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 grim—I’ll take my humor where I can find it.

Boxed in

Prose poem: contradiction in terms, right? I’ve never been quite sure what to make of the prose poem. One gripe I have with many contemporary poems is that they seem to be prose chopped up to look like a poem, with no rhyme or reason (pun intended) as to what constitutes a line. The prose poem, of course, doesn’t even try to look like a poem, at least not in the typical sense. And yet, on the other hand, they do have an odd visual appeal, appearing as a self-contained brick-like edifice on the page (assuming they don’t go on for more than a page). Sometimes, I wonder whether the poem would achieve the same effect if it had some sort of line break. And sometimes, I decide that the answer is no. At its best, the prose poem achieves a certain urgency, an immediacy, which comes from stripping away all pretense and ornament, all the traditional trappings of poetry. Yet even this can be deceiving, for the prose poet, like the concrete poet, must be attuned to mechanical process of putting words on page, on typesetting and font styling.

I bring this up in the context of Jehanne Dubrow’s latest book, The Arranged Marriage, which is a collection of prose poems. Maybe “collection” isn’t the right term, because this book is a cohesive project, with all the poems sharply focused on family history (and more specifically, her matrilineal history). In this regard, the individual poems function like chapters in a novel—a postmodern novel, where the narrative does not necessarily progress in a chronological manner. Does the prose poem lend itself to this structure more than, say, a book-length sonnet sequence? In this case, I’d say it does. The tone is often plainspoken, anecdotal. More ornament would detract from the immediacy of the message. Many of the details hint at violence (OK, some do more than simply hint), and an elevated diction or focus on form might blunt the inherent brutality. The tension comes not from breaking phrases but by stringing them together. Several poems refer to some sort of sexual assault, perhaps even a hostage-like confinement, at the hands of someone who is not a complete stranger. Others present the more psychological confinement of married life in a tropical environment far from home. And there are knives—lots of knives, and shards of broken things. The sense of confinement and sexual assault becomes a recurring metaphor for marriage, with the women both looking for a means of violent escape and experiencing a strange connection to their oppressors. From Dubrow’s perspective, marriage is the ultimate Stockholm syndrome.

The typography is intriguing, too. The titles are rendered in a font that imitates the old ribbon-style typewriters (for those of us who remember them), complete with minuscule ink spatters. This situates the stories within a specific historical context. Back then, typing was considered women’s work, and one could argue that the typeface imparts a feminine aspect from the start. It also makes it possible to view each poem as a letter (in the prehistory of email), or even as a document in a dossier. And if viewed as a letter, it’s easy to go a step further and imagine that the letter, composed in prison or confinement, might have to pass through the censors, and so would have to encode its message, which might ultimately be a call for help.

Still, in regard to the prose poem as a genre, I’m not altogether onboard. I still find myself mentally pausing at the end of each line, which tends to blunt the driving momentum. I also tend to scan the righthand side, wondering whether the poet specifically chose to end on those words, or whether the end words were dictated by the margins. I admire randomness for its own sake—not as a poetic device. Still, this is an intriguing book—disturbing, even—and one that will reward repeated close reading.

Trans trauma

So a crazy thing happened recently. I step into the office of my new boss for some sort of performance review and what do I see on his desk but a collection of poems by Tomas Tranströmer. That’s not the sort of thing I typically encounter where I work (an aerospace engineering thinktank). In fact, it’s not the sort of thing I see in LA, where the taste in poetry generally runs from Bukowski to … well, no one.

But it got me thinking about Tranströmer. I’m sure I encountered some of his work in the past, if only through my reading of Robert Bly. But if so, I couldn’t remember any. A good friend (at jeffschwaner.com) is a huge advocate. So, I decided it was time to read a bit.

My first impression is that it’s easy to see the connection between Tranströmer and Bly, both of whom produce (or rather, distill) deep images through tense, terse diction. But whereas Bly always seemed critical of humanity (and America) in general, Tranströmer seems to have given up on humanity already, and inhabits a world of intense isolation and disconnection. The people who appear in his poems (when they appear at all) are barely more animated than the stones and trees. Often, we don’t get complete human shapes, only faces, stamped with a cold resignation. “Bleak” is a word that immediately comes to mind. In fact, the sun and the seasons seem to have the most personality, though they operate according to a profound indifference to, if not disdain for, the human condition.

Interestingly, my reading of Tranströmer quickly devolved into a critique of translations. In particular, I was looking at this poem:

Midvinter

Ett blått sken
strömmar ut från mina kläder.
Midvinter.
Klirrande tamburiner av is.
Jag sluter ögonen.
Det finns en ljudlös värld
det finns en spricka
där döda
smugglas över gränsen.

Midwinter

A blue sheen
streams out from my clothes.
Midwinter.
Clinking tambourines of ice.
I shut my eyes.
There is a soundless world
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled across the border.

I don’t speak Swedish, of course, but with some German and Old English, it’s possible to parse the sense. After all, these are simple declarative statements. The power comes not from the nuance of the language but from the force of the image. I’m also struck by the one-word sentence, “Midwinter.” That construction is perfectly acceptable in Russian, for example, but in English, it sounds particularly elliptical, compressed—especially considering the end stop: an American poem with a one-word line probably wouldn’t end it with a period. But back to the point. Even a poem as straightforward as this has spawned numerous translations. The first line has been translated as “A blue light,” “A blue sheen,” and “A blue glow.” They are all fairly neutral words, but I ask myself whether the translators have already betrayed a bias. And in the next line, “streams out” most closely echoes the sound of the original, but “radiates” might better convey the sense. Interestingly, the greatest variation comes in translating the sound of the tambourines: “clinking,” “clattering,” “jingling,” “jangling,” etc. I suppose the word choice depends on how you interpret those tambourines: do they evoke the wind though a tree hung with frozen leaves, a cluster of icicles falling to the ground, a small patch of dry ice? Is the tambourine the drum or the cymbals?

And how about the distinction between “silent” and “soundless?” The first conveys a distinct mood. But silence is, oddly enough, a positive term, and by that I mean it does not convey a lack, or absence. In the mind, silence is something that can fill a space, as it were. Silence has substance. The neat thing about “soundless” (and by extension, I guess, all “-los” Germanic adjectives) is that it first presents the thing and then takes it away. It presents the idea of sound and then removes it. The effect is a bit more jarring, at least for speakers of English.

You might just say that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Or as the Italians say, “tradurre è tradire.” But I think it really comes down to the fact that a translator must first interpret, and then translate. And interpretation is by nature highly subjective. The word choices of the translator are just as critical as the word choices of the original poet. Indeed, a translator may end up belaboring a word far more than the original writer did. It’s a difficult business.

But as for Tranströmer, wow: bleak, depressing, chilling. (And what does that say about my new boss?!?!?!)

Those Swedish winters must be devastating.

The Fine Print

I’m not dead—just busy. But I happened to steal a few minutes this past weekend to pop into a used bookstore (that is, the books are used. I presume the bookstore is, too) where I chanced upon a copy of George Bradley’s Terms to Be Met, which won the 1986 Yale Younger Poets Series, selected by James Merrill. I know I’ve encountered Bradley’s work in the past. Certainly, the titles of some of his books ring a bell—The Fire Fetched Down and Of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—but I don’t recall any specific poems. My loss, because these are wonderful poems. In some ways, they are emblematic of the mid 80s, combining something of a world-weariness with a wry wit. They also bridge the gap between the confessional and formalist modes, with an easy, colloquial delivery that often masks an astute structural underpinning. The first poem, “In Suspense,” is a fine example. The poem is occasioned by a trip across the Verrazano bridge. The language itself is soaring—no aversion to multisyllabic words here—though the tone conveys a slightly bemused self-effacement:

…We hadn’t been paying attention
To much besides a perception of ourselves
As puny and audacious, caught in a monumental
Undertaking…

The form is itself the “monumental undertaking,” structurally symmetrical as the bridge itself. The end-words of the first 13 lines become the end-words for the final 13, though played in reverse. The middle (14th) line ends in the word “summit.” I’ve discussed poems like this before (and have even written some), but this is among the earliest instances I’ve encountered. In this way, Bradley is somewhat of a harbinger for the later school of “neo-formalists,” who did not simply revive traditional forms but sought (seek?) to create new forms, to bridge the river between medium and message. Bradley even dapples in concrete poetry. “Life as We Know It” is shaped like a circle on the page—or more specifically, a sphere, which comes to represent not only our planet but the ideal or most efficient form of matter. “The Old Way of Telling Time” assumes the shape of an hourglass. That in itself is not remarkable, but the genius in this poem lies at it’s very heart, as the last word of the top part of the hourglass is broken to become also the first word of the bottom part. But wait, it gets better: the word is hyphenated—and the hyphen occupies the midpoint of the hourglass. Wow.

Also remarkable is the way Bradley weaves cosmology into his work. I don’t know how much of this science had entered into pop culture (the book predates Hawking’s A Brief History of Time), but it’s intriguing to see references to Planck time, or the ruminations on the various stages of a star’s life—red giants, blue giants, white dwarves, and black holes. I can’t help wonder if that red, white, and blue is a coincidence, especially as they lead ineluctably toward the black hole at the end or in the center of everything. And yet, these science-inspired meditations are found alongside poems about vestiges of antiquity, of ancient cities and marvels such as Alexandria and Hagia Sofia, and bucolic destinations dotted throughout the Adriatic. It’s no wonder that Merrill selected this book–much of it seems an homage to Merrill himself.

And speaking of Merrill, I was intrigued by an inscription on the title page, which seems to read, “To Priam, from James.” Attached, as it is, to the “Foreword by James Merrill” type, I can’t help wondering whether I have stumbled across a book signed by Merrill. In comparing it to other signatures, there is a definite similarity, but unfortunately, no last name. I’ll have to consult an expert. Regardless, I’m delighted to have chanced upon Terms to Be Met, which is definitely a book to be read. Again and again.

The title page of my book.

The title page of my book.

Merrill signature

Samples of Merrill’s signature from about the same time period.

The simple truth

Philip Levine has died. That is the simple—the brutal—truth. I first encountered his work in the pages of a red anthology, which served as our textbook in Roger Gilbert’s modern poetry seminar at Cornell, back in the late ’80s (I still might have that book on my shelf somewhere). I remember taking great joy in the poem, “Animals are Passing From Our Lives,” with it’s bleak, defiant, somewhat mocking, and unexpected ending: “No. Not this pig.” It’s a phrase I still repeat to myself in certain situations. Similarly, “They Feed They Lion” made an impression, with the driving urgency of its language. But though these earlier works were remarkable in their own right, they barely hinted at what he would later achieve in What Work Is. For me, and many other young male poets, that book was a revelation. It deeply influenced everything I wrote thereafter, as it probably did for the likes of B.F. Fairchild, Joseph Millar, and others who would be hypnotized by the force and muscularity of his verse. Thin, taut, the cascade of lines carried the reader down the page, dragged the reader into a world that was far removed from the effete ivory towers of academia. But though they were powerful, I would not call his poems raw, for they were in fact impeccably engineered. Certainly, they taught me the importance of cadence, and the sense that you could not work on a particular line without considering every line that came before it, and the collective rhythm of the poem. I was also struck by what could only be called a dismissive attitude, a tone that said, “this is important, so forget you, if you can’t relate.” Levine also illustrated the difference between the personal and the confessional, as well as the distinction between honesty and truth; history is subjective, and therefore, so is truth—but the honesty with which we embrace that truth must be incontestable. And of course, the characters themselves, straight out of story by Isaac Babel! Nobody else was writing about such people at the time, with the intimacy that comes from first-hand knowledge and the wisdom that comes from detached regard. His politics were also out of the mainstream. As a young man, he had been an ideological communist, espousing the belief that “property is theft,” and displayed an apparent bond with the anti-fascists in Spain. This, too, influenced my work at the time.

Side note: Shortly after the publication of What Work Is, Levine gave a reading at a small bookstore in LA. I don’t remember now whether he was promoting that book, or the next one, The Simple Truth, but is strange to think now that he was still reading to sparse crowds at such a venue. But though I had devoured the book, I had never seen him in person. So, I was expecting this brooding hulk of a man, a steelworker or truck driver, with a stentorian voice like that of James Earl Jones. Instead, here was this wiry little guy with a whiny little voice. The incongruity was unsettling. It also intrigues me to think of him in the cattle burb of Fresno in California’s central valley, ground zero for the migrant farm-labor industry, about as far as you can get from the grimy confines of Detroit and the hearty eastern European stock that took root there. But perhaps it’s the vast open spaces there (ever redolent of dung and fertilizer) that focused his mind and verse.

It’s a shame that I often don’t revisit a poet’s work until I hear that they’ve died. But in this case, I’m looking forward to pulling those books off my shelf and reliving my early joy in discovering them.

Southern messenger

Another great loss, which I failed to notice, distracted as I was by the frenzy of the holidays and subsequent slide into the new year. Claudia Emerson died of cancer in December, but I only just found out about it. We went to grad school together, at UNC-G, from ’89 to ’91. Our class was small, so we got to know each other pretty well, though our temperaments and situations were vastly different. In fact, looking back, she probably found me rather annoying, but (mostly) put up with me good-naturedly. She took her work seriously, and (though I didn’t realize it at the time) viewed her presence in the program as a wondrous gift that could not be squandered. I, on the other hand, was much younger, and had only graduated college a year or two before joining the program. I still very much had an undergrad mentality—work hard, yes, but don’t forget to have fun. I was the Jarrell Fellow that first year, and it probably irked a few of my classmates to see that honor given to someone with such a dubious work effort (of course, I was working—diligently—but I never let anyone see that). As for Claudia, she had been waitlisted for the program. How could that be? I don’t know. Perhaps she simply didn’t have any contacts in the poetry world. She was not yet widely published, though that was soon to change. In an effort to enhance her chances of getting in off the waitlist, she started submitting her work everywhere, she told me. And the acceptances started rolling in. We were all a bit stunned and chagrined to see her work appearing in some of the premier journals of the day during our second year in Greensboro. That year, she also began editing The Greensboro Review, along with her close friend Kathleen Driskell. I remember being somewhat disgruntled—I thought the job would be offered to me, as the Jarrell Fellow. I was so clueless, I didn’t realize that: a), they didn’t just offer it—you had to pursue it, and b) the job required a good deal of work, and I suppose my reputation in that regard was already well established. In any case, she and Kathleen did a great job of it. That year, Claudia, Kathleen, and I did an independent study with Prof. Tom Kirby-Smith. He was, strictly speaking, not part of the writing faculty, but did write poetry, and taught classes in poetry and prosody. When I look back at my time in Greensboro, it’s those mornings that I remember most, and most fondly. Kathleen and Claudia would swing by my house in Kathleen’s Volvo, and we’d all sit together in Tom’s genteel sitting room, sometimes treated to tea and cookies by his wife. On warm mornings, we’d sit outside by the flower garden. And we’d read and discuss poetry, not just our own, but anyone we’d discovered, or who Tom thought we should know about.

Claudia’s basic voice and style were already established, and she was developing greater range and complexity. My poetry was awful, but I was excited by it, because I was trying new things, pursuing new experiments, most of which failed admirably. I remember one very long poem I wrote about a river flooding around a farmhouse. I knew nothing about the subject, but it was hard not to be influenced by the perceived trials of the rural south in such an environment. Claudia, who knew a thing or two, had written notes all over her copy. I don’t think she was planning to give me her written comments, but Tom asked us all to share them when we had them. She was so apologetic, but I must say, her critiques were spot on. I’m sure that none of us ever dreamed that one of us would one day be honored with a Pulitzer prize. I don’t think anything I wrote in Greensboro made it into my first book, but I think (though my memory is not always reliable) that I first encountered some of the poems in Pharaoh, Pharaoh in Tom’s sitting room. In fact, I remember when the book was first published. I was living by then in Oakland, CA. We hadn’t been in touch much, but I still had her phone number. I called to congratulate her, and ended up speaking with her first husband, as she was out of the house. I don’t know if she ever got the message.

I’ll finish with a snippet of poetry from her first book. To do justice to her early work, I should present something with cows in it—cows figured prominently in her poems, and became oddly emblematic (there’s a paper topic for you, students!). But instead, I will finish up with the second stanza of “Bait,” which has stuck with me for many years:

But when you slide the earthworm like a stocking
over the sharp toe, the smooth curve
of this wicked, hooked leg, tell me again how
the bloodless vessel feels no pain as you pierce
the first of its abundant hearts.

Corners of the Mouth

Another new anthology arrived in the mail recently: Corners of the Mouth: A Celebration of Thirty Years at the Annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival. As the name implies, the book is a collection of poems from folks (like me) who have read at the annual SLO poetry fest. It’s a fairly hefty tome, weighing in at about 400 pages—so I must confess that I have not read every single piece yet. But I probably will, eventually. It’s a remarkable collection, and though not all of the poets are from California, the overwhelming majority of them certainly are. In that regard, it’s an intriguing view of contemporary California poetry. The poets are arranged alphabetically—perhaps not the most imaginative scheme, but it does produce some intriguing juxtapositions. I was a bit surprised at how many poets were unknown to me—though perhaps that’s to be expected: poetry in California still has a connotation of being outside the mainstream, off on the margins, and decidedly counter-culture. One such poet is Nixson Borah, whose “Back from Old Country” is one of the stand-out poems for me (at least, of those that I’ve read so far). His keen eye for imagery and metaphor is something that I try to cultivate in my own work. He describes a blossoming plum tree’s “pearl-embroidered dress,” and the individual flowers as “faint photographs punctuated / with dots for eyes and mouth.” I also love the language and sound of “the oaks are gnarled, / arthritic, lichen-flecked” and “frog song resounds.” I was also moved by Edward Martin’s “The Barracks Game,” which dispassionately recounts his experience as a bomber in WWII. The poem stands among any that have been written on the topic.

A few sweeping generalizations can also be made about California poetry, based on this collection. For one thing, it does not favor formal meter and rhyme–though stanzas are in vogue. It is deeply rooted in place, and takes inspiration from the stunning and unforgiving landscapes, from the coastal cliffs to the inland valley. California poets are also in conversation with each others. And I’m not just talking about the occasional epigram or dedication—something about these poems, collectively, seems self-referential. Perhaps it’s the influence of natives and transplants such as Larry Leavis and Phillip Levine. Perhaps it’s because poets in California are social, or lonely, and have to seek each other out. A quick look at the poet biographies indicates that most are not full-time college professors (or at least, choose not to emphasize that), while a surprising number edit literary journals. There is an undercurrent of activism, literary and social, that connects many in this anthology.

The editors, Kevin Patrick Sullivan (who started and still runs the poetry festival) and Patti Sullivan, have included a listing of all the festival participants by year. It’s curiously interesting to read through the names. At least one, Glenna Luschei, appears on both the first and final rosters.

I love the midstate region, up around SLO and Paso Robles, and am always happy for an excuse the get up there. Of course, if I actually lived there, I’m not sure how much poetry I’d get written. There’s really no need for poetry in heaven (which makes it all the more remarkable that SLO has such a vibrant poetry scene).

Perfume of embraces all him assailed

I recently received my contributor’s copy of The Book of Scented Things, edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby. This collection arises from an intriguing conceit: the editors sent small vials of perfume to a bunch of poets and asked them to write something inspired by the scent. The book is remarkable for the range of styles represented. I asked the editor if she had simply sent solicitations to every poet on the PEN roster, but she assured me we were all specifically selected. (The roster is decidedly “mid-career,” as most of the poets have published only two to three books.) I dutifully dabbed some on my wrist, and was immediately transported back in time—not surprising, considering the well established link between scent and memory. When I was finished with my “research,” I gave the vial to my daughter, who probably still has it safely tucked in a box of rare and secret treasures. Perhaps one day she’ll chance upon it, unscrew the cap, and recall her own wonder-struck childhood?

In any case, I was pleased to find a good many of my favorite contemporaries represented in the book. Some of them have already been mentioned on this blog, but today, I’d just like to focus on Patrick Phillips. Of all the fine poems in this collection, his “Green Irish Tweed” was among the highlights for me. The poem is very loosely a villanelle, though Phillips takes great liberties with the form. And the form is perfect for the subject, as memory is itself repetitive, cyclical, unlikely to travel in straight lines. The repeating lines are never repeated verbatim, and are therefore suggestive of the way that remembering is also rewriting.

The scene is simple enough: the speaker, now a middle-aged man, is transported back and forth from the present to an instance in his boyhood, when he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, touching—fetishizing—his father’s shaving tools, his razor and cologne. There is a sense of compassion and nostalgia for the boy’s innocence and awe that completely avoids sentimentality. The details are stark, concrete, and familiar, which fosters a strong connection for the reader (or for me, at least). What boy never took his father’s razor and pretended to shave, acting out the true motions of manhood? And yet, the beauty, the mystery, lies in what is missing, what remains unsaid and left for the reader to surmise—as in, “Your brother still lovely, your father still strong.” The understanding is that, 30 years later, the brother and father are not lovely or strong. It’s the reader’s job to consider the reasons. And think of what a powerful and unusual word that is to describe a brother—lovely. And yet, just a few lines earlier, the brother is described as being (or at least being with) someone “totally totally stoned.” Regardless, I doubt I’ve ever described my brother as lovely. Also left to the imagination is the actual father. We have his artifacts, but not the man. Even his face is not his own, as it has been supplanted by the poet’s face: “In the mirror, you’re still forty-one / wearing a face that your father wore then.” His absence is made all the more acute by the final line: “Where you breath, and your father comes home.” On the one hand, this is all wish-fulfillment. But deeper, it’s a recognition of the passing and cycling of time. When the father “comes home,” it is in fact the son who sees himself as the father. Another thing I love about this poem is the superposition of time, as it’s not always clear what’s in the present and what’s in the past. Rather than causing cognitive strife, this opens up layers of complexity, as the sense of the poem changes based on the reading (and rereading). Odd to say, but this poem reminded me of another favorite (but very different) poem—”Encounter,” by Czeslaw Milosz, which ends,

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

I had been planning to write about Phillips’ first book of poems, Chatahoochie, for some time now, and may still do so in the future. For now, let me simply give it my highest recommendation. And, of course, let me also give a plug for The Book of Scented Things. There is probably no better compendium of mid-career American poets on the market right now.

Who am I to judge

So, I’ve been serving as a preliminary judge for a poetry book competition. I definitely had no idea what I was getting myself into. There are nearly 250 manuscripts, and my job, along with my two fellow readers, is to narrow that down to 10 finalists and forward them on to the final judge (who presumably has much better name recognition than I do). I’ve been through the process many times as a submitter, but never as a judge. The experience has definitely given me better insight in how it all really works. Let’s start with some simple math. Assume 250 manuscripts have been submitted, and each is 50 pages long. That’s 12,500 pages to read. If you skimmed them all at 1 page per minute, that would take more than 200 hours, or five full 40-hour weeks. So, unfortunately, you can’t read every page, at least not the first time through. At best, you can spend 5 or 10 minutes per manuscript, which translates into roughly 20 to 40 hours. My basic approach is to read the first two poems, and the last poem. If the collection is named after a particular poem, I make sure to read that one, too. Otherwise, I pick a few more at random. Sometimes, it’s clear that the collection will never be ready for publication, and the decision can be made to move on fairly quickly. Sometimes, the collection is clearly above par, and again, an initial verdict can be made without spending much more time. More often, though, the collection is clearly competent and complete, but it lacks that ineffable spark that distinguishes it from the rest. And those are the ones that take the most time–I read much more of them, to see whether I have missed something, or just happened to pick some of the weaker poems to read. Many of these are clearly first manuscripts, and really just need the help of an objective and dispassionate editor. But it’s not my job to edit. I suppose that’s one of the hallmarks of competition books–they need to be complete as is, because the judges can’t assume that they will be further refined by the publisher’s developmental editor (if there even is such a person).

While the task is indeed daunting, I have found it to be a pleasant diversion from my usual routine. The act of judging other poems has made me more critical of my own (if that’s even possible). When I see what I consider to be a missed opportunity or generally weak writing, I ask myself whether (or how often) I have made the same mistake. I also have a more concrete notion of what I don’t like in poetry, although it’s harder to codify what I do like. For example, I don’t like parentheses (in poems–they’re fine in blog posts). If something is important enough to include in a poem, it should be faced straight on. I don’t like religious imagery or biblical references. For one thing, they’re too facile. They’re ready-made. That’s also what limits their range and effectiveness. Similarly, although I prefer classical myths to biblical ones, there’s probably not much that a young poet can do with Orpheus and Odysseus that hasn’t already been done. I don’t like the use of ampersands to replace the word “and.” It’s distracting, and just seems juvenile. I don’t like poems that address an unnamed “you.” If you want to address a particular person, write a letter. I don’t like the use of the word “so” as an adjective (a peeve I share with Richard Hugo). And I typically don’t care for poems written from a child’s perspective. It seems a cop-out, an excuse for not trying to fully engage with the subject at hand. I don’t like poems about poems and poetry and writing. That just seems like the height of narcissism.

Of course, I’m by no means dogmatic, and I frequently find exceptions to the rules. For example, I generally don’t care for ghazals (which seem to be the sestina of the modern age), but I found a few in these manuscripts that impressed me. In fact, I’m often most intrigued by poems that violate my list of “don’ts” but still manage to hold my attention.

And what does hold my attention? Engaging language. Empathy. A distinct and perhaps unusual perspective. And, of course, honesty. A good poem is one that won’t let me stop reading until the end. And I’m not talking about morbid curiosity. I’m talking about a visceral connection from writer to reader that can’t be severed without both parties losing something vital.

As with most things, my experience as a judge has been both depressing and inspiring. It’s disheartening to think of all the people writing poetry in a world that does not particularly value it. And it’s inspiring to see that they continue nonetheless. And while I consider it a disservice to encourage anyone to pursue poetry as a life ambition, I definitely want to support anyone crazy or desperate enough to try. Young poets deal with a lot of disappointment, and I hate to make matters worse. That’s why I’ve had a different scale in mind as I read these manuscripts: not “yes,” “maybe,” and “no,” but rather “yes,” “maybe,” and “don’t lose hope.”