Strange garment

Like many poetry aficionados, I was grieved the hear about the death of W. S. Merwin, among the last of the great poets born in the annus mirabilis 1926–1927, which also gave the world Snodgrass, Ammons, Merrill, Creeley, Ginsberg, Wagoner, O’Hara, Bly, and Wright, among others. I probably first encountered Merwin’s work in college—he didn’t appear in the Sound and Sense anthology that informed by high school days. That’s not entirely surprising, given the emphasis on form and meter, but it remains a embarrassing oversight.

I recall writing an essay as a freshman on this small poem (which has stuck in memory ever since):

Separation

Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

It turns out my reading was different than everyone else’s. It all hinges on the word “through.” To my mind, that implies a complete passage: when you go through a tunnel, it’s understood that you come out the other side, or when a camel passes through the eye of a needle, it’s understood that he emerges on the other side, if he passes through at all. So for me, the thread going through the needle meant that one end went through the hole, but the rest followed until it had all snaked through, leaving nothing behind. I wasn’t a very good seamstress, I suppose, and that had happened to me more than once in attempting to sew on a button. But to me, that made the poem all the more poignant and clever, as the stitches are literally the color of absence because they hold no thread—and therefore cannot hold anything together anymore. As I recall, my teacher didn’t buy it, but I still think such a reading is well within the realm of possibility.

Another poem from my college days that has stuck with me throughout the years:

Dead Hand

Temptations still nest in it like basilisks.
Hang it up till the rings fall.

I just love the brutality, the bathos, the cynicism, the utter lack of compassion, the whip-smart pivot from wonder to disdain. He presents a complete, singular vision of humanity in roughly the same amount of syllables as would make a haiku. Interestingly, Merwin lived out the latter part of his life in a place called Haiku, in Hawaii. That’s apt, insofar as his work often displayed an intense compression; but his work rarely strove to achieve the whimsy, serendipity, and pleasant shift in perspective we associate with haiku.

I recall the scandalous decision by Merwin not to award the Yale Younger Poets prize (in ‘97, I think). I later met one of the finalists that year, who did not have any kind words for a man who had nothing to lose by awarding the prize, but who chose to withhold it anyway. This poet subsequently went on to achieve considerable acclaim, including a Macarthur prize. But at the time, she really had no idea of who this Merwin character was. While I couldn’t defend his decision, I certainly did defend his poetry (often lumped in the “Deep Image” or “American Surrealist” schools). In particular, I raved on and on about The Lice, published in 1967 during the escalation of the Vietnam war, which heavily influenced the poetry of the time. This book sort of completed the transition away from punctuation. You’ll still find a few end stops, but those are rare. At first, I approached the lack of punctuation as sort of a gimmick, but I quickly understood what a powerful device it can be, stripping down language to its barest utterance. Many of his lines end with the completion of a thought or phrase, but many are enjambed–and the lack of punctuation really forces the reader to stop and backtrack to correctly follow the sentence. It can also impart a sense of simultaneity of thought, or a rushing together of disparate elements. Consider this poem (another that I committed to memory years ago):

Sunset in Winter

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way.

The first lines all present a complete phrase; but the last line runs two phrases together. Consider how different it would sound if the final phrase were also brought down to its own line. It’s not just the lack of punctuation but the lack of pause or caesura that makes it sing.

Like other Deep Image poets (e.g., Wright), Merwin started out writing in a more traditional style, but abandoned it to forge his own poetics. Perhaps he felt that he scaffolding and embellishments of formal structure prevented him for reaching the true essence of a thing. Certainly, much of his work is elemental, with more than a few stones, birds, trees, and visits from a quasi-personified Death. This focus often allowed him to create fabulous metaphors and images. I love, for example, the final lines of “When You Go Away,” which reads, “my words are the garment of what I shall never be / Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy.”

Wow.

There is an undeniable misanthropy undergirding these poems—not surprising, given the public’s growing lack of faith in government and the general disaffection of the age. Nature is a redemptive power, but even Nature might not have the wherewithal to reform the excesses of humanity. Consider the final lines of “December Night,” which read, “Tonight once more / I find a single prayer and it is not for men.” Or “Avoiding News by the River,” which ends bluntly: “If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything.” This sense of shame in humanity is another undercurrent. It appears most notably in one of his more famous pieces, “For the Anniversary of my Death,” which reads,

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what.

That would of course be an apt place to end, though I could go on for pages and pages. But I’ll end by noting that I saw Merwin read—not once, but twice. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was, as he rarely gave readings (as far as I know). The first was some time around 1990, in Atlanta or thereabouts, and the second many years later in LA (where Merwin was introduced by the inimitable Stephen Yenser). He read “Lament for the Makers,” which at that time felt like a swan song, even though he still had many years ahead of him. In it, he recalled many of his poetic influences and friends, from Frost and Eliot to Wright and Merrill, who had recently died. It was truly an emotional performance—and that’s not what comes to mind when we think about Merwin. In part, it is a straightforward dirge, but in part, he considers how his efforts to carry on the tradition are doomed to failure, and how everything eventually comes to nothing. It is precisely the sort of sentiment that Buddhists are supposed to embrace, but in this poem, he seems to rebel against the Buddhist sentiment, if only for a moment (he also returns, ever so slightly, to the formalism of his younger days). It ends poignantly,

the best words did not keep them from
leaving themselves finally
as this day is going from me

and the clear note they were hearing
never promised anything
but the true sound of brevity
that will go on after me

Old gold

While I was searching through my shelf for Mary Oliver, I chanced to notice a book by Sharon Olds: The Gold Cell. I must’ve had it for a long time, but as I flipped through it, I realized that I had never really perused it. My loss—here’s another poet that everyone should read again and again.

It’s a long book, as far as poetry collections go, clocking in at 90 pages. It’s divided into four sections of thematically linked poems. The first section is something of a grab bag, including poems about the seamier side of life in NYC as well as meditations on the violence that underpins the human condition. Though many of these are engaging, they offer only a glimpse of the extremely powerful writing that is to come in the second section, which focuses on the poet’s early life with her father. Yes, the mother figures in, too, but mostly as a foil for the father.

The writing here exhibits what I most look for in poetry—a raw emotional intensity combined with a deft handling of form, even if the form is simply a tight narrative technique. This is old-school Confessional poetry, which can be truly moving when done right. Olds is a master of the extreme metaphor, as evidenced in the first poem of this section, “Saturn,” which compares her father to the titan devouring his kids. Goya’s painting immediately springs to mind, though this Saturn seems more pernicious; he does not simply swallow his children whole, but rather cracks them open like shellfish, needing not only to consume them but break them in the process: “My brother’s arm went in up to the shoulder / and he bit it off, and sucked at the wound / as one sucks at the sockets of a lobster.” The father is shown to be passed out on the couch every night, so perhaps alcoholism was part of the problem, though that is never expressly stated. A similar hint appears in a later poem, “June 24,” which states, “You died night after night in the years of my childhood, / sinking down into speechless torpor.”

One of the highlights of this section is “History: 13,” which describes the father coming home late one night covered in blood—perhaps from a bar fight? The cause is never made clear, though the image of the blood-covered father reoccurs in other poems, where the father assumes overtones of both victim and butcher. Plath famously compared her father to Hitler in “Daddy,” but in “History: 13,” Olds compares her father to Mussolini (who seems to be fading more and more from our collective memory). The effect, I’d argue, is more visceral in Olds’ poem, as it shifts seamlessly from the injury of father to the death of the dictator, whose body suffered all the abuse of a traumatized nation waking up from its war-torn nightmare. Just as the desecration of Mussolini’s body served as a watershed for Italy, so the unexplained violence against the father marks a defining moment in the poet’s life: “I turned my back / on happiness, at 13 I entered / a life of mourning.” In the last poems of this section, the poet achieves some sort of rapprochement with her parents—or at least their memory—and seems to reach a point where the tyranny of the past no longer controls her. Of course, such reconciliation can be oddly unsettling, necessitating a hefty dose of soul-searching. Olds makes this starkly evident in “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood,” where she writes, “I could not / see what I would do with the rest of my life,” and later, “I hardly knew what I / said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.” Even pain and anger can be hard to let go, when they’re the two qualities that have defined your entire life.

The third section pivots to more sensual concerns, with a lot of poems about sex, desired and consummated, in all its messy glory. These, too, tend to be unabashedly straightforward in their description. As I’ve said before, a straight man cannot write in such terms, using the same sort of diction and imagery, without inviting accusations of toxic masculinity. Of course, these poems were written 30 years ago, so prevailing sentiments were different. I’m sure they must’ve seemed even more scandalous at the time.

The final section completes a natural progression from the third; that one focused on making babies, the final one focuses on raising them. Some of these seem a bit self-indulgent, with references that presumably hold more meaning for the poet than the reader. Still, the description is masterful. I suppose that’s no surprise. Olds specializes in focusing on the smallest but most telling details, and as a parent, she’s predisposed to notice the infinite minutiae that define her kids. Consider these lines from “When My Son is Sick”:

… his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold…

I could’ve selected any passage nearly at random and found similarly engaging language. That deft turn of phrase is what I love about Olds. Annoyingly, though, I was recently working on a poem and composed a phrase that seemed perfect and unique, and smiled at my good fortune to have discovered it. Then, in reading this book, I found the exact same phrase! Olds had beaten me to it!

If I have any gripes at all with this book, I would say that it might’ve been even more powerful if it had been a bit shorter. Perhaps some of the poems in the first or fourth sections could have been omitted—though it would, admittedly, be hard to choose which ones. And what about that title? Well, there is a poem entitled “In the Cell” but that doesn’t seem representative of the collection overall. The cover shows a snake curled around a gold circle that resembles the sun. So on the one hand, it conveys a sort of alchemist aesthetic; but on the whole, it looks rather like an ovum, a round human egg cell, which makes a lot more sense, given the focus of the poems.

This was Olds’ third collection of poetry; other books received greater acclaim, but I’d say that this one ranks among the best of them. Even after 30 years, it has not lost its currency or freshness.

More lilies

I don’t want this to become an obituary blog, but I need to note the death of another of my poetic luminaries: May Oliver.

I think I first became acquainted with her work through the Poulin anthology, Modern American Poetry (the same can be said for a number of my favorite poets of the last generation). I felt an immediate affinity, as I considered myself (and still do) a nature poet at heart. Still, whereas I sometimes feel compelled to include the occasional human in my poems, Oliver did not.

I’ve been flipping through House of Light recently, and I’m struck by the general lack of human contact. Most of the poems stem from a walk by the poet through secluded woods and fields, and center on an observation made during the excursion. That may sound a bit formulaic—and OK, if I have one gripe with Oliver’s poetry, it’s that it is forumulaic—but the insights are beautifully rendered in sparse language that speaks directly to my inner sensibilities.

Sparse, direct, plain language is a defining feature of her poetry. She adores flowery plants, not flowery language. Adjectives are typically simple, and often simply indicate color. Interestingly, the main colors found in House of Light are white, black, and red, with occasional patches of green and blue. And again, it’s just “red,” not “blood red” or “cherry red” or scarlet or fuchsia—just “red.” She gets away with this partly because the objects she’s describing are so familiar, they hardly need describing at all. We all know what color is a crane, or a bear, or the sky; any attempt to portray them with more specificity would mar the image. I started flagging all the poems that mentioned white, black, or red, but I ran out of stickies.

And it’s not just colors that appear throughout. The familiar woodland creatures make multiple appearances: deer, cranes, owls, frogs—not to mention lilies, her favorite flower (lilies for Oliver are like ballerinas for Degas). These are not exotic creatures, and that’s partly the point. Nature is not what you find in zoos or on safari, it’s what you find in your own backyard. On the other hand, you don’t find many dogs, cats, and squirrels—such creatures are far too domesticated. Nature is not the antidote to civilization, it’s the default state. Buildings and structures and mechanical devices are the anomaly, and though they may distract us from our natural state, they do not erase it.

Her poems often convey the serenity of nature, which, on its own, does not typically change in human timescales. Death is ubiquitous, but it’s typically a quiet, and sometimes quick, death: a heron nabs a frog and moves on, a turtle gulps a duckling and is gone. And afterward, the quiet returns. Death is to be welcomed as an opportunity to return to the earth and set the cycle of life in motion again. In fact, when she declares in “Foxes in Winter,” “I never said / nature wasn’t cruel,” I’m suddenly taken aback by the defensiveness of the line and the surprising truth to it. Yes, she never said nature wasn’t cruel, but that’s because she didn’t need to; cruelty is a human construct, implying some sort of malicious intent or pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Nature can’t be cruel, though we may perceive it to be. She also says, perhaps with a bit irony, “I think this is / the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind / a little dying.” Of course, most people do mind a little dying, especially when they’re the ones doing the dying.

I sometimes find myself starting to write a poem, but then stopping and saying, “Wait a minute, are you really going to write another poem about snakes? Shouldn’t you try something different?” Oliver’s work repudiates that advice. She returns to the same subjects, the same tropes, time and again, following a well-worn path through her poetic woods, literal and figurative. But as with a favorite hiking path, I never get tired of following her.

The Hall effect

The effusive obituaries and encomiums for Donald Hall have given me pause. He was, by most accounts, an “important” poet, part of the miraculous crew born in the mid- to late-1920s. He served as poet laureate for a time, and remained something of a revered public figure. He received the Frost Medal and Ruth Lilly prize, both for lifetime achievement. And yet, I could not name a single poem of his, let alone quote one. The only books of his on my shelf are Remembering Poets and its later revision, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, which I recall greatly enjoying once upon a time. But as for the poetry itself? I had nothing. So, I turned to my floppy, well-worn copy of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, and was amused to discover that Hall had edited the first edition!

Perusing the poems, I vaguely recall reading them decades ago, but nothing really stuck with me. And, I must admit, the intervening years have not endowed them with any new and uncanny resonance. I still find them all rather pedestrian.

Hall was a vocal critic, and seemed to have little patience for poetry that did not comport with his tastes and preferences. But even if you agree with his assessments, it’s hard not to view them as the peevish pronouncements of a crotchety old man who just can’t understand these kids nowadays.

In fact, Hall was basically the poster child for white male privilege in the academy. Born in New Haven, he attended Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford. He taught for a while at U. Michigan, but then retired to the family estate in New England. He served as The Paris Review’s first poetry editor. He was an advisor to the NEA during the senior Bush presidency and was named Poet Laureate by the junior.

Much has been made of his marriage to Jane Kenyon; perhaps it was happy and productive, but I, for one, find it distinctly icky when a college professor shacks up with an undergrad 20 years his junior. Surely an older academic should engage in some self reflection before plunging in to such a relationship—especially with his divorce so recent (or perhaps not even finalized) when it began. To be fair, Hall is not the only one with such a complicated personal history (Yeats, of course, comes to mind); but his relationship with Kenyon perhaps provide a lens through which to view his work, a lens defined by self-regard without self-awareness.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Clearly, many people have a high opinion of his poetry. Maybe I simply haven’t read enough, but I can’t say that I share that assessment. On the other hand, he exhibited a profound influence on American poetry, and helped shape the debate about the value and function of poetry. Much of that debate—between the raw and the cooked, the well-wrought and the naked—was still going on during my formative years, and helped shape my own ideas about what makes a poem (or a poet) truly great.

A connecting principle

When I was younger, the Police popularized the concept of synchronicity, or the belief that an apparently random coincidence carries some sort of deep meaning or significance. Jung was of course beyond me at the time (though I would later take great interest in his theory of the collective unconscious), but synchronicity became a buzzword in every conversation (and a predictable prompt for charades). I also learned later that the song “Synchronicity II” owes a creative debt to Yeats, who held immense influence on my development as a poet. Can that just be a coincidence?

In any case, even if I hadn’t been listening to the Police again lately, I might still have latched on to the concept of synchronicity because in my last two journal publications, I shared space with another poet. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. The writer is Faith Shearin, and the odd confluence prompted me to grab her book, The Owl Question, from my shelf. That was her first book, published shortly before my own (in fact, it’s a safe assumption that I received the book because I also entered the May Swenson competition that year). The judge for the prize was Mark Doty, another poet I’ve always admired.

It was a great choice. Shearin’s poetry, even then, combined an unusual maturity with a youthful exuberance and sense of wonder. Many of the poems in this book look back on childhood events and memories with an eye that is not entirely critical or nostalgic. Rather, they read more like an examination or a documentary in which the poet seeks to explain—to herself, at least—how she came to be the person she is. One of my favorites in this vein is “Frogs,” which recounts a third-grade science exercise dissecting frogs. The poem bounces (leapfrogs?) around a bit, as her poems often do, providing bits of information that gradually form a larger picture. And the language is vivid: the frogs arrive “dead and soaked in formaldehyde / so they looked like wet vegetables dug up on some // other planet.” That fabulous description is another hallmark of Shearin’s work, as is the deft and unexpected turn of phrase. This poem, for example, extrapolates from dissecting the frog to dissecting her own life, with equal rigor but equivocal results: “And because of her I have taken my life apart many times, / to examine it, though I have never understood what it was.”

The first poem in the collection, “Piano Lesson,” ends on a similar crescendo: “I want to be like the girl upstairs who has braced / herself before a grand piano and taught her own blind fingers to sing.” Like many in the book, this poem speaks of both the unknown possibilities of life and the known tragedies—but it’s the optimism that wins out in the end. The view of an indifferent universe that piles life upon death shows up a lot, as in “Flat World,” which literally places a pregnant woman in a cemetery. Although wry social commentary is not a recurring trope, it is certainly on display in the line, “even without bodies, the rich slept better // than the poor.”

Which draws attention to another aspect of Shearin’s work. It is frequently quite personal, and tells of a genteel southern upbringing—but that family history is far from gothic, and the depictions never stray into caricature. In fact, it could be argued that the conventionality of her life became a source of underlying unease and self-doubt. We learn about her engagement and marriage in terms that are ambivalent, to say the least. In “Matrimony,” for example, she tries out the role of “wife” and finds it “like gaining / fifty pounds, all on my ass” (a phrase that is delightfully out of character in the book). Shearin also evokes the complicated mess of emotions that accompany pregnancy and birth in several poems, the most visceral being “Childbirth Revisited,” which conveys the sense of absurdity and helplessness when the one giving birth seems to have the least control over the entire situation.

The title poem puzzled me for a long time, until it finally dawned on me that it’s not a question about owls, it’s the question the owls ask: Who? Who are you really, in this world, which imposes such expectations and assumptions on you? How much of what you do—even falling in love—is the result of your own pure desires, your own pure persona, as opposed to the gestalt, the collective unconscious, you may have accepted without question or examination? “Surely I am pure beneath the layers I’ve grown for love.” Note that sentiment ends with a period, not a question mark—as though punctuation can differentiate between the real and ideal.

The world the Shearin grew up in was vastly different than mine, but I feel a strange affinity for her work. Granted, it is a bit more prosy than my usual fare, but it is carried off with grace and aplomb. Also, I think we can all get behind the desire for the world as “a picnic where the wine is free and sex / turns everyone to swans.”

Things of this world

How come no one told me?

I was flipping through the latest issue of Poets & Writers when I happened to glance at the “In Memoriam” column—and was somewhat stunned to see Richard Wilbur listed there. How is it that I did not know he died? How could I have missed something like that? (Well, I see that he died on a Saturday, so maybe there’s a lesson here: don’t die on a weekend if you want the public to notice.)

Wilbur ranks among my favorite poets, and was certainly an influence and inspiration for me (as I’m sure he was for many who followed in the “New Formalist” tradition). When did I first encounter his work? I vaguely recall reading “Praise in Summer” in my high-school textbook, Sound and Sense (back when it had an eye-assaulting neon-fuchsia cover—I may still have it somewhere), but I may be misremembering. In college, though, I started reading him in earnest in the pages of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, which included, among others, “Hamlen Brook.” That poem was a revelation for me. It evinced a mastery of technique that I’ve been striving ever since to achieve, most notably in its vivid descriptive imagery (especially about the natural world) and the use of the unexpected but oddly juste word, the word you wouldn’t have thought to use, but after you see it, you couldn’t imagine using a different one. For example, “I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,” or “A startled inchling trout … Trawling a shadow solider than he.” Dinting?!?! Trawling?!?! Amazing! I remember sharing that poem with my girlfriend, who remarked, “You could’ve written that poem… Well, all except for the last stanza.” Well, yeah… the last stanza makes the poem, and I certainly couldn’t have written it. But it did make me start to understand that vivid description is not enough in itself—it must serve a greater purpose. “How shall I drink all this?” Wilbur writes. That’s the question I would not have though to ask, but the question that takes the poem beyond the beautiful into the sublime.

I have loved so many of his poems, and committed some to memory. “A Late Aubade” comes to mind (“I need not rehearse / the rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse…”). As an interesting sidenote, many of his poems make casual reference to certain touchstones of art and culture—e.g., Schoenberg’s serial technique, or Schliemann staring down on the crowns of Troy. In this way, he shares the genius of Merrill; but with Merrill, such references and nuances always bore a whiff of the patrician, the commonalities you learned by virtue of your station in life, not the hunger of your mind. Wilbur’s poetry, while certainly not plebeian, was more grounded in the things of this world. I could not imagine Wilbur playing around with a Ouija board, much less writing a book-length poem about one.

And who could forget “The Writer?” The richness of metaphor is astounding—even as he undercuts his own “easy figure.” And I suppose, in our electronic world, fewer readers will appreciate the way he likens the sound of a manual typewriter to a “chain hauled over a gunwale.” My keypad makes no such noice, though the typewriter that I learned on certainly did. And his pacing is impeccable: who doesn’t share in his exuberance, or feel his spirits rise, when the trapped bird suddenly clears “the sill of the world?”

Also remarkable about Wilbur, he could write for any audience. My kids encountered his work at an early age in books such as Opposites and The Disappearing Alphabet (Oh, do not let / anything happen to the alphabet!). It is a far journey indeed from that to Molière.

I learned in Wilbur’s obituary that he grew up not far from where I did, so perhaps that’s why a poem such as “Hamlen Brook” or “The Death of a Toad” or “A Grasshopper” speaks to me so directly. I can place myself completely in the scene; but I suspect I’d be able to, even if I didn’t have that sort of referent.

I will miss him. He was most surely called to praise, called by love to the things of this world: fountains, and insects, and train stations, and birds, and art, and sound, and legends. It was always a matter of life or death. The forsaken will not understand. Mr. Wilbur, I do not place much faith in a hereafter, but wherever you are, I wish you a lucky passage.

Democratizing poetry

Journal publication is dictated by a huge element of chance: who happened to read your submission, and what frame of mind were they in at the time. I don’t know how many people are involved in the decision to accept or reject a submission, but probably not too many. I’ve always suspected that name recognition plays a role—and why not? If you’re tasked with churning through a teetering slush pile, you’re bound to look for shortcuts (though as for that, I suspect that many of the poems that appear in journals were not submitted but solicited). That’s why I’ve always preferred venues with blind reading processes.

I was recently intrigued to find a new (to me, at least) journal that opens up the selection process. It’s called SixFold, and it essentially democratizes the whole thing. Participants pay a minimal fee to enter, and then read a selection of poems by other participants. The readers rank the submissions, and top ranked submissions advance to the next stage. This happens two more times, with the dwindling number of submissions being read by a growing number of reviewers. The top three receive awards, and the other finalists receive publication. I suppose this is the poetic equivalent of March Madness (OK, I don’t actually know what March Madness is—but I’m probably not far wrong).

I can see advantages and disadvantages to this approach. For example, many journals reflect the tastes of a single chief editor (or a small editorial staff), and attract an audience based on that editor’s style and reputation. There are many journals that I simply don’t submit to, because I know they would have no interest in my type of poetry. With SixFold, there really can be no overriding vision or stylistic emphasis, because the poems are selected by the collective pool of readers—and that pool is liable to change with each issue (though it may ultimately prove to be a self-selecting set). In theory, this will generate a journal that does not target a specific readership and demographic, but will appeal to the widest range of readers. It also means that a submission is less subject to the whims of a single reader—and if it’s any good, it has better odds of being recognized.

On the other hand, I’m well aware that the collective will of the people gave us our current president. So the system is not entirely foolproof.

But SixFold has another wonderful benefit: all of those readers have a chance to comment on the work. And my recent experience shows that many people take that very seriously. Usually, editorial comments on a submission amount to “we enjoyed your work, please try us again.” With SixFold, I had access to dozens of comments—often quite extensive—about my work. I found it extremely interesting to see what sort of reactions my work would engender, and a bit amusing to see the vastly different readings a poem might permit.

For example, a poem that was “tight, meaningful and very strong” to one reader was “a sentimental exercise fit for a Hallmark card” to another. About another poem, one reader wrote, “I wept when I read your poem,” while another remarked, “I know this is about something deeply personal and important to you, but it doesn’t engage the outside reader.” Another poem prompted some readers to comment, “The last line… stops you in your tracks” and “I love the ending of this one”; and yet another reader commented, “You might not need the last two lines.”

I think my favorite comment was this: “[the poem] shows you can work with rhyme without embarrassing yourself.” Well, I do set a very high bar.

The range of responses serves to illustrate my initial point: if any one of those readers had been exclusively responsible for accepting or rejecting the submission, there’s really no telling how the decision might’ve gone. With the democratized process, the general consensus tends to cancel out any fringe opinions.

SixFold was founded by Garrett Doherty, who, as editor of Crazyhorse, declined several of my poems in the past. The fact the he is now, essentially, publishing my work is itself a vindication of the process, and underscores the possibilities of a diffuse selection process. It’s not perfect —I like the idea of making a personal connection with an editor—but I suspect I submit to SixFold again in the future.

Open and Shut

A few years back, I moved to a new house. All of my books were packed up in boxes—where they remain even now, stacked up in the garage, waiting for me to find or build some shelf space for them. I miss having them in the house. I miss walking past them and randomly scanning the spines to find one I haven’t looked at in while. It was a bit like being in a used-book store with the sort of poetry section that you’d never find in real life but always fantasized about. I miss book stores, too—used and new. They still exist here and there, like stubborn tree stumps on the parkway waiting for the city to come and grind them down—something that could happen any day or maybe never.

Of course, the problem of being a compulsive buyer of poetry books means that when I do find myself in a book store with a book in hand, I often can’t remember whether I already own it.

One book that I purchased twice, unwittingly but without regret, is Open Shutters by Mary Jo Salter. Her last name does not start with a silent “P,” but that would be appropriate. Salter is a formalist and traditionalist, and her poems evince a distinct musicality and classical sensibility. Not surprisingly, she was a devotee of James Merrill, and one of the more whimsical poems in this collection, “Tanker,” stems from a sudden insight into a Merrill pun. In a sense, she finally got the joke, long after the joker had died. The joke, here, is the play between “tanker” and “tanka,” a poetic form related to the haiku (a form that appears in actuality or in essence several times in this book).

Salter loves a nice wry pun, too, and a dose of dry wit. In “Tromp L’Oeil,” for example, a painting on a wall shows “shirttails flapping on a frieze.” You hear an echo of “flapping in the breeze,” so the phrase is at once familiar and foreign. On a grander scale, that’s one of the hallmarks of great poetry: it makes us “re-see” things that we’ve always taken for granted. And of course, who could not fall in love with the title of the book, which truly provides a window (with balcony) into the poems that follow.

Salter is a deft formalist, and this book contains an assortment of villanelles, quatrains, sonnets, blank verse, haiku, and various invented rhyme schemes—even a ghazal (which, even in Salter’s accomplished hands, does nothing to endear me to the form). One of my favorites, “Another Session,” is a long sonnet sequence composed upon hearing about the death of her former therapist, which paints an intimate portrait both of the writer and the therapist (at least, as much as the writer could discern through the professional distance). Other favorites deal with more familiar, familial issues. The poems about Salter’s daughters are particularly poignant. In “Snowed-On Snowman,” when her daughter suggests making a snowman, Salter considers it “her last such invitation,/ maybe: she’s thirteen.” How often have I made that same calculation! She goes on to describe the photo she took of her daughter with the snowman: “a snapshot side by side—/ each soon to disappear,/ him shrinking as she grows.” In a similar vein, “For Emily at Fifteen” describes a poem that arrives in a letter from her daughter. The central figure (both the poem and meta-poem) is a mermaid, a ready-made metaphor for straddling (well, maybe that’s not the right word) two worlds. Her daughter embodies the “Half-human and half-fish/ of adolescence.” The metaphor extends to the chimerical juxtaposition of the serious near-adult who writes a poem with deep connotations and the ordinary child who writes a letter that is mostly superficial.

As it turns out, that child, Emily Leithauser, is now a poet of some renown in her own right. And as is evident from the name, Salter was married to Brad Leithauser, another of my favorite poets. I cannot think of many such legacies—Franz Wright and Frieda Hughes are the only ones that come immediately to mind.

Salter’s strength, I believe, is in the half-rhyme: for example, “shutters” and “shatters” in “Tromp L’Oeil,” or “shutter” and “scripture” (in another poem about her daughter, “Advent”). The half-rhyme is, for poetry, what the blue note is for jazz—unique, and hard to replicate or predict, a fall from perfection into an in-between state that defines its own perfection.

Open Shutters, too, defines and achieves its own perfection.

Whatever it is

Freshman year, English 201, seminar, first class. Professor R.—a rather intimidating and authoritative figure—explains that if we really want to develop an appreciation for poetry, we should be grabbing the New Yorker each week to see what’s being written right now. To illustrate, she gives us all a copy of a page from the most recent edition. We read:

Not liking what life has in it,
“It’s probably dead, whatever it is,”
you said.…

That was my first introduction to John Ashbery, and perhaps my first introduction to real poetry by a real poet (as opposed to my fellow students) that just left me scratching my head. In the countless years since then, that line has stuck with me. It’s offhand, it’s ridiculous, it’s non sequitur. I’m sure that’s what many people love about Ashbery’s poetry, but it’s certainly what I like least—about anybody’s poetry. It’s disjointed, it’s solipsistic, it’s random, it’s simply words on a page. What does it tell us about the human condition at this particular point in time? What does it tell us about anything? A generous reading might suggest that the enormity of history, the calamity of humanity, has left us with nothing to say, but being human, we have to say something—even if it is meaningless outside a context that is so specific it excludes all but the smallest social circle. A less generous reading just says, don’t quit your day job—unless your day job is “poet.” There’s no denying that Ashbery exerted considerable influence on a generation (or two or three) of young poets, who apparently learned that obscurity and insularity were qualities to admire. I personally believe that poetry is not meant to be deciphered, any more than music or architecture is. A poem is not a puzzle—life is the puzzle. Even the title of the poem, “Wet are the Boards,” is an exercise in abstruseness. What is being emphasized by the inverse construction? Why do we even need “are the” in this case? How does it relate, if at all, to what comes next?

When people say, “I don’t get poetry,” I think a large share of the blame falls on Ashbery and his imitators. From a young age, we’re taught that poetry is special. So when we encounter a poem that does not reach out to us the way poems are supposed to, we’re less likely to think, “this poem is stupid because it makes no sense,” and more likely to think, “I am stupid because I can not make sense of this poem.” And who wants to feel like that?

Ashbery died this week; his legacy will no doubt endure, though we may hope that his influence will not.

Westward ho!

Hardy’s “The Oxen” might just be the archetypal Christmas poem, for me, at least, with it’s hints of awe and wonder, it’s willingness to set aside doubt and agnosticism to entertain the possibility of something mystical. Of course, that doubt and pessimism is never fully vanquished, and ultimately underscores the futility, the silliness, of adherence to any established religious doctrine. To the holiday canon, I’d like to add another piece, from a modern poet with philosophical ties to Hardy. That poem is “Xmas Tree Lot Tribeca 2001,” from the collection Driving West on the Pulaski Skyway, by John Bargowski. Like Hardy’s poem, Bargowski’s juxtaposes a child’s view of the season (through the lens of an imagined pop-up book) with reality as comprehended by an adult mind. The desire to rekindle an experience of innocence, naiveté, and magic is undermined by a sense that all the glitter is just a tawdry facade, in terms of the physical ornamentation and the emotional underpinnings. I love how he describes the bargain trees with “their bottoms nailed / to little wooden crosses,” succinctly compressing the religious and commercial intersection of the holiday. Even his decision to use the word “Xmas” rather than “Christmas” in the title is significant for an Italian Catholic from New Jersey.

I mentioned Bargowski’s philosophical ties to Hardy, and by that, I mean his pessimism, his sardonic outlook, his overriding sense of defeat. Hardy, who never really recovered from the untimely death of his first wife, wrote poems such as “Hap,” which looks with a resigned sense of helplessness at the overwhelming power of sheer randomness. Bargowski also suffered an unimaginable loss, of a daughter. The details are never specified, but the enormity of the event figures enormously in this book, both in the individual poems that address the loss (and what comes after) and in the world-weary tone of the work overall. The poems that deal with the daughter’s death and memory are among the most wrenching in this collection. I’m thinking particularly of “The Purple Bike,” which describes how he and his wife would try to avoid being the first home at night, that is, avoid coming home to an empty house. There’s also “After the Monument Salesman’s Pitch,” which describes a visit from the man selling tombstones, “smiling / as if he’s selling roses or / trips to the Caribbean.” And “Dust and Sleep,” which describes making plans for the daughter’s birthday—not cakes and presents, but a visit to the cemetery. I’m not sure whether “On Three Legs” describes the funeral of his daughter or someone else, but it’s certainly in the same mold, with its emotionally deadened attention to detail, the sense of devastation in an uncaring world, as evidenced in lines such as “When we returned home the florist / bill was in the mail.” And of course, the most memorable in this mode must be “Cleaning Out the Closet,” which captures a scene in which his wife is trying on old clothes to see if they still fit:

We both see it when you lift the next hangar
off the bar, through the little window in the plastic

—the dress you wore to our daughter’s funeral,
the cloth already faded to the color of dried roses

If any poem can be described as “heartbreaking,” this is it, especially in its subtle portrayal of how tragedies never end, its depiction of how loss defines us, and its revelation of how the self can feel oddly shamed and betrayed by its own ability to continue no matter how completely the world falls apart.

While the daughter’s death figures prominently in this collection, a similar sense of loss and grief punctuate the poems of memory and reflection. Bargowski reminds me in some ways of another Jersey poet, John Hennessy (about whom I’ve written before). But while Hennessy looks back on his Jersey heritage with a sense of nostalgia and humor, Bargowski looks back with a sense of despair and pity. When we encounter his parents and grandparents, they are for the most part near to death; they seem to have been absent from this childhood. And in fact, poems of childhood also suggest the Catholic school equivalent of a juvenile delinquent. Any joy, if it appears at all, arrives too late, as in the flowers that bloom after the one who planted them has died. Or its found in the flight of pigeons, back in the day when rooftop coops were not uncommon—though even those pigeons, ultimately unable to escape their surroundings despite their wings, become oddly mournful. The title of the book will hold special significance for locals: if you are driving west on the Pulaski, you are leaving Jersey City, with your back to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Driving West on the Pulaski Skyway won the Bordighera prize for poetry, and as such, each poem appears with an Italian translation on the facing page. This leads to some amusing misconnections, as when Bargowski cites an Italian adage and then gives its English translation; the Italian version just repeats the adage twice (i.e., Hello, reader! Which loosely translated means, Hello reader!”) Another translates the bouncing ball that appears above old song lyrics (is that the origin of modern karaoke?) as an actual rubber ball. In the original, a dog in a car would “scare the shit out of” anyone passing by, while in Italian, he would only scare them to death. Well, as I’ve said before, translating poetry is an endeavor predestined to fail—my hats off to those who try. And Bargowski’s poetry can be pretty grimm—I’ll take my humor where I can find it.