Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pinsky’

While I am convinced profundity in poetry can be obtained, or at least improved, mechanically, depth for depth’s sake seems of little interest to the powers-that-be who edit our flagship journals. For any office processing hundreds of thousands of poems a year, as the New Yorker must, a surprising and arresting beginning is easier to spot, while profundity takes mulling. Best to filter out first based on a level of surprise, then take profundity into account later, perhaps.

Take Terese Svoboda’s “Contrail” in the current issue. When a poet muses on contrails, what is the first image that comes to your mind? For that matter, what’s the first word? I’d guess Svoboda threw those initial images out, when they occurred to her, looking for something more shocking, original, intriguing. So she starts her poem, “Whereof fluff rushes,…” Now, I didn’t see that phrase coming, and doubtless neither did Paul Muldoon, the magazine’s editor. We can imagine his interest: okay, where’s she going with this? Here it is: “…muscles through, / pre-pendulous…” I especially love that pre-pendulous. It gets us thinking of movement, of development. We have all seen contrails slowly become pendulous in the sky, and we wonder how she is going to use that shared experience. She gives us: “about to come apart…like // stitching you soak in the rain.” Again, she is not developing the poem in any linear fashion we can expect, and yet she is making sense in hindsight. We have seen contrails come apart as well. Now, I argue that profundity comes from words and phrases that have multiple interpretations. Puns, to be blunt. And in a reference that comes late in this short poem, Svoboda brings in the Bible, directing us to back up and look for those places of multiple meaning in this work, for an extra metaphorical sense to clouds, for instance. The depth comes later, in other words. Then in the last line, she brings us up short one last time, with another phrase that revisits meanings. It’s a slick, professional-level poem that could serve as an example of what it takes to crack the top markets in American poetry these days.

Robert Pinsky, the poetry editor at Slate, is the recipient of many thousands of poems a year himself, and such an experience is going to inform his poetry as well. But his poem “Genesis According to George Segal” starts out less elliptically: “The Spirit brooded on the water…” A straightforward reference to the beginning of the Bible. In fact, his entire first stanza plays it straight. But fear not, in the middle of stanza two we veer off: “What was the Spirit waiting for? /An image of Its nature, a looking glass?” Quickly, Pinksy gets into the nitty-gritty of glass composition, and a series of elliptical references: “a tangle of bodies / made out of plaster, which plasterers call mud.” See the twist: had Pinsky just said ‘bodies made out of mud,’ we would lose interest, learning nothing new in a tired biblical reference. There’s no intrigue. The poem, for me, has a very delicate sense of balance, when to move the argument along, when to surprise with another factoid. The images generally (but not always) take a a biblical tack: “Men in a bread line…waiting / at the apportioning-place of daily bread.” This serves to tie the poem together, as do multiple references to particles, early and late, as does starting with water and dust and then referencing mud, returning to ‘clouds of dust,’ then ending, or nearly so, with a reference to “moist with life.” One could consider this poem a development of images in parallel, rather than a progression of logical argument. Again, I believe many such poems are finding homes in the top markets, simply because they are more interesting to editors who have seen so many poems that are nothing more than an extended metaphor, or a captured, lyrical moment. Honestly, I myself find it very tricky to write interesting poems with such requirements/structures. But it’s sure fun to try. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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