THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2015: A FURTHER LOOK

A.E. Stallings.  Is her poem, “Ajar,” the best rhymed poem in BAP 2015?

In our previous notice on BAP 2015, we ranked the poems from 75th to 1st (Scarriet, Sept 20, 1915). Ranking is a proper criticism and should be done by critics and reviewers more often today.

There is a belief, a very powerful and prevalent belief today, one that to seeks to inhibit overly excitable and aggressive criticism, that says if a poem fails, we should simply pass over it in silence—that neglect is the proper reward for what is inferior. If we discuss only the good, says this belief, we will 1. Promote good will and avoid giving offense 2. Make an example of what is superior 3. Promote good poetry 4. Allow bad poetry to fade away without wasting time and energy on it.

It is hard to argue with this.

But we will.

Rather than “pass over the bad poem in silence,” we would rather rank it among the others. When every poem in any given group is part of a chain, we become aware of a relationship between poems; the very idea of “good and bad’ comes organically out of the poems themselves, rather than super-imposed from above, selectively, with large gaps of understanding between our choices.

If our task is to review BAP 2015, we should review all the poems. If we only like three of the 75, and only discuss those three, what sort of “review” would that be?

And, if we review all the BAP 2015 poems, should our review be honest, or dishonest? The more honest, the more poems we look at—even “bad” ones.

Why should judgment be silent? What if critics fall into the habit of ignoring good poems—with the belief they are bad?  That would be not only poor judgment, but poor judgment which is allowed to thrive.

In a review, what actually occurs is a judgment of judgement, not poems; and therefore silence by a reviewer should offend, not the other way around.

And further, what if the critic sees bad poems promoted as good? Shouldn’t the critic say something, even if it gives offense to the erring poet and the mistaken critic?

Isn’t passing off the bad poem as good akin to encouraging people to consume poison while thinking it is healthy?

Poems do not exist in a vacuum; all poetry exists in a medium: an environment of promotion and judgment and social interaction. Should the poet who writes the poem control the poem’s environment, or should a reliable critical faculty shape a poem’s extra-poem environment? And should that critical faculty be honest or dishonest? And, if honest, how do we know it is honest unless it speak, and speak honestly? By turning its own light on its own judgment, not just on “good” poems?

Poems, when they are good, are good compared to other poems; this is a truth of all judgments. By ranking the 75 poems by order of excellence, we avoid promoting an abstract idea of good or bad, whether it be a moral or a formal judgment. We instead illustrate, with gradation, the very poems before us in the volume: and here we cannot offend as critic this way, because the offended poet will first have to blame the poet ranked just above him—and how can he do so without escaping the censure he would level at the critic?

A ranking can be neither honest nor dishonest; it is a fact; the poems exist as a group in the volume, fated to jostle against one another, and ranking the group wounds only as it illuminates. Yet the hurting and helping cannot be escaped, and here, by making hurting and helping one, we cannot but aid criticism—which never seeks to benefit anyone by hurting anyone; it is by the natural division: 75 poems, that the world begins, and is, and ends.

We have 75 poems before us. We judge them. Against one another. They live in the same world as each other and shine a critical light on each other. We don’t know what a poem is until it provides us with its particular pleasure, and when it does, it has set a standard—the poem has set the standard, not the criticism; the critic only points up this fact as a passive reporter. (The critic who “only” discusses “good” poems is actually doing much more—is actually being more intrusive and arrogant as a critic.) The poem has done something and the critic simply says, “my god, did you see that?”  If there is only one poem, the home runs hit by that one poem would have to be our measure of poetry. As soon as we have a second poem that hits a hundred more home runs than the first, civilization and romantic love begins.

Now. As for these 75 poems on Best American Poetry 2015, we wish we had liked the formalist poems more, as we prefer formalism in general—poems which exhibit metrical and musical and rhyming skill.

Rhyme and meter, however, are extremely difficult for poets today to pull off, especially in our current free verse environment—which naturally has its demands.

The serious poet today who rhymes, let’s say, lives in fear of many things.

The poet who also attempts to be a musician is naked, exposed; they are leaving the clothed comfort of talking for a naturalism of sound which can highly endear but also highly embarrass—if things are not right.

Because you can either write like Keats & Shelley/play Mozart or you can’t.  Speech is. But music demands.

Mozart is actually less man-made than speech; Mozart, and highly musical poetry, approaches the divine sensuality of nature herself.

Why have the sophisticated turned away from the beauties of meter and rhyme?

We are like a society today without orchestras, without professional musicians. Divine musical poetry is almost dead.

A. E. Stallings is a doggerelist.

The modest success of rhymed poetry we see in contemporary efforts is inevitably the lighter, less serious poem.

We said the poem leaning on sound can be highly embarrassing if “things are not right.”

When the lens of formalism is trained on poetic practice, it is natural to expect formal considerations to become the poet’s supreme point of interest. Since rhyming well requires a good ear, there hardly seems to be any need to fixate on what we are rhyming about—what should content have to do with utterances of pure sound? In nonsense poetry, not much—the wacky music carries the day. But even here, in examples of pure burlesque, content does matter. It matters more.

In pure prose, the content has it easy.

In prose, the content is the content.

In verse, the content is not the content; the content, as a separate thing, belongs to the verse, and therefore musical poetry’s content is up for greater inspection—precisely because it is attached to something else (the musical contraptions and flow).

This is why formal poetry is so difficult to pull off; it can very easily fail on two counts, not just one, as in prose. It can fail as music—too rhyme-y, too sing-song-y, too dull, too monotonous, too eccentric, not mathematically precise enough, too rigid, not flexible enough, annoying in a purely sensual, distracting, strange, alien sort of way—and then it can also fail in the same manner that prose fails, but more so, since the prose meaning is aloft on a musical pedestal for closer inspection.

The real difficulty—not the artificial “difficulty” promoted by the modernists, by which we now live in a more “modern” and “difficult” society, etc, no—the real difficulty in terms of effort and skill, in writing sublime musical poetry is the sole reason for its demise—and not because of any inevitable modernist “change.”

The would-be formalist poet is ridiculously fearful that the reader will ‘see a rhyme coming’ and so they take great pains to make the rhyme unexpected and idiosyncratic. Rhyme can’t relax. Ashamed that it is not natural speech or unobtrusive prose, rhyme, with an eye to critical acceptance, humbles itself and doesn’t fly. It solemnly clips its wings in deliberately pedantic or plain speech. It sputters hesitatingly in a tone-deaf manner in terms of mood and feeling. It orates in a deliberately measured and mannered technique—that often ends up as doggerel. When rhyme and meter are used in highly digressive and rambling types of rhetoric, in silly, acrobatic ways or not, it ends up serving humor, and never the sublime. All kinds of things can go wrong.

To demonstrate, we’ll look at a rhymed effort in BAP 2015.

The highest ranked, serious, rhymed poem in the anthology (it earned its ranking, to be honest, more from effort than accomplishment) is a brief poem by A.E. Stallings, “Ajar.”

The washing machine door broke.  We hand-washed for a week.
Left in the tub to soak,   the angers began to reek.
And sometimes when we spoke,   you said we shouldn’t speak.

Pandora was a bride;   the gods gave her a jar
But said don’t look inside.   You know how stories are—
The can of worms denied?    It’s never been so far.

Whatever the gods forbid,   it’s sure someone will do.
And so Pandora did,   And made the worst come true.
She peeked under the lid,   And out all trouble flew:

Sickness, war, and pain,   nerves frayed like fretted rope,
Every mortal bane    with which Mankind must cope.
The only thing to remain,    lodged in the mouth, was Hope.

Or so the tale asserts—    and who am I to deny it?
Yes, out like black-winged birds    the woes flew and ran riot,
But I say that the woes were words,    and the only thing left was quiet.

“Ajar” is a “math” poem—meter and rhyme are aggressively on display.

Proportion is a powerful tool, and perhaps the most important one in all the arts.

Content and meaning, prose’s virtues, even in the most rambling, off-hand manner of prose, has proportion, is expressed proportionately; in meter and rhyme, however, the virtues and potential failures increase exponentially.

Stallings escapes nothing by using rhyme and meter—she brings upon herself a thousand more potential problems. This is an obvious point, but we think not properly understood. Not only will she be judged by her sound, she will be read for her content, as well—which will matter more, not less, and further, she will be judged by how her sound—specifically proportionate sound—and her prose meaning, in every possible specific manner, commingle.

When someone is frankly talking to us, we let our guard down; we listen respectively to what they are saying.

But as soon as we hear the first rhyme, our guard goes up: we listen, almost against our will, with an extra sense, and think, “oh god is this going to be painful?”

There is much to be recommended in this poem; it is perhaps the most interesting in the whole book.

Its subject is Pandora and its ruling idea: the woes Pandora released were words, and the one thing left in the open box, was not hope, but quiet.

Stallings ends her poem with “quiet,” and the fact that “quiet” is a word is interesting in itself—and also we notice it is a feminine rhyme—lacking closure, sound-wise—so it fits in with “ajar.”

The first stanza implies a domestic argument ushering in an exasperated, compromising silence.

But then there comes three stanzas of rather pedantic recounting of the Pandora myth—and here proportionately defeats the poet, for there is too much time spent on recounting the myth; it drags the poem down.

Stallings is not fully in control of the music—there is some real doggerel here.

Lines like “nerves frayed like fretted rope” feel like filler.

When the poem says at the end, “But I say that the…” we as readers are not sure who the “I” is—is it the woman of the domestic dispute in the first stanza, or the poet?  The final stanza does echo the idea of “silence” which we got in the first stanza, but the speaker’s identity remains vague.  The poem would be stronger if we knew; but we never get a chance to know, for the majority of the lines in the poem are mere pedantry.

“The can of worms denied? It’s never been so far” is weak.

“And out all trouble flew” has a ponderous, spondaic rhythm, completely at odds with the idea conveyed: woes flying out of the jar quickly.  Or perhaps “out all trouble flew” is written intentionally that way, since the poet wants to make the action hefty and memorable.  But we don’t know.  And that’s a weakness.  If we have to stop and wonder about sound/sense, it fails, unless we are intentionally building ambiguity; but a poem will always eventually fall apart when ambiguity builds on ambiguity.

This is what we mean when we say the virtue of what Stallings is trying to do can quickly become a flaw.

And here we might mention the New Critics’ “Intentional fallacy,” and how much damage it has done.  We know how it was meant: just because you say you are going to do something, if you try and do it, and you can’t, your intention means nothing. So, the New Critics were anxious to tell us, it doesn’t matter what the poet intended to do.  This is correct, but only if we are speaking of macro-intention: I am going to move this rock.  But poems—especially this poem by Stallings—are full of micro-intentions, and if the micro-intentions are not clear, the poem fails.

To be musically serious in poetry demands the greatest skill; any pedantry or clutter quickly destroys the attempt, or it becomes humorous, as in the following excerpt, from another rhyming poem in BAP 2015, “Trades I Would Make,” by Cody Walker, a poem of non-sequiturs:

Gehrig, Unitas, Chamberlain (a bunch of dead jocks) for lunch with Redd Foxx.
A cat named Frisky for a vat of whiskey.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. September 30, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Ajar scores 0.2 on the Poetry Assessor so it’s only marginally good and probably won’t be anthologised a lot in the future.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 30, 2015 at 10:29 am

      Thank you, Michael. I remember the Poetry Assessor—Scarriet looked at it some years ago. Didn’t it reward heterogeneity and that’s about it? Has it been improved since then? Poe’s logic in saying a poem of about 100 lines would have the best chance of winning both critic and public has its virtues. Patricia Lockwood’s “The Rape Joke,” which went viral on the internet, is roughly 100 lines. Poe (d. 1849) could have not foreseen the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War, the haiku craze, and the subsequent popularity of “The Red Wheel Barrow” praised by the influential textbook, Understanding Poetry, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, editors.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: