Archive for July, 2011

What hooks me into a poem?  I contemplate this while re-reading The Journal, Ohio State’s Spring/Summer 2011 issue.  In so many of these poems, even on second glance, nothing grabs me in, nothing keeps me there.  Yes, they are competent works, yes they have no less to say than anyone else, but there seems no profit in reading them.  Words, words, words. 

Then I read Pamela Alexander’s Adironak, c. 1880, and though at first glance it is no different, yet something intrigues me, and I go back, and puzzle out what is going on, and discover she has a man and a bear traveling together back in the day, and there’s something very interesting indeed going on here.  “…the audible shimmer of insect…”  I really like this poem.  So an intriguing narrative is  very important.  Most of the dull stuff seems to have a more tangential relationship to story.  Not to pick on Pamela, but her next poem in the issue, “Small Story,” is a much more conventional narrative about being a small girl surrounded by the amazement of a house, and though it’s still worth reading “Will the bears throw a party // in the treetops?” it’s down a full step from the previous poem for me.  And in her next , “Against the Shore,” I have a hard time figuring out what is going on, and it falls completely flat for me.  No interesting line, no interesting ideas, no insights.  It’s the mystery of poetry, that one can hit such a deep home run on one work, and then flail so badly on another.  Just my opinion, I have no doubt in my mind another person picking up this magazine might rate her poems exactly backwards from what I just did.

Brittany Cavallero has a poem of great fun in here as well, “Lies I Told.”  “I always washed my hands.”  “I’d love to see your succulents.”  Again, the idea is cool, and maybe idea is more rare and wondrous and magical than we like to admit.  A good idea can carry a poem, certainly.  Also laughter!

And finally, John Repp’s poem, “Nothing Happened,” again with a strong narrative arc, is a poem about almost making love with a girl when he was very young.  Or maybe he did make love.  Part of the fun of the poem is how he backtracks on the idea, and revisits it, as we will do with memories, rewriting, or over- or under-writing, our histories in our heads, trying to puzzle out the mysteries.  “Nothing happened in the dark stairwell // but what she allowed to happen.”

Three very good poems I am glad I read.  Thak you, poets.

Peace in poetry,



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Or something like that.  Got the new Spoon River Poetry Review, 36.1, spring 2011, and I’ve been dipping through the poems.  Do others read these magazines like I do, bouncing from work to work, hoping for something just to drag me in?   Seems a rough and ready, if a bit harsh way to do it.  Survival of the fittest poetry, and all that.  I don’t have enough time to read them all carefully and thoroughly, relying on Sturgeon’s Rule (or was it Pohl?) that 90% of everything is crap.

But I liked A.M. Brandt’s poem about a boy in a poetry class trying to get at the essence of an encounter with deer.  Just the sort of poem I would tend to skip, but in fact, this one drew me in.  Just its flat honesty, no loopy tricks shouting ‘notice me, notice me, aren’t you amazed?’  “To simply insist that the heart //understand a sorrow that splits and gives way // and disappears finally…”  This line is actually more elevated language than most of the poem, which is why it resonates.  But with a split infinitive in there for those of us raising a fist against the grammar police, oh yes.  I am glad for this poem. 

And when rereading the magazine, which I have not before been familiar with, slowly, slowly, I start to get the feel of it, plain language, plain images, heartland poetry, only occasionally going for the flash.  Ben Debus’ poem is like that, and Anthony Opal’s as well.  “its white wings beat slow the way a woman //fans herself in church,” says Sally Ashton, in her poem “Follow the Tail Lights,” and I can respect a metaphor like that.

A featured poet of the show here is Austin Smith, the Illinois Poet of the issue, and he has some good work.  “Aerial Photograph, Glasser Farm, 1972” has good lines in it, and there’s fun stuff in “The Mechanic.”  “I am not a cruel poet.”  Worth a chuckle.  But his best poem for me in this issue is “The Vampire.”  “Behind the yellow drawn curtains…and the signs in the yard admonishing us // to keep out lived a vampire.”  That’s the conceit, but he plays against  it in a heart tugging way — I won’t give away his trick, but it’s worth looking up the poem and reading the whole thing.  A beautiful poem.

Peace in Poetry,



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The new New Yorker came in today.  Maybe the most visible poetry in the country; the mag certainly gets its share of submissions .  So the first poem is “Black Rhinoceros,” by Edward Hirsch. Can’t say as I understand the digression in the middle about his parents buying his shoes on discount.  Though without that, and the last stanza, this is more essay than poem.  No epiphany, no sparkling language, no fine quotes to take away, no real reason for being.  Maybe I just hold this magazine to a higher standard.  Or maybe I don’t get the point.  Do you ever feel like there’s this whole secret way of reading poetry everyone else gets and you don’t, and that’s why all these poems are being published you don’t understand at all?  I get that way sometimes.  ‘Course, even if it is true, there’s room for us all, I guess.

Anyway, Sharon Olds did “The Green Duck,” next, and this is definitely an improvement, having more a poetic feel, even if it’s a bit of a gross-out in parts: “I have eaten // brains, my tongue loves to probe // the delicate folds…”  Eewww.  Gotta love it.  But is there then another digression?  “There are homes where children are used as toothpicks…”  I mean, a good line, sure, but at first glance it’s like it’s just there to give the poem import: “see, there is abuse in the world, I mention it, therefore I am an important poem.”  Ah, but rereading the poem, I guess it does fit in, as the theme of the work is really a narrator growing up, and the duck speaking to her.  Yeah, I guess I’d say this poem is overall a success.  Worth rereading.

Nextly, and finally, “Dothead,” by Amit Majmudar.  Who we heard from the other day in The Threepenny Review reviewing Kay Ryan’s “The Best of It.”  Now it’s Amit’s turn to shine, a poem about being a small boy, whose mother is different than other mothers.  I very much enjoyed his rhyme scheme, which he has employed before (his poem, “Instructions to an Artisan,” is one of the best poems to appear in Poetry Magazine in the last decade, in my view.  Just a staggeringly good poem.  Hunt it down.   It’s worth it).  I like the climax of the poem:  “I said, hand me that ketchup packet there…”  A boy feeling very much a boy.

So, all in all, another good effort by Mr. Muldoon, culling these poems from the prospects — my respect for him as an editor climbs each time.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – Oct 30, 17

The New Yorker – Aug 21 17

More New Yorker Poems


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Just received The Missouri Review.  Now poems here tend to be more drawn out — stretchy.  Longer, in fact.  And often more in the head, which makes me wary.  Long, intellectual poems?  Not my sweet spot.  But they can have good poetry, so I open this issue up, and look it over.  First off, they have little diatribes by the contributors on what they are trying to do with their poetry.  Do not read these.  I want to say poets should never try to explain themselves, the results are too horrible, but in this very same issue is an interview with Brian Turner, and it makes me want to rush out and buy his work.  So there you go.  Maybe poets should never explain themselves free form.  I don’t know. 

The poem I thought the best of the issue was “Prologue, Epilogue –for my daughter” by Steve Gehrke.   A thundering avalanche of a poem, “when the eternal grammars sifted into you // like the sediment of stars.”  Just a lot of fun, original lines, that add up to much more.  Descriptions of what his daughter is to him.  “The welcome plagiarist of genes.”  And, “the eureka in our laboratory of sighs.”  To pull off a poem like this, to give it gravitas and relevance, is not an easy trick.  Steve does that here.  “The Evaporating Braid,” again for his daughter, is also a good poem — to get me to read a long poem of many parts is a good sign of…something, anyway.  I won’t do it, I’ll abandon it in the middle if it’s not good at every point, can’t make me.  That’s my attitude.  Long poems are sloppy poems, that need major editing.  Mostly.  Nevertheless I read this one all the way through, and went back to parts.

Peter Jay Shippy also has his moments here.  Kind of loopy, loose poems, including “Enchantment,” “Because his neighbor was a witch // Lucas agreed to paint her house…” not as linear as that might imply, but fun.  “The Girl in the Blue Oyster Cult onesie” has its pleasures as well; a bit of a portrait of a man and his daughter.



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Got the new Threepenny Review.  For me, most interesting weren’t the poems as much as the review by Amit Majmudar on “The Best of It,” Kay Ryans’ Pulitzer-winning  collection.  Amit’s thesis is that Kay’s poetry uses 7 masks to deliver the message, starting with brevity — and that her poems are essentially irreducible — you can’t really quote from them, since you need the whole poem to deliver the point.  Well, that’s going a ways for me, but surely this is my favorite book of poetry over the last year or two.  I have been studiously inhaling each of her poems, day by day.  Amit gives her a gushing endorsement.  Not that I disagree.  She does things no one else in the field can do — I rate her up with Charles Simic (sp?  I’m getting him mixed up with Clifford Simac the sf guy suddenly) as arguably the two best working in English at the moment, though I’ll toss in Kooser and Collins when the mood strikes me, and defer on including haiku in that mix, since haiku are such a different beast (Anne L.B. Davidson is right there with breathtaking moments, I’m thinking).  This review is worth the price of the mag, in my view.

But let me also mention the W.S. Di Piero poem in this issue, “Other Ways to Heaven,” which has a couple lines that keep drawing my attention back: “while the wife// still asleep, wanders among secrets scratched //like starlines in the skull’s compact heavens.”  And “Wood smoke atomizes birches…”  I find the poem overall very difficult to follow, even after taking a couple runs at it, which raises my warning to poets in general: I the reader have a LOT of calls on my time; you think being confusing is cute, or will pull me in; but mostly I’ll just drop it and go on to the next writer.  Say it, say it clear, and if you got the chops, I can be blown away.  See reference Kay Ryan above.  But W.S. could as easily point out that whatever this poem has done, it does keep drawing me back , and those lines will resonate for a long time.  So does a poem really have to be approachable in its entirety to make it worthwhile in its parts?

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The new Asimov’s rolled in today, and has a few good poems.  First, the Bruce Boston work, “The Music Of Robots,” is one of my favorite Boston poems so far.  “If you listen closely// you can hear //a liquid shimmer of oil // clinging to each note…”  What a delightful line.  Worth spending time with, letting resonances sink in.  I really enjoyed Fiona Moore’s “Stone Roach,” a cool view of the world from quite a different point of view.  “Determined to outlast // prettier, cleverer species…”  Gives me a bit of a shudder, actually.  And Jessy Randall’s “I Have A Remote In Each Hand,” is a bit of a one-trick pony, but those can be good poems too — they say what they have to say, then get out.  I liked it.

Bravo, all.


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The Joints Are Jumping

Maybe because the magazine Frogpond doesn’t take all that many haiku for any given issue, though being the house organ of the Haiku Society of America, the haiku they do print tend to be distilled into a higher proof.  Or maybe it’s just that George Swede is an excellent editor.  Either way, I enjoy this magazine a lot.   The latest issue is 34:2, 2011.

The haiku that moved me the most was “still shining” by Sylvia Forges-Ryan, a former editor of Frogpond, in memory of Tom Noyes.  Very sweet.  One with a mouthful of chewy sounds was “northern flicker encrypting a birch” by Scott Mason.  Note the use of metaphor, the hard sounds underlining the rat-a-tat of the flicker, with echoes of Morse Code.  Another rule broken (haiku aren’t supposed to have metaphors, but only simple descriptions; a rule the old masters broke often enough) — so many poems seem to work better when the author knows enough to successfully break a rule.    And two of our best haiku writers, one right after the other: “sunbreak   the ornament in wasp wings” by Cherie Hunter Day.  I’d have never thought to put it that way.  Good to have my mind stretched.  And “whiteetholdingrudges” an absolute master work by John Stevenson, again one I’d have never come up with — so many different brains work in so many different ways.  Randy Brooks has a very good essay in this mag — Frogpond and Modern Haiku both have a rich tradition of essays on the craft.  Finally, Adelaide Shaw’s haibun on hair-braiding is definitely worth spending time with.  I admire excellent haibun so much at least in part because I don’t have any sort of handle on how to write them.  Isn’t that the way of the world, admiring most that which we cannot do well?

A summer of peace upon you,



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