Archive for May, 2013

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

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.

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So, this week in the New Yorker Dora Malech gives us “To The You Of Ten Years Ago, Now.” One thing I notice about New Yorker poems is they tend to approach themes differently (and often have different themes) than standard conventional poems (“the usual suspects”), and this work is no exception. A lot of internal rhymes here, “I know the difference between / arteries and ardor… a weak-kneed need…” Again Paul Muldoon has chosen a fun poem, something a general reader will “get” and enjoy. And only after we get much of the way through it do we see it IS a standard theme, in fact it’s a love poem — I’m starting to realize he has a weakness for such. As do I. “your body has a few ideas / so bright we might meet some night and render / a dark room light…” I like this poem very much.

The other poem from this week is “From The Canal,” by Matthew Dickman. I think this poem could serve as a primer for people who write nature poetry and want to crack the big time. It starts out in a non-linear fashion: “small fistfuls / of green lights hang / from your every / word” I like that last enjambment the best. But this is not, ultimately, a non-linear poem, it’s a poem about being down at the canal, just like it says, and we get lots of images therefrom: “The box turtles stack up one on top of the other…” and “The blue heron looks back one million years…” as though each image the poet saw at the canal becomes a jumping-off point for a very brief meditation, and because the images are all canal images it all hangs together in some crazy way. The ending is this way as well, only even more so.

Last week’s poems took a little more work for me to get into. “Beach Wedding,” by Simon Armitage, seems a relatively straightforward description of a certain spot on the beach. “Being… a stone’s throw from the pretty church / they often tumble out onto the beach…” there are slant rhymes galore here, and somehow Armitage mixes up the image of the wedding party with a beachcomber: “Each empty evening a figure arrives / in a shooting jacket and combat trousers.” It’s a solid poem, but only after chewing on it more do we see that the beach comber becomes the devil, and this is juxtaposed with the husband and wife discovering life after marriage is not perfect. So a poem about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, subtly done.

Lia Purpura gives us the poem, “Beginning,” also with a biblical theme: “In the beginning, / in the list of begats, / one begat / got forgot…” It presents this theme, it develops it, then it bounces off somewhere else entirely for its ending. Not a very long poem, not easily gotten into. Am I missing something and Muldoon chooses them like this for each week, biblical this week, love poetry next? I’ll have to keep an eye on that. He DOES like biblical themes, and rhymes, for those of you trying to appeal to his sensibilities… ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


P.S. 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.

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