THE JANUARY 2013 ISSUE OF POETRY REVIEWED, PART I

Is Poetry magazine the place where American poetry happens, today?

We certainly think so.

How did Poetry gain this eminent place?

It has a history—so people want to publish there, an important first criterion.  Secondly, it has elevated criticism, honest, democratic criticism—rather than puffing—to an equal place with the poems.  Thirdly, it has no editorial bias for a certain kind of poetry.  Lastly, Poetry has a cheery, accessible, web-site, chocked with poems.  Blog Harriet is mere cut-and-paste and does not allow reader comments, but one can read the entire issue of Poetry on-line (and make comments).  Kudos to the editors.

Here’s our review of the most recent issue:

Sara Miller is first with five poems and she is one of those poets too clever for her own good, stating confidently in the abstract what actually makes very little sense; “Cairo” is plain-talk mysticism with metaphor inside of metaphor inside of metaphor:

CAIRO
The evidence was in and it went to the contrary.
The contrary wound around us rather like a river.
The river reacted, spider-like, tangling up its legs
with other wet parts we thought we knew,
such as creeks and fjords and deltas and such.
A beaver sits on the riverbank watching all of this unfold.
He doesn’t know what a fjord is, and he doesn’t care
for other waters, or even other beavers, or the merest
hint of other business, so he removes this evidence.
Then he builds a structure which for years he is rehabbing.
Inside it is hollow and there is his nest.
He is a dark little bastard, all the same.
The water had a fine way of   being, now it is tortured
by these nests and their vassal.
Yet the river doesn’t overthrow the beaver.
Quite the contrary. The river goes around polite as a snake.
It argues a tiny bit at the edges of the lodge,
where young beavers could be napping.
You and I would let loose a flood of tears. Not the river.
You and I would seep hotly into our darkest places.
Not the river. It is a long way from home
and has that on its mind, the day of rising,
when the temples will all be cleansed
and the whole unfathomable truth will out.
According to the waters. According to their book.

Yes, we get it, Ms. Miller.  The river and the beaver represent cooperative, unsentimental nature, and “you and I,” the humans, weepy and word-obsessed, will be cleansed.  The faster Miller’s waters clean us, the better.  Her poem rebukes us like a flood.  Oh, and hurray for the beaver. And we pray those young beavers are napping still.

The best of her five poems is perhaps the third one, “Gravitas:”

The overweight, overnight parts
that came to me in a dream.
Their clothes no longer fit,
it was this that brought them
to me crying, their faces twitching.
That had to end. No, they said,
it didn’t. So I rolled over to ghosts
that couldn’t dent a pillow.
The clock shed. Night pulled its
burdens into harbor and I woke,
glad for the day, its telltale light,
its flying minute, that genie work,
and the everlasting perturbations
of my people, their glories,
their heavy last words,
and for these, I rose.
Miller, like many modern poets, seems to have more faith in words themselves than how they ultimately fit together.  The poet should make the words obey the poem: the words themselves ought not to dictate what the poem is; Sara Miller is a little too enamoured of the words she manages to gather together in her poems. Her poem, “Gravitas,” unlike the others, manages to prevail, with a certain unified lyric grace, over the poet’s wordy education.
A poem should have an existence outside of its words, but since words naturally point to something outside themselves, a complacency too easily sets in:—mad moments of word-play become substitutes for poems.
I wish I could keep my thoughts in order
and my ducks in a row.
I wish I could keep my ducks in a thought
or my thoughts in a duck.
My point is that we all exist, wetly, in the hunt.
This is how “Countermeasures” opens, and one sees how much Miller is in love with words—which is all very nice, indeed.
Cairo C-
Spellbound D
Gravitas B
Countermeasures D
Moves In The Field C
Nocturne C-
Barbara Hamby has one poem, “Letter To A Lost Friend,” which reveals the modern poet’s faith in words—which can lead the poet astray.
Auden once said that ‘a love of words’ serves a poet better than ‘having something to say.’  We see the point—no one wants a poem to boss them around—but we believe the advice has done much mischief.  Poets have been erring in the other direction for quite some time: too modest to ‘have something to say,’ they aren’t shy about making ‘the words’ everything.
Hamby’s poem begins: “There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened between us…”
We see here, in Hamby’s opening, the modern poet’s obsession with words.  Poetry, however, is not Scrabble.
Hamby then rambles deliciously, impressionistically, nostalgically, with quotes from Pushkin anchoring a poem that feels like it belongs to its references more than to Hamby, the poet—but this, of course, is the modern sensibility, the 100 year old reaction against the Romantic ego: quote Pushkin (who ‘had something to say’) but don’t dare be a poet yourself who has ‘something to say.’  Pushkin’s dead.  Don’t be a Pushkin. Hide behind your references, your education, your words…  It’s all very humble and nice.  Poetry, however, has nothing to do with humility.
We give “Letter To A Lost Friend” a B.  We don’t love Hamby. But we feel this is the best poem she could possibly write.
Brad Leithauser gives us a rather long poem called “A Vase,” invoking a grandmother’s memory of a seventy years old purchase; the poem threatens to pierce our hearts, but never quite does, because Leithauser is finally so informative—lovingly informative, of course: Detroit and Japan figure prominently, but the ‘lovingly informative’ has ruined many a poem because even in subtle ways the information becomes a little too important; Poe’s ‘didactic’ warning is lost on so many. They say one avoids sentimentality in a poem by supplying it with concrete details; but everyone knows the realist is a secret sentimentalist.
“The Vase” earns a B
Fanny Howe has a lovely phrase early on in her poem, “Three Persons:”
the diamonds that pelt Neptune
But as a whole, the poem is mystically detached, drifting from vague observation to vague observation.  We like this:
Be like grass, she told me,
lie flat, spring up.
But why doesn’t Howe say,
Be like grass:
lie flat, spring up?
Why the “she told me?”
Is it that she doesn’t, as herself, want to be caught saying something so obviously quotable in a 19th century sort of way?
The poem provides no context for the “she;” the rest of the poem is “we,” “I” and “you.”
This is the problem: in Howe’s poem we get half-context. 
We want to advise the poet: Either give a full and necessary context, or give none.
Either tell us who the “she” is, or get rid of “she told me.”
We give “Three Persons” a C-
Julian Stannard’s poem, “The Gargantuan Muffin Beauty Contest” is meant to be social commentary by way of the ridiculous, or the reverse; we chuckled a couple of times upon first reading it, but we were tired of it by the second reading.  Fate plays a cruel trick on the poet who can entertain but once.
…We were hurtling back
to the 1970s and sometimes the 1970s are almost
as good as the 1930s
We can’t argue with this.
I saw Leonard Cohen crooning with a couple
of octogenarian muffins and I’m telling you now
the lobby was pleasantly disturbing.
I have two words for Mr. Stannard:  Mad Libs.
We give his poem a D+ and we think a D+ in the 1930s and the 1970s is about the same.
Matthew Neinow has four poems which are all self-conscious, carpentry lyrics.  They fail when too pretentious; they succeed when “song” and “shaped wood” manage to casually cohere.
Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood B-
Ode to the Gain C+
Ode to the Steam Box B-
End Grain C-
The two poems by Barbara Perez have that bruised, confessional tone which forces you to sit up and listen, even though you don’t really want to.  We like “A mind, when playing tricks is at its most sincere,” but too often her poems do just boss you around.
Strange Little Prophets C
Not For You, Not For the World D
Shann Ray’s two poems feature one preachy little thing (“We need to know in America…”) called “My Dad, In America” and then a delightful poem, “Hesperus,” written by his daughter, really.  It’s about words, again, but it works in this case because it’s in the realm where it belongs.  We need to quote it in full:
My four-year-old daughter handed me a card.
To Daddy written on the front
and inside a rough field
of  five-pointed lights, and the words
You’re my favorite Daddy in the stars.
In this western night we all light the sky
like Vega, Deneb, Altair, Albireo,
the Summer Triangle,
Cygnus the Swan, our hair
tangled with wood and gravel,
our eyes like vacant docks
that beckon every boat.
Tell me about the word
stars, I said.
Oh, she said. Sorry.
I didn’t know
how to spell world.
We love this.  Who could not love this?My Dad, In America D+
Hesperus B+
“The Fisherman’s Farewell” by Robin Robertson is hewn from Old World craft:
and black in the undertow, blue
as the blue banners of the mackerel, whipping west.
Who can resist the elegance of the pirate, or the finesse of the fisherman?
to dream the blank horizon and dread the sight of land
*
Their houses, heeled over in the sand:
each ruin now a cairn for kites
Arrgh.  We give Robertson a B-
Wendy Videlock clearly belongs to the Kay Ryan/Heather McHugh School.  She has five poems and here’s two of them:
Bane
Full of strength and laced
with fragility:
the thoroughbred,
the hummingbird,
and all things
cursed
with agility.
I Don’t Buy It
I don’t buy it, says
the scientist.
Replies the frail
and faithful heart,
it’s not for sale.
The line “It is always darkest before the leopard’s kiss” from “Proverbial” reminds us of Kim Addonizio, and then Videlock makes it a couplet: “Where there’s smoke there is emphasis.”  Videlock doesn’t fear ‘having something to say.’  For instance (again from “Proverbial”): “He is not wise that parrots the wise.”  “Better late than suffer the long introduction.”  She at least deserves points for clarity.
I Don’t Buy It D
Bane B-
If You’re Crowish D
Proverbial B-
A Lizard In Spanish Valley C-
“Their Pleas” by Kelly Cherry dares the reader to feel something, to care, but we’ll go out on a limb and admit we don’t understand the poem—and therefore we don’t care.  We have to give the poem a D-.
Those are the poems of the January 2013 issue of Poetry.
Next we’ll turn to the prose.
(To be continued)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SCARRIET

From Infant to All-Too-Human: Scarriet’s First Year

Could any living creature survive the dynamic changes wrought by and upon Scarriet in its first year of existence?  We doubt it. And yet Scarriet IS a living creature, its blood and viscera made up of its manifold contributors and admirers, a roster that runs the gamut from the illustrious to the notorious, from Billy Collins down (or is it up? Let the Muse judgeth!) to horatiox. Its spark of life, however, its animating spirit, is its poetry, ranging from ABBA to Zukofsky. There is room for all, for as the children of the ‘50s were all Mouseketeers, so all those who are childlike in spirit in the noughties and tennies are all Scarrieteers. The blog is named Scarriet for a reason — no prim Harriet reciting in a stuffy drawing room, but rather a rushing birth of blood, placental fluid, and, within the mass of sodden tissue, life itself. The wail issues out of said mass: Scarriet liveth. Liveth in the offices, supermarkets, alleys, and few remaining factories, in blue jeans or ties, democratic without being demotic, and aristocratic only in matters of the spirit. Heroines most welcome, even nigh deified; heroin disdained as a soul-killing crutch. A manifesto? Let it be so, and let it be burnt.

Cut to the present: the same infant now grown to full immaturity, eager to sift and build upon the ruins of worlds past. And how much built after one short year!  A year of tumult, that witnessed the phenomenal success of March Madness, an expansive merriment that served as nothing less than a lightning rod for the poetry world. Sparks flew, sweat poured, backboards were shattered, and, in keeping with Scarriet’s primal origins, blood flowed — and out of the agony and ecstasy came a greater realization of the role poetry continues to “play” in our contemporary world(s). Scarriet’s world(s). Not all were happy, as not all can ever be, save in that Paradise in which the mass of men once put great hope. A founder of Scarriet, Christopher Woodman, departed from the masthead. The pain was felt keenly amongst those who treasure the art of poetry and discriminating criticism of same, especially with regard to the lyric bards. His voice is still heard on occasion, and his posts still extant — but as the balladeer Carly Simon has sang, “I know nothing stays the same/but if you’re willing to play the game/it’s coming around again.” And so it is. And so it always shall. Selah.

More on March Madness, for this was a threshold for Scarriet, a crossing of the Rubicon, and like all momentous undertakings, was not without peril or controversy. Was the event, which ran coeval with the NCAA basketball finals, closer in spirit to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or FDR’s invasion of Europe?  The debate continues to rage in precincts where strong drink and stronger poetry are freely indulged. Did Scarriet lose its soul during March Madness, or did it gain it, and the world as well? Was it a “Faustian bargain” or just “fargin’ boasting”? Numbers don’t tell a whole story, certainly, but they can instruct when viewed in a spirit of equanimity and in the proper light. And Scarriet’s numbers soared during the March festivities. But was quality sacrificed to attain popular success? We doubt it, for March Madness was met with approval ranging from guarded to raucous from world-class poets such as Alan Shapiro, Lewis Buzbee, Stephen Dunn, Janet Bowdan, Reb Livingston, William Kulik, Billy Collins, Bernard Welt, Robert Pinsky and Brad Leithauser. No visit from Sharon Olds, but then she didn’t make the Sweet Sixteen.

So the numbers were there, along with approval by world class, nay, heaven class poets — where was to be found the always present snake in the garden?  Why, where it always lurks, in our hearts, in the hearts of all who draw breath. And yet the snake was tamped down for those precious moments in which great poetry was shared and exalted and glorified — not placed into a glass case for bored schoolchildren to parade past, but ricocheted off a glass backboard and hurled recklessly down a parquet floor as poets strutted their most glorious moves in all their testostrogen-fueled glory. A celebration of fertility over futility. Of passion over pedantry.

Of poetry over prose.

Happy Birthday, Scarriet.

It’s been one hell of a year.

BOWDAN TAKES ON LEITHAUSER IN MARCH MADNESS WEST SEMI-FINAL

A Good List
(Homage to Lorenz Hart)

Some nights, can’t sleep, I draw up a list,
      Of everything I’ve never done wrong.
To look at me now, you might insist

      My list could hardly be long,
But I’ve stolen no gnomes from my neighbor’s yard,
Nor struck his dog, backing out my car.
Never ate my way up and down the Loire
      On a stranger’s credit card.

I’ve never given a cop the slip,
      Stuffed stiffs in a gravel quarry,
Or silenced Cub Scouts on a first camping trip
      With an unspeakable ghost story.
Never lifted a vase from a museum foyer,
Or rifled a Turkish tourist’s backpack.
Never cheated at golf. Or slipped out a blackjack
      And flattened a patent lawyer.

I never forged a lottery ticket,
      Took three on a two-for-one pass,
Or, as a child, toasted a cricket
      With a magnifying glass.
I never said “air” to mean “err,” or obstructed
Justice, or defrauded a securities firm.
Never mulcted—so far as I understand the term.
      Or unjustly usufructed.

I never swindled a widow of all her stuff
      By means of a false deed and title
Or stood up and shouted, My God, that’s enough!
      At a nephew’s piano recital.
Never practiced arson, even as a prank,
Brightened church-suppers with off-color jokes,
Concocted an archeological hoax—
      Or dumped bleach in a goldfish tank.

Never smoked opium. Or smuggled gold
      Across the Panamanian Isthmus.
Never hauled back and knocked a rival out cold,
      Or missed a family Christmas.
Never borrowed a book I intended to keep.
. . . My list, once started, continues to grow,
Which is all for the good, but just goes to show
      It’s the good who do not sleep.

–Brad Leithauser

The Year by Janet Bowdan

When you did not come for dinner, I ate leftovers for days.  When you
missed desert, I finished all the strawberries.  When you did not notice
me, I walked four miles uphill past you and into Florence and five miles
the other way. When you did not like my dress, I wore it with gray silk
shoes instead of gold ones. When you did not see my car had sunk into
a snowdrift at the turn of your driveway, I took the shovel off your porch
and dug myself out. When you stopped writing, I wrote. When you sent
back my poems, I made them into earrings and wore them to work.
When you refused to appear at the reunion, I went to the dentist who
showed me X-rays of my teeth. When you did not tell me you would be
in town, I met you on Main Street on the way to the library. While you
had dinner with me, I walked past the window and looked in.  You were
not there.

Marla Muse, it’s time for one these gorgeous poems to eliminate the other, and I don’t think I can watch.

Then, don’t.   I’ll just announce the winner…

No, I couldn’t stand that, either.  You can’t X-ray love!  You can’t find the better poem between these two!

Then they will have to play…

OK, Marla, they’re playing.  They want to play.  It’s like a dance…but I still can’t watch…

2-0

2-2

4-2

6-2

7-2

7-5

7-7

OK, enough of this..announce a winner.

Leithauser represents the last  New Formalist in the tourney, and there’s a strong desire to see a New Formalist make the Final Four, but we should take a moment to observe that in 21 years of BAP how few strong poems there are which use  rhyme and meter—we can almost count them on one hand.  Should we conclude that what Shakespeare and Keats and Tennyson did can never be done again?  Or should never be done again?  Is that really the thinking, and has this thinking made it so?  Shakespeare was a deadline-driven playwright, but somehow today’s formalists always manage to come across as facile by comparison.  Is Lorenz Hart the best we can do—and what is Hart, really, without Rodgers?   Would Keats need Rodgers?  It’s a puzzle, this lapse, and I have no idea whether the BAP deserves any blame.   It is with utmost respect for Keats and Tennyson and Shakespeare and with utmost respect for poetry itself, that I find the New Formalists something of a failure.   It is with utmost respect and admiration for Brad Leithauser’s “A Good List” that I find our winner to be:

Janet Bowdan.

Welcome to the Elite Eight, Janet!

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