Poetry today is crying out for criticism. There is hardly an honest word said about poetry since Ezra Pound said he didn’t like the Russians or Thomas Brady said he didn’t like the Red Wheel Barrow and Thomas Brady doesn’t count because that was me.

Poetry is both the easiest and the most difficult thing to do. The shame of failure is two-fold: 1. Unable to do something which is easy 2. Bitter to discover our vanity had convinced us of immense self-worth, since actually writing great poems is a million-to-one long shot. Failure in poetry is unacceptable. Reviewers, take heed.

It is probably unwise to preface a review of young poets with these words—can young poets handle the truth? Do they deserve it?

Yes and yes.

Youth has everything going for it, especially failure, which is the best path to success. Every poet deserves a chance to understand failure. Also, truth is hardly the proper word—unless I mean “true to myself.”

I wrote (and still write) bad poems. The seduction is the ease of writing the inconsequential in a therapeutic trance. Also, poetry exists in a well (there is puffery but no true public) and therefore poetry expects a rescue crew—not condemnation.

To attempt honest criticism is the fantasy of a crank; honest is a goal of no possible joy—the expectation is kindness and cheering on. To fail to meet this expectation is both to fail to please and to fail generally.

Better to say nice things. The bad will fade away on its own.

But the bad does not fade away at all. It repeats itself in subsequent generations in the form of millions of poems (puffed with great effort) in millennia going forward.

There is a duty, then.

A reviewer ought to be a critic who flushes out poison.

This can be done in a generous spirit, with learning and elan. The poison can be flushed out without having to look at the poison.

The duty can be a cheerful one, then.

Poets, be not afraid.

The first poet in 14 International Younger Poets (from the new and exciting Art and Letters press) is Avinab Datta-Aveng. He has the most pages in the volume. Perhaps because he has a book coming out from Penguin. We are not sure. His first poem has an intriguing title: “My Mother’s Brain.” The title could be tender, tragic or cheeky, depending.

It is a very impressive poem. It features excellent lines:

Unremembered line in my mind

Muttered mother I only heard murder

And an outstanding ending:

…small birds make
A line at the mouth of the gutter
Rushing with rain water.
Crowds clamor to see the view,
The unbearable beauty of the rest
Of the world renewed each time
By what you will never utter.

Greatness hits us right from the start!

Now I’d like to say a word about meaning.

As far as the meaning of poems, there are three kinds.

We don’t understand but understand we are not supposed to understand.

We don’t understand but we believe perhaps others do understand—we believe we may be missing something.

We understand.

A poem which reminds me of “My Mother’s Brain,” Bertolt Brecht’s “Vom armen b.b.,” belongs to the first type. The narrator smokes his cigar, intimates he is not a good person, says he was carried by his mother in the womb from the black forest to the town. We don’t finally understand exactly what the poem is trying to say, but Brecht makes it clear he doesn’t understand, either.

I put Datta-Areng’s poem (it is more complex than Brecht’s poem) in the second category. Unlike one and three, two might possibly be annoying to one without a good dose of negative capability.

Blake Campbell’s “The Millenials” is my favorite poem in the volume. The idea is realized and the versification is exquisite. I have italicized the best parts:

What tempts us to this world
That light has half-erased—
Distraction’s abstract toxins, love
Distilled for us to taste?

No silence here, no slumber;
No slackening this tide
Of lies and knowledge. We are left
Unable to decide

Between them. Sudden flashes
Scorch most of what coheres.
At once the distance shrinks and grows
And flickers with the years.

The cold blue light we live in
Unreels us by the yard
In strips of snapshots someone else
Will find and disregard.

To prove this triumph of “The Millenials” is no accident, from Blake Campbell’s”Prism:”

You say I’ll surely ace it. How the sun
Spends its abundance brightening your eyes,
Your beauty I have yet to memorize
From every angle. How could anyone?

This is not just good; it is Best of All Time good.

I should say something about rhythm.

A poet usually decides between “forms” or prose. “Free verse” is an unfortunate term—it clouds the topic.

T.S. Eliot and Ben Mazer, two masters of poetic rhythm—good for both verse forms and other kinds of poetry—dismissed free verse. Eliot: “it can better be defended under some other label.” And Eliot: “there is no freedom in art.” And Ben Mazer, in a remark after a poetry reading: “it all rhymes.”

The masters of poetic rhythm typically do not wish to discuss prosody.

“Scansion tells us very little.” —Eliot. And again, Eliot: “With Swinburne, once the trick is perceived, the effect is diminished.”

Leaving-out-punctuation is a trick to make prose sound like verse. As with the Swinburne-trick, however, a trick won’t sustain great poetry; rhythm is the secret, and everything besides is nothing but embellishment: rhyme, mood, syntax, idea. A certain completion involving the other elements is great, but without a rhythmic identity uniting the poem, it is dead. This is nothing but a reviewer’s opinion, but can it hurt to offer it?

Formalism—as it survived in the mid-20th century—seems to be finding its way back into poetry.

“Formalism,” as a precise term, like “free verse,” deludes us, as well, however. Check out every masterpiece of poetry. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is far more like a pop hit by the Supremes than a lump in a museum. Rhythm, not form.

To repeat: poets see two paths: forms or free (prose). But the third way is rhythm—bursting the “forms” or breaking out of “prose;” this aspiration to music (which is what it is) is not properly defying prose, but visual art—the temporal counter to the spatial. If the poet is not able to struggle with these opposing and dancing vectors (music, speech, idea) in their mind at once, a dreary prose results.

I’m happy to report that none of the poets represented here suffers from the affliction of dreary prose.

Editor Philip Nikolayev, in his modest introduction, calls these poets simply poets “he is lucky enough to know.”

Philip Nikolayev keeps very good company.

The urgency of speech, whether in William Blake’s “Tyger” or Raquel Balboni’s “

Relics in disguise foamy mouths through the screen
you can always break into my room through the porch

You can always break into my car with your steel fist.

from “Twin Cars” is the engine. We may think Blake’s tyger is described, or Balboni’s porch, but it never is. Prose is the launch-pad and poetry rockets towards an image it never reaches. As Mazer says, “It all rhymes.” Emerson called Poe “the jingle man” pejoratively. But now we can finally begin to see Emerson’s remark as praise—as, in the early 21st century, poetry is refined into one of those narrow categories John Ransom said was Modernism (division of labor) itself. Romanticism is beginning to return (Swinburne hiding in the backseat perhaps) precisely in this way.

Describing something perfectly in a poem? To quote Blake Campbell, again, “How could anyone?” But rhythm can be perfect. It simply and actually can.

All the poets in 14 International Younger Poets have their individual charm.

Zainab Ummer Farook resembles William Carlos Williams.

Flamboyant in the shade of a clean slate,
we had three of our walls painted pink

Emily Grochowski, Gertrude Stein.

Avoided writing.
A void in writing.
A voided writing.

Chandramohan S, Marianne Moore.

Now, the history of humankind
Snores in my language.

Susmit Panda, Seamus Heaney

I found a curious bronze head by the lake,
and, baffled, showed it to the village folk

all lands glimmer upon the brows of kings.

Justin Burnett, Creeley, but “Witchcraft Heights,” more Williams.

In winter I stuck out from the snow—
Freezing in the gutted grot,

Regretfully, I recall
That innocent numbness,

When white adhered to white,
And I hid.

Sumit Chaudhary, Robert Penn Warren, Marvin Bell, Auden.

feeling from dazzle so far removed
into the arms of things that move.

Paul Rowe, Dylan Thomas.

upon the crumpled glass of Aegean twilight;
volcanic wasps rise, sulfurous effusions,
mercurial breath that carves the crater, admits the flood,
shapes the ochre crescent, mirrors what’s above.

Shruti Krishna Sareen, Baudelaire.

In a riot of colour, the lawn is ablaze
The red silk cotton tree seen half a mile away
Hanging brooms of bottle brush scarlet sway
The waxy crimson poppy petals glaze

Andreea Iulia Scridon, Plath.

When they listen to my somniloquy,
the angels weep in compassion for my misery.
They erase the veins on my legs,
put back together my head,

Kamayani Sharma, Mark Strand.

His face slipping out of doorways ajar,
Like keys falling from Manilla envelopes.

Samuel Wronoski, Jorie Graham.

Otherwise, the day was practical and made of minutes
when nothing happened whatsoever.

Blake Campbell, Bishop, Ransom, Roethke.

The sleeping earth retains her tiny lives,

And even stripped of leaves, the paper birch
Subsists on what has been and what is lost.
But what in other living things survives.

Raquel Balboni, Leslie Scalapino, Ashbery, Eliot

To get to the end of the endless thinking and write it
down again from the beginning.

Avinab Datta-Areng, Geoffrey Hill

On a terrace an old man squints
At the sun, as if trying hard
To pay attention to his genealogy,
To the point at which a rupture occurred.

The resemblances I mention are by no means definitive—it only applies to this volume and springs from my own limited knowledge; poetry is a world in which you don’t need to know a poet directly to be influenced by them, or, occasionally, be them.

Every poet must ask themselves: am I in the wave? Or is the wave me?

In the context of this question, 14 International Younger Poets is a delight.

Thomas Graves, Salem MA August 17th 2021

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