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Archive for August, 2012


A seemingly vast number of the literary magazines in this country seem to have the purpose of introducing bright young students to poetry, give them a chance to be editors, to experience the process, to feel a part of something larger than themselves.  I’m making this up from my own assumptions, of course, since I have never participated in this world — didn’t take an English major nor any of the modern spin-offs.  In the current issue of The Journal, Ohio State’s mag, I notice one of the contributors is going off to seek a Ph.D. in poetry.  At least that rhymes. ;->

One seeming result of this slant is how stuffed these magazines are with young work — poets who have mastered the ins and outs of examining a trope: Christopher Howell in “Falling” has images of flight, including an excellent opening – “You fall in love // and the sparrows fly back // to their small trees like a god // in fragments.” Then lessons on the laws of flight, Baron Von Richthofen, a park with swans, all sorts of interesting images, but somehow not very relevant to the seeming theme of falling in love, and not very cohesive.  (Also an excellent ending).  Then I go and look at Howell’s biography, and he has 10 books out, from Milkweed among others, he teaches poetry, he’s an editor at a small press…  Oh well.  Something tells me my stuff would not find a natural home at that house!

But I’m holding to my position by and large: for me, it is lack of focus that dooms many of these poems to the swift waters of Lethe (sorry, couldn’t help myself; I can feel the gravitas growing by the moment).  When the poets do stick to their theme like concrete (Somerset Maugham) wonderful things often result.  Catherine Pierce’s “The Dog Greets the Tornado.” “Hello, one-not-like-me.”  and for that matter, her “The Aftermath” about how a tornado regrets all that it did not destroy.  Kind of an evil-fun poem.  “A score of sunlit days will hush // the town back to its regular breathing.”  What a great line.

Lurking amid the other poets here, like a tiger trying to hide amid kittens, is J. Allyn Rosser, with “Beeline Eclogue,” another poem that declares what it is about – “I felt it falter onto my bare foot, // and flicked without swatting, // so the bee did not attack.” – tends to its business – “The bee was determined to get somewhere…driving its body onward…” — to the first magnificent turn: “this must be how it feels when prayers // stop coming.”  Wow — and then more turns — “So why the haste?  Why…squander the last drops of life-force // on this exhausting trek?”  She surmises the bee has some important message to return to the hive before its impending death.  “I try to think what I would do, if I knew.”  With a great summation and ending, which I won’t of course give away here.  Go buy her next book. ;->

Let me not get away without mentioning Amorak Huey’s “How To Avoid Becoming A Victim Of Opportunity,” a wryly funny work, with great insights.

And maybe that’s it.  Huey and Rosser are using the form to reach for insights, which are hard to find in so many other poems.  Now many of these poets are still looking for MFAs and obviously just starting out on their careers, so maybe it’s not fair to expect deep insights from them.  Certainly I had few accurate ones at that age.   So a magazine like this may be best experienced as a promise of things to come — a playground where folks can work out the tricks of the form, get a feel for their own voices, and deliver a few (and often more than a few) amazing lines.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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The New Yorker this week has a couple poems, the first by Joyce Carol Oates.  Very like a short story to me — “Edward Hopper’s ’11AM,’ 1926.”  A poem from the point of view of a young woman, Hopper’s model, a monologue about how men have treated her poorly, the artist who paints her being the current example.  It’s rather a long poem, as one resembling a short story is likely to be, where she starts with a brief autobiography.  “Second job also file clerk but then she’d been promoted…”  Long lines, as you see.  Only in the 10th stanza do we first encounter a striking metaphor: “Dim-lit like a region of the soul // into which light doesn’t penetrate.”  She backs that up immediately with another: “like those bodies in dreams we feel // but don’t see.”  Then it’s off to describing her affair with Hopper.  Most of the other images in the poem are pretty shop-worn: “he needs her in // the way a starving man needs food.”  Again, as a story that’s not so grating.  At the end, Oates does an interesting exploration into his psyche, his wounds, how she is supporting him emotionally, and how hollow that is become for her.  A great ending, a great character sketch, and since I’m not generally one to worry too much whether a work of art fits one category properly or another, that’s enough to make me content with the work as is. 

The other poem is “Haste,” by C.K. Williams, and once again, Williams surprises me with a good outing.  “Not so fast, people were always telling me,” it starts out, and with the use of repetition and long long lines and run-on sentences he gives us the sense of life rushing by.  Expertly done.  “Ah the celestial contraption we made though…”  I like that line.  “I’ve frayed like a flag” is another good one.  Williams certainly gives us quotable line after quotable line.  It has a perfectly predictable ending, but given its subject matter that is more of a reflection of reality than a criticism of the poem, I would say.  When he writes poems that are at all accessible he shows why he got a Pulitzer. 

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Warning Science


Interesting poems in the most recent Asimov’s magazine this month.  Danny Adams gives us “Tornado Warning,” about a parent deceiving his children into believing that their flight into the fallout shelter to escape a nuclear holocaust is actually just avoiding a tornado.  A poem that could have been written any time in the last 50 years, and it might have been more resonant back in the day, but being a person who has hit the basement hundreds of times to avoid tornadoes, and who grew up during the Cold War, this still works fine for me.  “…turning the flash-burst // into lightning // transforming darkening skies…into a tornado warning”.  Pretty straightforward, no real flash in the language, but none really called for, either.  A solid effort.

W. Gregory Stewart gives us “Sub-Genre,” a meditation on the various types of punk fiction in the speculative world, and how they seem to be taking slices of the world back in time, but missing a generation each time: “”from punk comma cyber // to punk comma steam…”  One thing I definitely admire about this poem is his ability to deliver a complex idea in clear language.  “punque skips // some kind of conceptual generation // so…the next thing to come along // will NOT be // wind-powered, but rather horsedrawn, punk…”  Just a fun little poem, cycling back in time to the beginning, giving him a naturally powerful conclusion, which he handles as deftly as the rest.  Here the language does come into play, a sort of casual diction that plays up the humor of the piece, and draws us in with a smile.  Very nice.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Double New York


Timing is such a tricky aspect to poetry: when to introduce a new image, when to move on from a metaphor, where the turn should lie.  In the August 6th New Yorker, Ruth Padel starts her poem “The Cello” with the initial introduction, “I met him in the courtyard at dusk, where they weave the tents // at Sukkoth…” then quickly shifts to “The olive tree had been hard-pruned along its central branch…” Did she shift ideas too quickly?  I kept reading, so evidently not.  Lingering too long is deadly for a poem.  She spends a few lines on the tree, then does not go back to the man, but introduces a third line of thought, “the black ceramic bird my mother notched // in the center of her pies…”  Like the bridge in a pop song, we can assume we won’t return to this idea.  Anyway, she goes on to weave the ideas she has introduced: “He had a cello in his hand,” she opens the second stanza, and concentrates on the character interactions throughout that stanza as the cello is given.  This is the main theme of the poem, so that makes sense.  She opens the third stanza with the tree, then as we head toward the end of the poem, goes into a broader reflection of history: “Every choice is a loss.”  She ends by circling back to the beginning.  Certainly the structure of this poem contributes to its success. 

No one is a master of introducing ideas like Kay Ryan, the other poet in this issue, with “Eggs.”  And oh my gosh.  Where Padel goes through 24 long, long lines to get her idea across, Ryan does it in 11, with only one line as long as four short words, and most two words wide.  “We turn out // as tippy as // eggs.”  A warning line, there are foreshadowings and dangers everywhere.  But she instantly throws in something fun: Legs // are an illusion.”  One of her absolute specialties, changing it up in the second sentence, making us say – wait, what?  Then she feeds us two brief, brief lines, one to turn this into a meditation on the human situation, one to slam home the knife of emotion.  Who needs all those extra words?  No one writing in English right now is as good as she, no one is even very close.  I’m grateful we have her.

In the latest New Yorker, Margaret Atwood gives us a post-apocalyptic offering, “A Drone Scans the Wreckage,” a reasonably terrifying little number that she delivers in punchy little lines.  “Smoke gets in my eyes, // my fifteen eyes.”  See the similarity in tossing in a surprise so quickly?  Then she adds in three lines of development to complete the first stanza, and references Steve Urkle (sp?) “Did I do that?”  She never goes too far before throwing in another surprise, another jagged image, but not relying on sudden swerves so much as the power of the images.  “They cried O God to the pillows.”  And on the language.  “Attapat.  Attatat.  Attasis.  Attaboom.” 

The final poet is Stephen Dunn, with “The Party To Which You Are Not Invited.”  Even in his title he’s drawing you in, and like Dylan, he throws in lines that go the reverse of what you expect: “You walk in, your clothes dark // and strangely appropriate…”  “You speak, and women move away.”  then a subtle cultural reference, like Atwood does: “You feel posture-perfect.”  Surprise is key to top poems (probably always has been) and he’s a master at this: “You have things in your pockets // for everybody.”  And again, what may be a reference to a Dylan song off Empire Burlesque: “Something // somewhere is burning.” He tightropes along with comments about the house, the host, the children that somehow become subtle threats — danger being a great technique for holding the reader, and just when he needs something to keep us going.  He ends with a quick twist, one final surprise and delight.

It’s fun to compare four such different approaches to timing in poetry, each masterful, each keeping us interested and reading.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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The first poem in the current New republic is “Fault Lines,” by Arthur Sze, a poem about how zappingwater for tea turns the narrator into a tiger.  Now, you have to admit that’s not one of the more common subjects of poetry. ;-> Sze has fun with it — “he notices outlines of shards have formed // above the water…now he glimpses fault lines inside himself and feels a Siberian tiger // paces…”  Oh, yes, I have that reaction to tea every time, don’t you?  Then Sze takes things a bit more seriously: “Today he’s going // to handle plutonium at the lab…” and he reaches a sort of steady-state ending.  Not a huge revelation, not an amazing twist — his ending fits his absurd little poem, quiet, understated, disturbing.  The more one mediates on this poem, the more uneasy one becomes, in fact.  A poem to admire.

The other poem is by Terese Svoboda, who I am more familiar with as a translator, though she has written novels and poetry galore.  But this poem is a work of her own, “Tree.”  It is very involved in sounds: “The buzz, the crash, the buzz.: lop, lop, lop.”  That repetition is very much how cutting down a  tree happens — she has that right.  Then she turns to the history of the tree, and delivers an amazing ending.  Kind of a reverse poem, in fact, and quite short.  It’s good not all her work is in translating, I’d say, after reading this — she has much to offer on her own. 

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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