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Archive for July, 2012


I was going to say the July/August Poetry Magazine is the best in a long time, but then going back through my blogs I discover I just said that about the last one.  So this is the best since the last best I guess. ;->  It’s interestingly bracketed by two poems – first, to open the magazine, James Lasdun’s “The Blight,” which talks of someone who’s died: “What’s there to say?  We didn’t care for him much…” I’ve re-read this poem several times.  It  compares the news to a summer of blight in the garden, then circles back to not liking the dead guy.  Just an interesting comparison, I guess that is why I keep going back to it.  Understated.

And second, a poem by Bryan Swann to end the magazine, “Slugs,” which starts: “Who could have dreamed them up?  At least snails // have shells, but all these have is — nothing.”  A creepy start, since the poem compares slugs to soft, helpless boys the narrator and his bully pals can’t help but beat up in the schoolyard.  Powerful.

In between are a couple of great poems by Kay Ryan, “Miser Time,” filled with her amazing rhymes and near rhymes:  “unpinching // and unplanning, // abandoning the // whole idea of savings.” And “New Rooms” — “The mind must  // set itself up // wherever it goes…” which has one of her all-time best endings. Not that I’m going to give it away here. ;->

Tony Hoagland mediates on the limits of language in “There Is No Word.”  “There is no single, unimpeachable word // for that vague sensation of  something // moving away from you // as it exceeds its elastic capacity…” A fun poem, with an interesting insight.

Steve Gherke has a wonderful poem in here, “Epilogue,” “If the body is primal,  if the body is performed…” with a cool last line.  Mark Levine has a disturbing, Berryman-esque trio of poems, “Unemployment” (1) (2) and (3).  “For this is a private matter //between a man and his scaffolding…”

But my vote for the best poem of the issue goes to “A Poem For S.” by Jessica Greenbaum, which is an abcedarian poem (if I have that term right, where each line begins with the next letter, all the way through the alphabet) an amazing tour-de-force not least because the language is so natural and unforced.  “Do you know that in one treasured story, a // Jewish ancestor…realized he had // Merely to name the alphabet to ask forgiveness…because all of creation // Proceeded from those.”  What a great, moving poem.  And to see some resonant mysticism in contemporary poetry, well.  That’s going to make me happy for days.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is a sweet, rueful look at a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, as well as with other fine e-retailers.

 

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Sunny Emails


The first poem in the August issue of The Sun is by Adrie Kusserow, “E-mail Elegy,” a meditation on all the appeals for money she finds in her in-box.  “How quietly they land, // bits of global sorrow…” a deft, interesting, professional intro that draws us right into her issues.  “What if early man wasn’t designed // for this downpour of international horrors?” Ms. Kusserow is an anthropologist, and so her poetry is going have a multi-cultural view, I suppose.  “..maybe human evolution slogs through any weather…” Since I took a degree in the very science lo these many moons ago, this is a plus for me, I’m just warning you, and sure enough, I like this poem.  Fun images, nice thoughts to chew over afterwards, a good, solid, evocative ending.

Sarah Freligh has three poems in this issue, the most surprising of which for me was “Donut Delite: 1969” a not-quite-nostalgic look back from the perspective of an adult on being sixteen.  “I tossed wheels of dough // into a sea of grease…” Sun poems tend to be about more than the surface (as do most poems that work for me) and the context she reveals as the poem goes on gives power to her work: “smiling like a man who didn’t know // he would die at Khe Sanh.”  A powerful ending as well “I could feel the old dog // of his heart rear up…”  Boy, there’s an image that’ll make you go out and see what else that poet has to offer.  There’s not much better than a striking, original image that conveys a kick of an emotion.  And she has that here.

The final poet is John Bargowski, with “Gethsemane” describing a Bible studies class as a kid: “When the disciple…sliced off the right ear // of the high priest’s servant, // we all cheered and stomped the parquet floor…” A good trick, to start with an irony, it makes me trust the author, think this is going to be a poem worth reading.  “Sister shushed us…and pushed ahead to Jesus // spending the last coin // from his tattered purse of miracles…” I stopped and chewed over that metaphor.  An interesting one; the whole poem is worth re-reading, definitely.  I like the way it wounds us by drawing back our own memories.  I like best that he has taken a poem of faith and found the original in it.  Having judged a couple contests in my career, I know how easily faith poems end up cliched, or worse, unoriginal.  What is there to say that hasn’t been brayed from the mountaintops?  But Bargowski mines the irony he’s found, and gets us somewhere meditative, and a bit sad, and we feel the faith and the submission at the heart of the religious experience.  Beautifully done.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Summer Images


Couple poems in the latest New Yorker, the first being a sort of joke poem by Monica Youn, “Against Imagism.”  First, it’s two stanzas in roughly 5-7-5 (the second actually 5-6-6, but okay) mocking the haiku form (or more accurately mocking the form of those haikuers who don’t actually pay much attention to current serious American haiku, and think 5-7-5 is essential, or even preferred).  The subject is a firefly, a typical haiku subject.  (Imagism being a response in part to early translations of Japanese haiku).  But the poor insect is doing nothing artsy and poetic, no, it’s being fused to death by a bug zapper.  Most satisfyingly juvenile.  Never did like them little crawly flying things, anyway.  ;->  Sort of putting the electric chair to the whole Imagist movement, I guess, not that there’s many of those poets left to defend themselves.  And of course we have the rightness (?) of a lightning bug dying by lightning.  How marvelously ironic.  And no interpretations here, no conclusions, it is indeed all done in plain images, as an Imagist poem should be.  Even one being hooked up to jumper cables.  A skillful, light summer poem of the archly amusing kind Muldoon does have a weakness for.

In the other poem, Galway Kinnell is back, treating us to his “Astonishment.”  “Oarlocks knock in the dusk, a rowboat rises // and settles.”  So it’s another summer poem, but this one a little deeper, going for a little more poignance.  “One day a darkness fell between her and me.”  And for a little resonance as well:  “No matter // how all this comes out, from now on // it cannot not exist ever again.”  Kind of an interesting thought to contemplate.  Not the deepest poem, maybe not the most powerful, but probably an excellent one for reading to one’s partner on the screen porch by the lake as the remains of the sun etc. — as e. e. cummings once said.  ;->  And we need that in our poetry, too.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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So what does it take to get a poem in The New Yorker?  Well, certainly a great poem helps.  But if we look at up-and-comers who do so, they display a few similar qualities, from my perspective.  They have published works in other “first-water” magazines.  Poetry Magazine, the Atlantic, a small handful of others.  Winning a contest, an award, or being anthologized in one of the top markets there is another requirement.  Todd Boss for instance broke in a few years ago after winning the Missouri Review and the Virginia Quarterly contests, then publishing in Poetry Magazine (and Prairie Schooner).  He had other chops as well, but that was enough to turn the tide for him.  Alternatively, of course, publishing multiple poetry books is a gateway as well, especially if they show progress to better and better houses.

And now again we have a newer poem making a (re) appearance here: Virginia Konchan has appeared in “Best New Poets 2011,” and “The New Republic,” (assuredly a first-water market).  Now she is appearing in the New Yorker for the second time (by my count) with “The Rose-Way In Giverny.”  It is a poem with many creative constructions.  It opens, “And in the reticulate distance // the cued inertia of Lucifer // astounds.”  As well as: “What you wanted…slant of sun to the left, // twinkling of civilization elsewise…”  Philosophy, the Bible and a prayer-bsaed structure for an ending all blended together.  I can see why its original lines might interest an editor, but I think I may have a new rule for myself.  If I can take any word out of the poem, and replace it with another, and reasonably expect nobody to notice aside from the author, then for me, some fundamental construction of the poem has failed.  Such is the case with this work.  If one took out ‘reticulate’, above, and replaced it with ‘articulate’, say, or replaced ‘astounds’ with ‘abounds’, what harm would be done to the poem?  The meaning might change a bit, but meaning has been cast aside here, so would the reader walk away with a fundamentally different experience?  Or even notice?  One could argue those words are not there to express exactly one meaning, that cannot be rendered in any other way.  As far as I can tell.  Is that a failing of the poem?  Obviously not for many (most?) editors.  The cleverness of the lines, the surprise of them, seems sufficient.  But it is for me.  It becomes a kind of a meaningless trick, to twist the poem with words that do add nothing but a surprise.  All icing, no cake.

It is also most possible there are all sorts of meaning being delivered here that I am just missing.  This has happened before.  I don’t always catch such, and feel the fool when the meanings are pointed out.  On the other hand, I almost always appreciate the poem lots more with meaning attached!

Anyway, you couldn’t do that replacement game with the other poem in the magazine, Robert Wrigley’s “Seen From the Porch, A Bear By The House,” which is a little narrative thing about the narrator chasing off a bear with a well-placed shot from a sling-shot.  With a  fierce rhyme scheme, and every word carrying its weight and giving meaning.  And okay, not so little, being 15 stanzas long.  Again, with a strong ending, and some fun line “he spins with the shock // and odd distance of it // from me — sorcery // it must be — and rushes // into the deeper bushes…”  A lot of internal rhymes as well, that give the poem texture and a kind of a rush-along quality.  I found myself more interested in the story of the poem than the language of it, hoping the narrator doesn’t make a habit of chasing bears with fly-swatters!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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