I just finished judging a poetry contest for one of the state societies this week, and then read the poems in Poetry mag. Hard not to think, well, which of these poems would have won my contest walking away? Answer: not all, by any means.
For me, the poems in Poetry feel highly polished, written by dextrous and savvy poets, but an uncomfortably high number simply stop there. They provide no insight, no depth of meaning or emotion. No frisson. It is educational to realize how different my concerns in poetry are from those of the top editors. Keep that in mind when using any insights found here to raise your game to the next level. ;-> The editors seem to want every line to be a surprise, even at the cost of meaning. Maybe since I read so many fewer poems, that is not a value to me. Meaning matters more.
I want the poem original, and dextrous, but I want that punch of insight at the end, that emotional slap, and the ability to read multiple meanings — when the hair goes up on the back of my neck. The poem that won my contest had all that, and up to a dozen poems displayed a depth of meaning — more than one possible reading. So people are doing this out there, they just aren’t always getting in the top magazines for it. Is this a disconnect between the poetry writing public, and the literati at the top?)
Nor do I mean to imply the editors at Poetry, etc. are insensible to concerns of depth and power, that would be silly and inaccurate of me — those are just not invariable requirements for them. And absolutely the depth of good writing is far greater in their magazine. But I still believe the best poems in my contest hang tough with the work found here.
Anyway, there are three Kay Ryan poems in the current issue, and every one would have won my little contest walking away. “Party Ship” is a meditation on loss, “My party ship / is pulling out”, “Album” more explicitly about death, “Death has a life / of its own…” and “Still Start” uses multiple meanings — look at the title itself — and a great, original metaphor: “As if engine / parts…” Oh, and Ryan of course uses a sly humor. Boy that’s a wonderful gift.
I loved James Hoch’s “Round.” Only on a close second reading did the title transform its meaning for me to something deeper, and darker: “its uselessness / in matters of yearning or feeling / another’s yearn…” Spooky good.
Rick Barot’s “Tarp” has a great turn. “I have seen the black sheets laid out like carpets / under the trees…” to “You cannot put a tarp / over a war.”
I was very glad to see Simon Armitage get three of his arch and amusing poems in here. This is the first time he’s ever cracked Poetry? Hard to believe. “The Unthinkable” starts “A huge purple door washed up in the bay overnight…” and chuckles along from there.
But the best poem in the magazine, and one of the absolute best villanelles I’ve ever read (I don’t say THE best out of concern for writer’s remorse, and also an unseemly ego: I’ve written a couple of the puppies myself over the years ;-> ) is by the winner of the Ruth Lilly prize, Marie Ponsot. And a more deserving poet is hard to imagine. Her poem “Northampton Style,” is a tour-de-force and an education in how a villanelle should flow line by line with no artificiality, no confusion or dull moments, but having beautiful, original lines, surprises and a sense of inevitability. “Evening falls. Someone’s playing a dulcimer / Northampton-style…” and the multiple meanings that arise out of that phrase, Northampton style, the faint whiff of irony, the inevitable loss arising from the choices of life. “a dulcimer / that lets us wash our mix of dreams together.” Oh yeah, and great rhymes.
Wow. This is why I read poetry.
Peace in poetry,
P M F Johnson