy Of American Poets site, {13} itself excerpted from a longer piece.

Body and Soul II

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
                                seamless, invisible.
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears--faith of the eye, faith of the ear.
Nothing like that in language,
However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms
Blown by the wind.
                      April, and anything's possible.

 

Every true poem is a spark,
                            and aspires to the condition of the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.
Shooting stars. April's identical,
                                celestial, wordless, burning down.
Its light is the light we commune by.
Its destination's our own, its hope is the hope we live with.

Wang Wei, on the other hand,
Before he was 30 years old bought his famous estate on the Wang River
Just east of the east end of the Southern Mountains,
                                                                           and lived there,
Off and on, for the rest of his life.
He never travelled the landscape, but stayed inside it,
A part of nature himself, he thought.
And who would say no
To someone so bound up in solitude,
                                             in failure, he thought, and suffering.

From Body and Soul II by Charles Wright. Excerpted from A Short History of the Shadow by Charles Wright. Copyright © 2002 by Charles Wright.

Two quotes to start with:

"The various landscapes of Wright's life — the South, California, Italy have inevitably found their way into his poems, but his landscapes are deeply interior, often surreal. . . As Helen Vendler has said 'they defy exposition.'" {17}

"Charles Wright is a poet of lyric impulses. . . His poems are structured associatively rather than narratively, and he has created a poetics of luminous moments. . . They mark and isolate the self, transporting it to another realm, weakening its boundaries. They are inchoate and asocial — defying language, destroying time. . . Over the years his work has become larger and more inclusive, with narrative overtones rather than undertones, though from the beginning he has written a poetry of flashes and jump-starts, of radiance glimpsed and noted down — transcribed, transfigured." {18}

I like the tone of this poem, whatever my doubts over Wright's scholarship: Wang Wei {19} did not see himself as a failure, {20} or a traveller within his own landscape (the Chinese painter's relationship to his creations is much more fascinating. {21}) My difficulty is with the first section, not with what it means, but where it leads. We can call it surrealism, but a blunter phrase might be rigmarole. A landscape may be subdivided infinitesimally, perhaps, but is not so constituted. The structure of music is not seamless, or not unless we are interested in the mathematical expression of its chords and harmonies, and it is not audibly invisible, which is the only sense worth considering. What sutures (stitchings) can the rain have, and what is faith but one of the great Romantic verities smuggled into an alien setting? In fact, contra Wright, there's good deal of faith inherent in language, it being a tenet of one philosophy of language.

Of course we can go sleepwalking through the poem, taking things we stumble over as profundity, but the inaccuracies and obscurities are disquieting. Poetry is not philosophy, but we want to feel the emotional particularity of an event has been properly sought for. Moreover, though Zen masters do jolt pupils from mundane stupor by provocative questioning, {22} {23} the technique forms part of a spiritual discipline not to be acquired by simple reading.

Small Presses

The small presses are proud of their record of having published some of the best of modern poetry. The most prestigious of such presses are classified in the 2004 edition of Poet's Market {24} as preferring "submissions from poets with a high degree of skill and experience", and it is from these outlets (and additionally those with Internet representation, so that readers can access the whole poem), that I take the following examples. The manifestoes are also those printed in the 2004 Poet's Market publication.

Atlanta Review. Atlanta Review is a semiannual primarily devoted to poetry, but also featuring fiction, interviews, essays and fine art. Wants: quality poetry of genuine human appeal." Has published poetry by Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Maxime Kumin, and Naomi Shihab Nye. . . We are giving today's poets the international audience they truly deserve.

Here is the last part of The Lost Poem by Albert Huffstickler:

The Lost Poem

And ponder / the lost poem. Perhaps thatís / part of it: Iím driven to create / that poem I canít recall, the / poem that carried him through / four years of Hell and home / again. Or perhaps Iím driven / to write a poem that will serve / someone else as well. Itís a / nice thought anyway: my poem / in someoneís pocket, bent and / faded, nourishing him, healing / him through his own private / Hell. A man could do worse / with his life. I evoke my / fatherís image, our eyes meet, / he nods in agreement, starts / to speak then turns and walks / off into the distance, bearing / the lost poem with him.

From The Lost Poem by Albert Huffstickler:{25}

The Spoon River Poetry Review. The Spoon River Poetry Review is a biannual "poetry magazine that features newer and well-known poets from around the country and the world." "We want interesting and compelling poetry that operates beyond the ho-hum, so-what level, in any form or style about anything; language that is fresh, energetic, committed, filled with a strong voice that grabs the reader in the first line and never lets go." {24}

Before the before / there was again and again. / The fan's on, thinking / in breezes. And in the shadows / the music-mushrooms mring, mring, / he sweet potatoes sleep orange. / This is about the coming, / which is always good, for the was / is of course dead and over, / ivy withering all over its face. You / are the host in the garden, / you whose face hasn't flowered / as yet, whose eyes haven't opened / to the letters we are made of. / And if you need an occasion, / look at today, the drought / cracking the soil, the recent flood, / the souls hymning just above / yesterday's train crash in India, / or the silent requiem to Bonnie's friend, / or the struggle of the ladybug / across this crack in the concrete / or the ha-ha-ha of the perpetual motion / of these two white butterflies / returning daily, webbing the world / shut with their dance, as if / there were no thinking, no / music-mushrooms, no sweet potatoes asleep / through all the train crashes, / or as if there were.

From To Poem#---6 by Helen Degen Cohen:{26}

Cohenís poem appeared in The Spoon River Poetry Review Winter/Spring 2002, V. 27.1, and won 2003 Illinois Arts Council Literary Award.

New Zoo Poetry Review. New Zoo Poetry Review is published annually in January and "tends to publish free verse in well-crafted lyric and narrative forms. Our goal is to publish established poets alongside poets of great promise. . . If you are not reading the best of contemporary poetry, then New Zoo Poetry Review is not for you. {24}

Other funerals get layered over that one. I wear the same dress, / even though I am 23 the last time and 6 the first. I locate my father / in each closed coffin. I drive away the bitter taste of losses / with the same candy. I eat the long noodles, bought by the same / wrinkled Chinese man whom only my uncle knows. From the end / of the long counter, the man nods and raises his hand. That is all. / The noodles make me wish longevity on her, my mother, who rocked / and sipped after we two had gone to bed, dumb and quiet. / Now, at surprising moments - on the train, in bed with you, throwing / snow balls for the dog - I grieve for her because I can't believe /she ever had the chance to do it the way she wanted to.

From Funerals by Sandra J. Chu {27}

I have shown the line breaks but all pieces read as prose, perfectly acceptable prose, if a little meandering. The Huffstickler piece is in fact in stress verse, deftly patterned by four stresses to the line.

No one could take offence at these pieces. They don't strain for effect, or anywhere hit the wrong notes. The sense is clear, and they are rounded off intelligently. But where is the "strong voice that grabs the reader in the first line and never lets go"? Or the "well-crafted lyric and narrative forms"? If a novel or short story can only pack in what is relevant and engrossing, why should poetry, generally considered the more demanding form, be so loosely constructed? And without getting into definitions, one aspect of poetry that usually commands assent is that a poem cannot be rephrased without some loss in meaning or effectiveness. What is lost here?

And ponder the part of it
I canít recall, the poem carried
by him to Hell and home
again. Or perhaps Iím driven
to write a poem for someone else,
someone in his private Hell. A man
could do worse with his life. I evoke
my fatherís image, our eyes meet,
and he starts to walk off, bearing
off still the lost poem with him.

What's Happening?

I have tried to select the best work for consideration, and not the merely "ho hum" that readers can find easily enough for themselves. Why is the work so disappointing?

Many poetry magazines have to deal with thousands or tens of thousands of submissions annually. Acceptance rates quoted in the 2004 Poet's Market {24} range from a few percent to considerably less. What happens to the great majority of submissions, particularly those sent by email? They go into the slush pile, {28} to be looked over if space appears in what has already been selected from the work of friends, from names that will enhance the magazine's standing, {29} or from those who seem supportive of the magazine's ambitions. Nothing unusual in that — try sending an unsolicited article to a national newspaper or publishing house — and perhaps it only underlines the importance of a covering letter or the personal contact.

So all honour to those editors — and I don't know how many — who do read every submission. It may still be possible. But with a narrow and, it must be said, rather fixed notion of what constitutes poetry, editors who do read generally cope with the deluge by imposing tight filters. As a result, though magazines claim to publish according to merit, and to seek out original work, the practicalities make this unlikely to be always the case, or perhaps even generally the case. It is my experience that editors of well-known magazines can have an unerring gift for publishing the worst poem in any batch sent them, or for accepting nothing until repeated submissions brings the level down to the most prosaic, sometimes even then querying lines that rise above the mundane. A cavalier incompetence arising from the unpaid nature of the position? Possibly, but truly deadening must be the treadmill of reading endless not-very-good submissions.

Readers, editors and poets may therefore be herded into an ever-restricted type of poetry, which has perhaps always been a danger. Herbert Grierson and J.C. Smith in their magisterial survey A Critical History of English Poetry observed that "The English Public took a long time to make up its mind whether the imposing appearance called Wordsworth was a mountain or a cloud" {30} but went on to say "The years 1919-1929 were a confused and, except for Mr. Eliot and the older traditional poets, a barren decade. Many of the younger poets who should have carried on the great English tradition had fallen in the war. As for the innovators, Mr. Eliot's early imitators, servum pecus, are all forgotten already. . . " {31}

References and Resources

1. Seamus Heaney (b. 1939) Links. http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/poetry/heaney.htm
2. Seamus Heaney's Cure at Troy Politics and Poetry. Marianne McDonald. 1996. http://www.ucd.ie/classics/96/McDonald96.html NNA. Short essay looking at Heaney's Sophocles translation.
3. Seamus Heaneyís ďmiddle voiceĒ by Richard Tillinghast. 1999. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/14/dec95/heaney.htm NNA. Article in The New Criterion Vol. 17, No. 9, May 1999
4. Casualty. Seamus Heaney. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182150.
5. Heading East Out of Rock Springs. Jim Barnes. http://www.thehypertexts.com
6. Easter 1916. W.B. Yeats. http://hyde.park.uga.edu/~crice/east1916.html NNA.
7. Robert Pinsky. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/200. Short account of Pinsky's work and achievements.
8. Introducing Robert Pinsky. Alan Shapiro. Oct. 1997.http://www.ibiblio.org/IPA/pinsky/shapiro.html NNA. Improvisational nature of Pinsky's work.
9. Robert Pinsky (1940- ) http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pinsky/pinsky.htm. Essays, poems and links on the American Modern Poets site.
10. The Refinery. Robert Pinsky. 1990. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15480.
11. Ode to Meaning. Robert Pinsky. 1997. http://www.ibiblio.org/IPA/pinsky/meaning.html NNA.
12. A "dark and witty meditation" Mark Strand and Eavan Boland call it in their The Making of the Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (Norton and Co., 2000).
13. After Reading a Book of Old Chinese Poems, I Stay Awake Tonight and Write This Poem. Michael Creagan. http://www.poetry.com/contest/pastwinners.asp?qsGPWinID=252716 NNA.
14. Charles Wright. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/c_wright/c_wright.htm. Essays, poems and links on the American Modern Poets site.
15. In a Dark Time The Eye begins to See: Charles Wright's Appalachia. Mar. 2003. http://www.lorenwebster.net/In_a_Dark_Time/archives/cat_charles_wright.html NNA. Weblog comments on several of Wright's poems.
16. This Old Poem. Dan Schneider. Sep 2002. http://www.cosmoetica.com/TOP22-DES20.htm. An ill-tempered piece of criticism: some good points made on Wright's work, though clichť is an overstatement.
17. Ian Hamilton, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English (O.U.P., 1996), 588. Q
18. Edward Hirsch, "The Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright," in The Columbia History of American Poetry, (Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), 789. Q
19. 300 Tang Poems. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/chinese/frame.htm
20. Wang Wei, Li PO, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Li Shang-Yin Wang Wei, Li PO, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Li Shang-Yin trans. David Young, (Oberlin College Press, 1990), 24. Q
21. Like Water or Clouds: The T'ang Dynasty and the Tao. A.S. Kline. Feb. 2004. http://www.tonykline.co.uk/Browsepages/Chinese/Allwaterhome.htm. Good account of Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu.
22. Zen MetaLab. http://www.ibiblio.org/zen/. Introduction to Zen Buddhism, with exercises and links.
23. Buddhism. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/subdivisions/zen1.shtml NNA. BBC site: short accounts and links.
24. 2004 Poet's Market. (Writer's Digest Books, 2004).
25. Atlanta Review. http://www.atlantareview.com/Fifth%20Anniversary/Lost%20Poem.htm NNA
26. The Spoon River Poetry Review. http://www.litline.org/spoon/awards/iacaward2003.html
27. New Zoo Poetry Review. http://www.members.aol.com/newzoopoet/poetry/funerals.htm
28. Will Allison, Four Editors Discuss Turn-Ons, Turnoffs, and Slush Pile Trends, in 2004 Poet's Market.
29. The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents: A Report from the Dark Underbelly of Academic Creative Writing. Briggs Seekins. Apr. 2001. http://www.cosmoetica.com/D4-BS1.htm. Sobering view of the US poetry network.
30. Herbert J. C. Grierson and J.C. Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry (Chatto & Windus, 1944), 306.
31. Grierson and Smith 1944, 513. For a review of these years see Against modernity: the American Academy in the í20s by Cynthia Ozick http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/13/sept94/ozick.htmNNA. The New Criterion Vol. 13, No. 1, September 1994.
32. The section has been rewritten, as earlier visitors to this page will recall. It was Judy Diamondstone who in an email to me very kindly pointed out how the poem could be read and individual lines interpreted.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.