How We Can MAKE Poetry Matter

My current MFA reading is Dana Gioia’s Essays, collected under the title of his most contraversial one: Can Poetry Matter?

The title essay is a powerful and occasionally anguished indictment of the state of poetry at the time of writing (1992), lamenting in particular the extent to which poetry had barricaded itself into the ivory towers of academia and lost its general public audience.

It is the nature of such essays that they are of the moment. In his new introduction to the book, Gioia himself is cautiously optimistic about the revival in the fortunes of American poetry outside the university system. Gioia’s essay, much like its predecessors by Epstein (“Who Killed Poetry?”, 1988) and Wilson (“Is Verse a Dying Technique?”, 1934) is now a historical rather than an activist document. However, I feel that American poetry still has some way to go. Like a schoolchild with an improved report, the risk of backsliding is very much present.  

With that in mind I would like to reproduce here, in paraphrase, Dana Gioia’s six recommendations as to easy steps individual poets and poetry co-ordinators can take themselves to help make poetry matter, and continue to matter for decades to come:

  1. When the opportunity arises, recite other poets’ work in public. My former professor BJ Ward always did this (I suspect he had read Dana’s essay) and my good friend and fellow poet Rachel does the same thing. I intend to do it when I can in the future. I don’t think it’s practical at Open Mikes when I am limited to one or two poems, but for my featured readings (Keyport in April and Bryn Mawr in August) I shall read at least one poem by my own favorite poets.
  2. Mix poetry with the other arts. Again, difficult for me to do singlehandedly. However, if any local musicians wish to approach me with a view to a collaboration, I’ll be happy to listen. I will also contribute once again to Poetry Alive, where a troupe of actors visually interpret poems live on stage.
  3. Write prose about poetry that can be understood by a general readership. That is of course partly what i am doing here. I also plan to include an editorial, an essay and a review in each upcoming edition of The Barefoot Muse.
  4. Poets who edit anthologies (and journals) must select on merit alone. See my earlier post about A Formal Feeling Comes and about submissions for the two journals I edit. I am proud to say that both journals have rejected name poets since I wrote that entry. We will continue to do so.
  5. Poetry teachers should spend more time reading poetry in classes and less time analysing it. My next children’s poetry workshop is April 9th, and I plan to read at least five children’s poems and one classic poem appropriate for children. I haven’t decided which one that should be, so recommendations are welcome. I rather like Rudyard Kiplng’s “A Smuggler’s Song.”
  6. Integrate poetry more with radio. I don’t have access to any public radio, of course, but two of my poems are presently available as voice recordings on my personal website, and I intend to up that number. Ideally all my favorite previously published pieces should be available as sound files, especially as everyone just lurves my accent!

Now, what are YOU going to do?

Publication and MFAs

Today I received the second packet of feedback from Liam Rector and it has prompted me to further examine one of the issues he and I are currently debating, namely, should an MFA student continue to submit poems to journals and contests during the two year course.

He isn’t being didactic about it, but it’s clear he thinks not, preferring instead that the student concentrate solely on the quality of the poetry. But I am unwilling to stop the submissions process for a number of reasons, which I shall attempt to outline below:

  1. After three years of hard work, I have just begun to make a name for myself in the smaller, local literary journals, and online. (Go on: Google me…) People have even begun to solicit submissions from me e.g. recently The Apple Valley Review.
  2. This has led to a spate of upcoming featured readings. See here. Now I like to read, and I believe I am a good reader. I’d hate to lose out here.
  3. I sent Liam 19 pages of poetry in the most recent packet, including seven new poems. He very kindly looked over everything but he did say it was too much. Now I write on average of ten to twelve new poems a month. Assuming he looks at five, how am I going to get feedback on the others? I use submission as a bench test: yes or no. Some editors even comment.
  4. Assuming I don’t submit for the next two years, evn a conservative estimate puts me at over 100 submittable poems coming out of the MFA. Now I take my submissions seriously. If there aren’t poems to review online I usually get hold of a copy of the journal so I can mention in my cover letter which poems struck me. 100 poems is about 25 submissions. This all takes time. I’m lucky if I send out a submission a week. And of course during this time I’m going to be writing MORE poems…

So I think what I shall do is simply scale back on submissions while I’m working for the MFA. I shall of course respond to submissions solicited from reputable sources. I shall continue to enter contests in which I have had some fortune e.g. the Howard Nemerov. And I shall submit poems to the better journals–those which nominate for Pushcarts or are frequently chosen for BAP. I currently have five poems that Liam has signed off on, by which I mean he liked them and had no further suggestions for improvement. (For information, these are “Bap De Bap De Bap”, “Return”, “The Forness of It”, “Consolation” and “she would rather change her bones.” The latter is already out at No Tell Motel. The others will make a submission to Ploughshares, i think. As usual, watch this space!

Dropping Lowell for the Double Sestina

I was supposed to be reading more of my Collected Lowell today, but I admit I was looking for an excuse to blow him off. What on earth possessed the man to write a history of the world in blank verse sonnets?

Anyway, I got into an email exchange with Denise Duhamel, who is quite the nicest (and least arrogant) poet of the semi-famous variety I have ever had the good fortune to cross online paths with. It all began with her Double Sestina “Incest Taboo” in BAP 2000. (Yes, I didn’t give up on BAP, even after the Hejinian Shenanigans.) She kindly supplied me with a copy of the rules, and I think I knew, because I know the kind of terrier I am, that I wouldn’t be picking Lowell up again until I’d written my own.

So, basically, that’s what I did today. And that’s all I did. Well, to be entirely accurate I got up, put the kids on the bus, exercised for an hour, had a shower and THEN wrote a double sestina.

Two drafts. 150 lines. Five hours, sustained on Fruit Sours. Emerging from the double sestina trance is a bit like waking up from a rather satisfying dream. I’ve never written such a long poem; I don’t think I’ve ever become so lost in the world of a poem before. (And it happens to be the world of my childhood, or to be precise, my schooldays. I had the cunning idea that as I had been in pre-university school for 12 years I could devote one stanza to each year and that would stop the sestina from getting too repetitive.)

I think the sestina is best devoted to the narrative poem. Lyric sestinas have a tendency to get rather dull. Having said that, I think my double is presently too narrative, or to return to a theme we’ve visited before here, it makes too much linear sense. I think I need to recast it with a less reliable narrator, putting a revisionist slant on it. So there’ll be another few drafts there I think.

Oh let’s not get into the pointlessness of it. Sure, I’ve written five sestinas and had none published. Sure, a 150 line poem is almost unpublishable in modern poetry journals, let alone one in form.

But damn it felt good.

To The Person Who Egged My Best Friend’s Car Last Night…

…as it was standing outside my house at around 11 pm.

Do you like dogs?

Twice today I have had to call my beautiful but somewhat stupid Golden Retriever in from the road, where she had snuck out to lick the sticky, eggy remains off the asphalt. She’s normally very good about staying on our property but she does love eggs.

If anything happens to her I shall hold you personally responsible.


And This Would Be The Point

My cleaners came today. Ever since the very savvy lady who runs the business has been struggling with back problems, I never know who to expect. Today it was the stalwart Kirby and her sister, who I hadn’t met before.

I was supervising the kids’ homework when the sister came down from the spare bedroom carrying reverently a frame containing a poem written by my friend Donna. “I love this,” she said. “Do you mind if I copy it down?”

Do I mind? Isn’t this the entire point of poetry? I told her I could do better than that and gave her a copy of Donna’s chapbook The Next Exit, because I happened to have a few lying around.

She was thrilled. I am thrilled. Lyn Hejinian needs to understand that this is the point .

Ask Not What Poetry Can Do For Your Country…

While collecting MFA books from the library recently, I spotted Best American Poetry 2004, guest edited by Lyn Hejinian. Having been favorably impressed by the 2005 version, guest edited by Paul Muldoon, I picked it up, and over the last few weeks, mainly while being Gymnastics Mom, I have got around two thirds of the way through the poems.

This endeavor, along with some debates I am currently having with my professor, Liam Rector, has pushed an issue to the forefront of my mind, that I think deserves some examination. It is actually several debates, I suppose, but the key questions are these. How clear should poetry aspire to be? And at what point does clarity become prose?

Lyn’s Anthology comes into this debate because the majority of the poems in this anthology are not at all clear. In fact, they range from infuriatingly obscure to peculiarly incomprehensible. I haven’t read much of Lyn’s poetry (okay, I’ve read one,) but I have garnered that she was a big proponent of Language poetry, back in the day, and it’s clear that’s where her sympathies still lie.

During a discussion with a friend we looked up the book reviews on The majority, clearly written by members of the general public who choose to read poetry for enjoyment, were singularly unimpressed. A couple, probably written by people more directly involved with the literary establishment, supported the anthology as a means of introducing the American public to some of the more experimental work being done in poetry.

Hmm. I have a problem right there. Best American Poetry is intended for the American public, or at least they seem to have thought so, or they wouldn’t have attempted to read it. Shouldn’t it actually give them what they want, rather than what some academics think they should want?

Also today, while checking out the complete list of US Poet Laureates, I came across the unsurprising fact that Billy Collins is the most well-read poet writing in America today. Personally I find much of Collins’ stuff a little too easy and conversational, but clearly that’s where the American poetry reading public feels comfortable. If we’re trying to develop and broaden their tastes in poetry, perhaps it might be better to start from Collins and move just a little deeper–say Kim Addonizio or Mark Strand–rather than jump headlong into the Avant Garde stuff that even I, an MFA student, drop in disgust or boredom halfway down the first page.

As to my own personal preferences and the poetry I try to write, these are both evolving. I am famous in my Graduate workshop for finding poetry “prosey.” In particular I have problems with first person free verse narratives that are neither allegorical nor contain striking metaphors. I am trying to move away from narrative poetry myself right now, partly because I’m going through a somewhat dull but pleasant period in my personal life where everything is ticking along quite nicely thank you very much. But also because I’m experimenting with making less sense.

Note: I did not say making NO sense, I said LESS sense. As an engineering graduate in a previous life, I have often had issues with illogicalities and disconnects in poetry. And yet, as my reading has broadened, I have realized how intense and exciting poetry written outside of normal narrative rules, and syntactical constraints, can become.

But my lodestones are my girlfriend-who-likes-Billy-Collins and my husband-who-only-likes-mine. If they don’t get enough of it to enjoy the second reading/hearing, then I need to work on my clarity.

If the American public gives up on poetry altogether, who knows how bad things could get. As WCW said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men and women die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” We need readers who aren’t just academics. It’s okay to push the envelope; exploding it is best done in the laboratory conditions of a university.

Political Correctness & Poetry

Below here I intend to post my MFA essay on the anthology A Formal Feeling Comes. A few thoughts before I do so. In the essay I disagree with the criteria the editor used to select poets to feature in the anthology. Because of the criteria the editor used, the poets whose inclusion I debate are ethnic poets. I have tried, tried, tried to present this in non-offensive language, but the nature of political correctness today means that any such criticisms can be deemed offensive. Please understand: it is not my intent to offend anyone of ethnic origin, merely to criticize the editor, who, by the way, is Caucasian.

A Formal Feeling Comes, Or Does It?

As I read this anthology, described as “Poems in Form by Contemporary Women” several questions surfaced in my mind. Firstly, to what extent should we distinguish between poems in form and poems which have form? Secondly, how rigorous should we be in applying that distinction to an anthology of this kind, assuming that there is a need for such a niche collection? And finally, to what other criteria and standards should the editors of such anthologies hold themselves?

Addressing the first concern, greater poets than I have said that all poems must have form. Devices such as rhyme (with a leaning towards internal or slant) and repetition can be employed in free verse poetry to great effect. However, for me a poem in form is one in which there is a predictable structure or pattern, and when the pattern is broken, the change itself is obvious, striking and justified.

Annie Finch has employed a broader definition of in form than I would like. One of the user-friendly features of this well-organized book is Appendix I, a Formal Key to Poems, which summarizes the form used in each piece. I was often unhappy to discover there, after reading a poem that I would call free verse, descriptions such as “Repeated elements directly follow each other” (“Mother With Child” by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias) or “Free verse, with anaphora” (“Peace #3” by Alma Luz Villanueva.)

I wish that we did not need niche poetry anthologies, but I cannot change the state of American poetry single-handedly. If you read an anthology like Best American Poetry 2005 you will find few formal poems. Various ethnic minorities are also under-represented, although I note that the ratio of men to women has been carefully balanced. This is why there are myriad anthologies called In Other Words: Literature by Latinas and A Gathering of Spirit: Writing and Art by North American Indian Women and 360 Degrees of Blackness Coming At You, all of which are other anthologies mentioned in the contributors’ notes for this one. And they are necessary, yes. But I would argue that you are most definitely required to be a Latina, or a North American Indian Woman or an African American to have your work featured in such an anthology, and it follows that the poems in an anthology subtitled “Poems in Form by Contemporary Women” should be in form.

Of course many of them are, and there are some excellent examples of formal poetry at its best. Suzanne J. Doyle’s and Emily Grosholz’ contributions tempt me to look for their books, and I will definitely try some more Marilyn Hacker and Maxine Kumin. Julie Fay’s “Dear Marilyn,” Joan Austin Geier’s “On Your 21st Birthday,” Josephine Jacobsen’s “Only Alice,” Suzanne Noguere’s “The Secret,” Molly Peacock’s “Chriseaster” and Patricia Storace’s “The Archaeology of Divorce” are worth the price of the anthology alone. As a practitioner of the art I am always on the lookout for tips and techniques. I love how Emily Grosholz intersperses trimeter lines in her blank verse to create emphasis. I wrote my first crown of sonnets after reading Hacker’s “Eight Days in April.” I want to write a paraclausithyron (lament sung before the locked door of the beloved) like Rachel Hadas.

But, I fear that Annie Finch’s criteria for assessing the merit of formal poems are different from mine. I would ask: is the subject riveting? is the rhyme scheme subtle and unforced? are the repetitions put to good use? is there closure? At the risk of being politically incorrect, I suggest Annie Finch appears to have asked, all too often: who is the writer?

Why oh why, does Cheryl Clarke deserve three poems in here, even if she is the foremost African American Lesbian poet writing today, when she produces lines like:

I’ll still follow you, primordial

thing, out of the swamp to the vague median
and beyond. Your shell is hardly cordial (what?)
and my spiky fur has gone seedy
I would similarly question the inclusion of the poems by Alma Luz Villanueva, Carolyn Beard Whitlow, Dolores Kendrick, and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias. All may be terrific free verse poets, and are, I’m sure, wonderful women. It is their place in an anthology of excellent formal verse I question. Annie Finch has gone out of her way to include well-known minority poets in this anthology by choosing quasi-formal or rare, stilted, formal poems written by predominantly free verse poets, an admirable, but in my opinion misguided, instinct.

Less admirable and equally misguided is her decision to include four of her own poems in this book, none of them particularly striking, when she restricted Marilyn Hacker and Maxine Kumin to three.  Louise Bogan managed to write Achievement in American Poetry: 1900-1950 without once mentioning herself; I wish that Ms. Finch had learned such humility.

This book confirmed for me the things I love about formal poetry—clever sestinas, villanelles and pantoums; loose, slant rhyme sonnets and meticulous iambic pentameter ones; accentual poetry, ballads. It also reminded me of the things I hate: over-abstraction, iambic meters ruined by Latinate diction, forced rhyme and syntax distorted for rhyme or meter, self-conscious worthiness. I lament the fact that Annie Finch’s worthiness led her to choose poems on other than formal excellence. It means that somewhere out there, a much better anthology of this type remains un-edited. Hmm. Maybe there’s a job for me there?


We Interrupt This Literary BS

…to bring you some Gymnastics news: you are now reading the blog of the mother of the Level 4, age 6-8 All Around Champion for the Sweetheart Invitational Meet in Paramus, NJ.

Becky did an amazing job today at her second ever meet and first away meet. Admittedly, the competition in her age group and level wasn’t that stiff, consisting as it did of five other girls from her home gym. Nevertheless, she earned her success, with an amazing 8.9 on Vault, a 7.5 on floor (She didn’t quite stick the round-off back handspring), a 7.4 on beam (She fell off, but got back on like a little trooper and finished the routine beautifully) and a 7.3 on bars (Okay, the front mill circle was very dubious.)

She was totally chuffed with her ribbons and the all around medal, and has been in a sunny mood ever since, even submitting to do her Computing homework.

Sometimes it’s nice to be just a mom. 🙂


A Formal Feeling Comes

I am currently reading this anthology of poems by contemporary women, written in form. It’s very interesting, and I am gestating my 2 page essay on the subject which will form part of my February MFA packet.

Being saturated in metrical poetry has of course had its usual effect. I’ve written a rondeau, a single sonnet and a crown of three sonnets. Oh, and I genuinely did dream in Iambic Pentameter the other night, although I think it was blank verse.

It was also quite exciting for me to see that one of the contributors (Leslie Monsour) is someone who I have been published alongside. Is it very unrealistic for me to assume that if they composed a similar anthology in a few years time, I might be in it? Ah well, a girl can dream…

Exciting News

Yesterday I found out that my sonnet “As You Like It” was selcted as one of the twelve finalists in the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. Of course, it didn’t win, but as I have been entering the contest for three years, I thought it would be interesting to document my journey through the sonnet.

  • 2003: 6 months after writing my first sonnet (“The Child From Two Doors Down,” ironically published after multiple revisions last year by the Evansville Review) I entered four sonnets somewhat unrealistically at $3 a pop. Two have since been consigned to my touchingly named “Practice Sonnets” folder. One was published ignominously by an e-zine who apparently published everything that was sent to them for that particular issue. The third is theoretically under consideration by The Edge City Review, but as it has been there for 18 months I am guessing they ceased publication.
  • 2004: Again I entered four sonnets. Two of these have, again theoretically, been under consideration by The Lyric for 9 months, which begs the question: after how long should one recirculate? One was published in the last issue of the Raintown Review. The fourth is available, if anyone wants it. It’s a bit clever clever, I’ll admit.
  • 2005: Again four. Personally, “As You Like It” was my second favorite out of them. But perhaps “Were-Wife” was a bit of a chick sonnet?

Anyhow, it’s interesting. Clearly I’ve improved over three years of sonneteering. I’ve now had fifteen sonnets published, six by reputable print journals. I’ve got nine out at various markets, twelve that have been submitted and rejected, but could go out again, and a couple more in progress, including the one I started this afternoon.

If at first you don’t succeed, practice…!