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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Monday, December 9, 2013

"Epic" by Ange Mlinko, Part II (the poem)

from Poetry (Dec. 2013)
poem found here
 

first lines:
It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with
You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen

 

god lies in the details

– some heavy editing, Feb 5, 2015
 
This post has been added to the Hatter's Cabinet site via its Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page
 

A comment added after writing: I am unsatisfied with that below, especially with the points about the poem, as I find often inadequately explained. But to fully explain them would require many, many more words, and this is long enough as it is. Hopefully, with the poem open, the points offered make sense. Or, at least, make enough sense.

 

A second comment added after re-reading: I feel a need to wholly establish the stance of this post: one that exists because of this post's relationship to the previous; also, one that does occasionally rise throughout this blog. While my subject of attention is here the poem "Epic," the criticisms that arise out of the exploration of the poem are ultimately directed not at the poem, nor at the poet as writer of the poem. Rather they are directed at Poetry Magazine, and other such magazines, who would give a poem such as this a standing that far exceeds what it merits, an act which, in turn, can serve only to diminish the sophistication of writing in the U.S. The target of critique is the discourse of poetry that exists today; one which praises mediocrity (and, often, as we have seen on this blog, sheer bad writing), and which seems to intentionally steer itself away from any discourse or comparison that might point out that reality.

 

• For bookkeeping's sake, I will mention that "Epic" did make its way onto the Poetry Daily site, on December 16 (here).

 

This poem – or at least this poem's title – appears in the previous post (here's a link). But that post, really, is about Poetry Magazine, and "Epic" served in the discussion only as an adequate stand-in for the whole of the poetic contents of Poetry Magazine, "Epic" being the first poem in the table of contents as presented on the Poetry website.

In the comments on that post, however, attention was turned from the discussion about the mag to the poem itself; and, I was asked what I thought about the poem specifically. Rather than post what would be by necessity but a brief statement of unsupported conclusions (or, by consequence of it being in the "Replies" a long and optically difficult read), I will start a new post on the subject.

And I do need the space here to speak to my conclusions, because my conclusions are not praising of the poem. In fact, the post previous was spurred by a discussion on Facebook that arose when I posted about Poetry Magazine announcing their new issue, and how on their site I was greeted, at the very beginning, with this aural clunker of a line

It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with

and the mess of the poem that lay below it, pondering (in so many words) what such a greeting said about Poetry Magazine, that they would lead off with such.

In the ensuing discussion there was voice or two in defense of the line and the poem that followed, with the question of "what is so bad about the poem?" My response was, in essence, "There are so many problems interwoven within this poem I don't think I could competently go through it."

Why do I say that again here?

Because what follows will not be – nor will be able to be – something formally organized and precisely argued. (At least, not without far more space and time than I wish to put to this post, or that this post even merits.) Indeed, many of the points below, if taken solely on their own, would not speak much as to the character of the poem. But as a whole, as an aggregate, they say an awful lot (pun intended). So while the presentation below may not be most efficiently organized point by point, it is, as a whole, intending to speak to that aggregate.

But also – and this goes to why I decided to write this post – because some of the responses to the poem spoke of the poem through the presumed or observed general effect of the poem. Such statements are not in themselves a bad thing. Indeed, how can you speak of a poem without also speaking of the poem in general. But that event seems to me to have been taken (and here I move from the specific replies to a broader discourse about literature) to an extreme, one that is wholly normal within a nomic culture of poetry, and one that can thus be used to push statements such as "there is so much bad about this poem" into nigh irrelevance. For it is the standard fare in the culture of poppoetry to permit general effect to supplant the details of a poem: many poppoetry conventions function to that end; and much poppoetry (and praise for what is poppoetry) exists wholly within and depends upon that rhetorical context.

My reply here is thus to give example of how "general effect" or tone or meaning on its own is an inadequate a response to a poem: not only because (1) one can talk about the general effect of a really bad poem without ever acknowledging how bad the poem is (in fact, while actively ignoring its condition); but also because (2) without attention to the details of the poem, that rhetoric of general effect is often used to speak of and elevate as "poetry" what is but the shallow effect of a shallow poem.

For those who think otherwise, let me contextualize: my qualification of meritable poetry – which is in this context publishable poetry – is that it will bear close reading. That which cannot want such, that which cannot stand up to such, is but pop (or simply bad) poetry. And my concern with this blog and these posts is rather about literature as an aesthetic endeavor, as the endeavor to craft out of words beautiful things. Poppoetry is antithetical to that endeavor: indeed, such an endeavor is by its nature damning of poppoetry; and, when it comes to it, poppoetry stands in at best an uncomfortable relationship with the aesthetic. But if that is your thing, go crazy with it.

 

That said, I have a couple notes before I begin: the "initial conditions" of this post.

First, I have intentionally not looked at any other poem by Mlinko. I say that so you know this poem is being treated wholly in isolation. Everything stated here is about this poem and this poem alone.

Also, it is of no small importance to the context here to remember that this poem has been published in Poetry Magazine. As such, it has been through two very important points of decision making: in reverse temporal order, (1) the editorship of the magazine felt the poem good enough to merit printing; and (2) the author felt the poem good enough to submit to Poetry. Note that the latter is not independent of the former, and may be wholly defined there by.

Finally, as stated above, I am here simply going to start looking at the poem and then keep going until I stop. I will maintain order as I can, but for the most part this is going to be a rather free flowing. Also, as I frequently do on this blog, I will work through questions and observations as much as through analytical statements. Speaking about poetry purely analytically is a self-defeating process: there is nothing I can "prove" about a poem that is not in some way dependent upon the reader's sophistication and individual reading of the poem. I can only present, and see if you agree.

 

So, let me start with generalities. There is rhyme here. Is there supposed to be meter? Taking a quick look, is it supposed to be quadrameter?

You can not settle on the idea of it being quadrameter without forcing (awkwardly) the reading of some lines. For example,

after CENturies miGRAtion INland

the natural reading can be very easily (and still naturally) pushed to

after CENtuRIES miGRAtion INland.

where the IES is but slightly stressed. But the question rises, if you are going to (naturally) stress syllables that (naturally) fall upon stressed beats, then you would you would read other lines as

"and AM part THRAciAN or MAceDOniAN"

or

YOU i'd LIKE to TAKE to BED of CYclaMEN ?

If it were to be quadrameter, I would have to read line 2 as

you i'd LIKE to TAKE to BED of CYclamen

Except it creates an extremely forced scansion: noone would ever naturally de-stress "You," especially in that it is the focus of the phrase: "it is YOU i'd like to take to Greece."

So, that's a long way around to a somewhat obvious conclusion; and I discard the idea of meter.

 

So then, what about the rhymes?

Yes, the lines rhyme. Though, the line endings have issues with clashes because of the stresses: for example "CYclamen" (it is not "CYclaMEN") and "deSCEND." Now, if the lines were more formally metered, this would be of more importance: that clash between a stressed and unstressed rhyme is much stronger, aurally, in formal meter. But as this is not formally metered, it is not as great a problem. Except, I will say, it still requires attention, though at a more subtle level. The "clashes" that can be (and always are) created are those heard most loudly by more developed ears. Those without such will mostly be oblivious to them. It takes a subtle ear to successfully rhyme stressed and unstressed syllables.

Are there problems with such in this poem? I would say yes. But, in that I believe they are brought about by issues other than a poetic ear, I will pass on them here and let them wait upon those other issues.

 

Notice how there is no punctuation; there is, instead, spaces within the lines. As well, lines are written to use the end of the line to the purpose of punctuation. That too I will let pass until later.

 

Let's move then to specifics, and right to line 5.

What am I supposed to do with "de tribus d'origine asiatique"? It reads as a mongrel mixture of languages. I ask, am I supposed to get something out of the intentional abutting of Latin and French? If so, what? If there is a game going on here I am blind to it (and giving the web a not-too-quick look I cannot find any justification from the phrases themselves). Putting it into English: "of three of asiatic origin"? "I descend of three of asiatic origin"? "I descend, of the three, of asiatic origin"? I am not at all sure where to go, semantically.

Leading off the line with the phrase "de tribus" makes it look like a title, as with De Rerum Natura, meaning, literally, "On the Nature of Things" or "About the Nature of Things." As such, "de tribus" rather naturally reads "on the three." That gets us "on the three things of asiatic origin," which doesn't really help us out that much. So let's keep the full phrase

I descend of three [things] of asiatic origin.

(We will skip the question of whether the mix of languages is in fact creating a grammatic/syntactic mess, except to say that the mere want to ask the question may signify a problem.)

Three what? Is it supposed to be that the speaker comes from three cultural regions, all of which are Asian? Greece is not Asia. Nor, obviously is France or Latin Rome. In fact, using the phrase "d'origine asiatique" in the French rather implies "French with asian origins." In turn, using the Latin "de tribus" rather inputes into "of three things" the idea "Latin," so now we have "of three Latin things, French of asian origin." Which is still getting us nowhere except deeper into the conclusion that the line is a poorly executed attempt at, to wit, sounding continental.

Besides, as said, neither France, nor Latin Rome, nor Thrace nor Macedonia, nor Greece for that matter, is in Asia. (Well, parts of Greece and Thrace, if you back up in time far enough. But that context is not supported by the poem.) So I have no idea as to the function of "asiatique" within the poem (both in the sense of "what idea am I supposed to generate out of it?" and "why is it at all in the poem in the first place?" Does Mlinko mean to say "oriental"?).

Also, how am I supposed to read "after centuries' migration inland"?[FN] This is a very forced phrase. First there is the geographical issue: "migration inland from Greece"? Would anyone ever naturally use that phrase in language? It is not like "Greece" is a ten mile deep strip of coast on east Africa and "inland" is then the whole of the Sahara. Nor that Greece is a small, shoreline port where people naturally land ships for ventures inland. "Inland" from Greece would presumably mean north into the area of Bulgaria. But if we are going to speak at the size of nations, can that be called "inland" what with the whole of the region being called the Balkan Peninsula? I guess you can move up to Romania; but would anyone ever call Romania "inland" from Greece? I think the relationship has rather fallen apart by that point. Besides, "migration" is an action: am I to read this sentence as saying that there were a people who somehow were actively migrating in a direction inland from Greece for centuries?

*********************************
[FN] I do not think the apostraphe is defendable. As I hear it, the phrase "centuries migration inland" elides the "of" of "centuries of migration inland." I cannot come up with a way a possessive apostraphe works. To bring it into context, I have to ask, how did that apostrophe get by the editors of Poetry?
*********************************

 

Look at the end of the second stanza. Why have that "I" dangling out there at the end of the line? Whatever reason you come up with to justify it, I will defeat it with a simple observation: it is cast so far off from "darkness" that it looks like a printing error (or something like a line marker). I would bet more readers than not naturally miss it completely in their reading, moving directly from "darkness" to the next line, then having to go back to figure out what happened: "Oh, I mised that 'I'." It is not like it is creating anything special in the poem. In fact, I would argue the I out there has far more to do with having the line rhyme with "July" than anything else. Unfortunately, the combination of end-lined "I" and the gap in the line creates a visual oddity that just looks bad.

The point is, whatever justification for the "I" you may have, the fact that it looks like an error always trumps it, because of this simple idea: Why would I want any part of my poem to look like a mistake?

Follow me through this. The attentive reader sees the "I" and asks

"Why would you have something so visually awkward in the poem?"

So the reader looks:

"I cannot find anything created out of it; the only reason I see for it is the consequence of the rhyme and the use of spaces in the lines."

So then the reader asks:

"If there is nothing so important about the "I" at the and of the line, why write the line so that it creates something so visually clumsy? Why not write the lines differently?"

To which the reader concludes:

"Either the poet did not care enough or the poet was not sophisticated enough to recognize just how awkward the line is. Either way, the line reeks of lack of effort and attention. As such, how can I at all praise a poem written without effort and attention? Why am I even reading it?"

The only time I could myelf justify such a thing is when the event offers a positive of such magnitude as to dwarf the visual issue. And even then I would still kill it because of that visual issue. Why would I want what looks like a typographical mistake in my poem?

Keep in mind, this is not some text found on a piece of paper in the street. This is a poem published in Poetry Magazine. There is a presumption of quality. A poem found on the street carries no expectation of praise. A poem published in a journal, especially on such as Poetry, implicitly does. And yet here the reader is confronted, within a forum that one would think would be seeking and publishing poems of a certain degree of quality, care, attention, sophistication, with evidence to the contrary: lines in a poem that are willingly (or blindly) awkward and poorly written.

 

Let's move back just a touch: what about that phrase, "pulled like roots from darkness"? First, there is a problem in the lines created by the chosen absence of grammatical marks. The lines read:

The doors that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness

Because of the lack of a comma, "pulled" is the verb with "the doors" the subject: "the doors pulled." The reader is looking for a verb in the line. Except the intent is for the phrase to refer instead to "lovers." The writing creates a clumsiness in the reading.

Look at the whole of it:

The doors that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness I close upon us now like book covers

Adding some punctuation:

The doors, that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness, I close upon us now like book covers

How is this clause bad? Let me count the ways:

  1. Atrocious syntax. Honestly: would any masters student teaching a freshman comp class not mark that sentence as written? The "pulled" phrase is still forced: even with the necessary commas it still wants to refer to the "doors" because of the absence of a parallel "who":

    The doors, that opened to lovers who were pulled like tree roots from darkness, I close upon us now like book covers
  2. Irrespective of whether we tie the "pulled" phrase to the doors or to the lovers, what the hell is it supposed to mean?! How are lovers (or doors) like tree roots to be pulled from darkness? Do people normally feel the urge to liberate tree roots from the darkness underground? Is it generally considered a net positive to pull tree roots out of the ground? (Oh my god, look at those poor tree roots in the darkness of the ground! We must free them!) Obviously not the case, so I therefore assume the phrase is to be read as a negative. So if the act is a negative act, why are the lovers "pulled from darkness"? Is the darkness to be understood as a good? At a more simple level, how are tree roots like lovers, or lovers like tree roots? Also, since the speaker closes the doors, I read the above phrase as intending that the doors were doing the pulling. Which reads against the natural reading of the sentence as written: something else did the pulling. But what? And why?
  3. Ok, yes, the next stanza begins "The alcove in which we embrace." The doors then are the doors to an alcove? Essentially, to a closet? "The doors that opened to lovers": something was being opened upon the lovers. Only, the doors to a closet opened to lovers? Would somebody ever say "I have opened the closet doors upon the bedroom"? (That is, unless by some bizarre misfortue the narrative world begins for you with you standing inside the closet. But even then, it comes off as bad writing. Standing in a hallway a door can open upon a bedroom. Not from an alcove.)
  4. Wasn't the whole point of the opening of the stanza – five lines describing a moonlit tarverna overlooking the Acropolis – to present a scene that would be at its best only if the second person was there with the speaker? Isn't it creating a wished for scene? Shouldn't then "pulled like tree roots from darkness" be a positive (contrary to the semantics)? And why, if it is the wished for dream, does the stanza end with the two closing themselves off from it as though the scene overlooking the Acropolis was a negative, or, at least, nothing terribly important? Basic writing: don't set something up if you are then going to ignore it.
  5. How did we get, within but nine words, from "roots" to "book covers"? After the above people liberate the roots from hell that is underground darkness, do they then cover them up with face-down, open books? Could you have a more blatant example of mixed – if not wholly out of control – metaphors?
  6. If the doors were doing the pulling, are we supposed to be reading that the doors of the closet pulled lovers out of darkness? If so, that is a damn well-lit closet.

I could continue, but hopefully you get the point. The stanza is a mess. And that is my only point. The problems are not something that can be fixed with tweaking: do not look at the above list as points for spot edits. The whole of the stanza is a mess.

Let's instead move on.

  • Why is "a full moon" in small caps?[FN] Is there any reason for me to think it is not an error? Is there any positive benefit to this wholly isolated event? Every time I read the poem I want to correct it, since I can come up with no reason for the typography. (On the Poetry Magazine site it looks very much like a formatting error.)

    *********************************
    [FN] To note, the small caps do not appear on the mobile version of the page. But then I have not infrequently come upon graphical issues with the mobile versions of poetryfoundation.org pages.
    *********************************
  • "This time à deux as then I had no one to kiss": also bad syntax, as the structure implies "this time à deux, because before I had no one to kiss." But "had no one to kiss" is not causal in nature. The sentence should read, simply, "this time à deux; before, I had no one to kiss" The "as then" is not only superfluous but error-creating. (And, again, something that might be pointed out in a comp course.)
  • "Hullabaloo"? The scene in a taverna was a hullabaloo? (A very not-Greek word; a very not-lovers-and-doves-calls word.) And it is also a scene of "lovers pulled like tree roots from dakrness"? So then that phrase is a positive? So then there are people out there liberating tree roots? (What the hell am I supposed to do with "tree roots"?!?! I have no idea. I cannot even figure out of it is a positive or negative image. I can pick one – pick either for that matter – and make it work. But that is not good writing, is it.)

 

Let's branch out:

  • How exactly does a "dove's note" weird a scene? Would a "dove's note" normally weird a scene? If the scene has been "weirded," are we to expect the two are going to come out of their closet in mutual embarrassment saying "that got weird"?
  • How do we get from a scene which is defined by a dove's note to an Uzi? Slight clash in imagery there. Are there frequently juntas in Greece? Has there ever been a junta in Greece?
  • Do you see how we are, as with "de tribus" etc., again globe hopping: from Greece [uozo] to Israel [Uzi] to Central America [junta]? For a poem that is romanticizing Greece, there is sure a lot of energy about things not Greek.
  • Why is the third to last or second to last line not written in the manner of:
    Not        we think        like the epoch
    Everywhere else in the poem the spaces are used in place of punctuation marks. Why not here, where they very much needed? Notice how the absence of commas – present or implied – creates a different meaning to the lines?
  • How the holy topic shifts did we get from a poem that is fantasizing about seeing Greece with a lover to "History makes its noise"? What does anything that precedes "Uzi" have to do with "history makes its noise"? How am I not to read this moment of the poem as "Oh, here's the requisite poppoetry turn to some profound political statement"?
  • In fact, if the poem is supposed to be a fantasy about Greece, why is the poem closing the doors upon the taverna above the Acropolis. And, more importantly, why does the poem shut off the the imagined lovers from Greece by covering them with a book? Does that not that all rather overtly diminish the reality of Greece in preference to some irreal fiction? If Greece is so little a deal that the Acropolis is both cut off physically by doors and metaphorically by fiction, when what is the point of placing the poem in Greece? What is the point of all those energies about heritage? Indeed, if this is a fantasy about being in Greece with a lover, why does the poem wholly drop the lovers to make some shallow, non sequitur statement about history?

 

We skipped the best part, that first line. (And here we circle back around.)

It's you I'd like to see Greece again with[.]

How can that strained construction be justified? When, ever, in that freshmen composition, would that sentence escape this comment, before the class: "Sentences like this make you sound at worst semi-illiterate, at best like you do not care enough about your work to clean it up from what is universally recognized as poor English."

How can that line be justified, it being so aurally painful to hear? The work being poetry does not excuse the writer from basic English. And recognize that the problem is, in the end, not that the construction is not "the King's English." It is not an issue of "rules and their breaking" (another wholly misconceived and misused workshop aphorism). It is that it sounds terrible to an ear of any degree of sophistication. I ask again: why would I put in my poem a line that sounds so terrible, that has so obviously been forced into a bad construction?

The answer is, of course, I would not. The only valid reason I have been able to come up with for such a construction is if the whole of the poem was going to be written in that nature (whether for purposes of comedy or purposes of voice). But that does not apply here. So why then does the poem open with such a aural mess of a line?

I would posit because it rhymes with "myth." Very possibly the same reason the word "hullabaloo" shows up. Very possibly the same reason you have the "de tribus d'origine asiatique" mess. Very possibly the same reason why, in a dark alcove, the scene is described by its "brilliant tile." Same reason why you have that "I" cast out from being part of the poem. Same reason why the poem ends with a preposition.

Indeed, the poem very much reads like a person who is rhyming and is not yet good at it. The lines and wording of the poem read not infrequently as though they were forced by the writer in an effort to meet or make the rhymes. Now, I should say, I believe the brevity of the poem adds to the issue. It would be much easier to write the scene at the taverna – and I am sure it would make much more sense – if more than eight lines were spent on it. But that is the nature of poetry these days. Get in –heritage!– get out, get in –taverna!– get out, get in –something about roots and a book!– get out, get in –profound something or other about history!– get out. There's the framework here for an interesting and well developed poem. Unfortunatley, it was given twenty-four lines when it should have gotten closer to two hundred and forty.

 

So, what do I think about this poem? I think it is a poem whose ideation is totally out of control and so briefly and rapidly presented as to amount to little more than tissue paper depth. It is a poem that occasionally sounds ugly, and not infrequently contrived. I think it is a poem that hangs its hat on a number of poppoetry conventions (and wholly believe it was thus recognized through such by Poetry Magazine's editorship). I think it attempts at a rhyme scheme, but the attempt mostly backfires on the poem. I think it is a poem that suffers from one of primary maladies of poppoetry: it is happy at being short and shallow, with no real development, no real drive to create something of depth or vibrance. It has its little political/philosophical tag at the end, and considers itself profound because of it (but really, if you give it any thought, it is as shallow as a Rick Santorum talking point). And, of course, it is written in the manner of poppoetry: with little real attention to detail; and the hope that its readers will read it with little real attention. Because otherwise, well.

Now is this saying Mlinko is a really bad poet? or merely that this is a really bad poem that somehow got published? After writing the above I did look about, in curiosity, at other poems by Mlinko. But I am refusing comment: not because of the poems but because to say anything at all would open the door to speculation about subjects beyond the context of the above. In the end, whether I found something interesting or found something just as bad, or found something in the middle, my concern here – and my words here – are only about this one poem. And it must be remembered, to understand the context of this post it must be read knowing that this poem is definingly a poem published in Poetry Magazine.

With that, we can here return to the "initial conditions" established above, and ask: what does the fact that it was published say about Poetry Magazine? Note that that statement implies that this poem merited publication over the 10,000 odd poems that were rejected. Second, what does it say about the author that they considered this poem meritable enough to submit to Poetry Magazine? Recognize, though, that question turns right back around and again asks, What does it say about Poetry Magazine, and what this author thought about Poetry Magazine?

And in that turning back around, we get to the most important question: what does the publication of this poem in a premier literary journal like Poetry Magazine say about the state of poetry in the U.S.? What does it say that a poem would be published whose only possible successful reception requires that the reader not pay attention to the words, not hear how the poem sounds when read, and be utterly forgiving about issues with semantics or grammar? What does it say that, to "appreciate" this poem, the reader has to not think about it?

Because once they do, well.

 


A final note, one that might create a greater context to the above: a question that, perhaps, people will ask with this post, or with other posts in this blog.

What do I get out of the above? What do get out of tearing apart the negative (or positive) elements of this or other poems?

In the broad, it is to develop a discourse about poetry and poetics, and about literature as an aesthetic endeavor, not only with other people, but also – and more fundamentally – with myself. Through these posts I create a dialogue between myself and these poems, between myself and other works of literature, between myself and my own creative projects.

For in the narrow, it is only through tearing apart literature – both in the positive and the negative – that one can learn about writing literature. You have to dismantle a clock (either by tool or by pencil) to learn how a clock works. In writing the above I more than thrice began a point, and got well into that point, when I realized that my point was entirely wrong because I missed what Mlinko intended in the poem. Which is not a good thing, by the by: your poem should not prompt a reader to first go "oi, that's bad" and then have to work out why it was bad to then figure out that they were misreading the poem. Your poem should at worst prompt "what's happening here? I don't understand," which then creates the effort to understanding. There is, after all, a difference between a text that is difficult to read because it is complex or subtle, and a text that is difficult to read because it was poorly or imprecisely written.

It is in those searches for understanding, and in putting understanding and exploration into words, that is what makes this blog a benefit to me. (And you will always learn the most when you make the effort to put into words.) Superficially reading poems for the their general mood teaches nothing except how to write superficial poetry and the habit of reading superficially. Exploring, both the good and the bad, the successful and the failing, however: now there is a learning experience. (One can only learn to attend to details by attending to details. And I gave much thought to line endings as punctuation in writing the above.)

Of course, there are other reasons why I started this project. The one that provides the most energy is the one that is alluded to within the last post, that on Poetry Magazine: the want to develop a site (and, perhaps, in the future, other sites) for conversation and exploration about literature as an aesthetic object. Such a conversation requisites, though, its mirror image: such a conversation must also be about the differences between the aesthetic and pop, and must in defense of itself decry the culture of poppoetry.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Epic" by Ange Mlinko -- Poetry Magazine (December 2013)

poem found here
 

first lines:
It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with
You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen

 

more is not better; ergo, the few are not the best

– minor editing Feb. 5, 2015
 
This post has been added to the Hatter's Cabinet site via its Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page
 

Those of you who read this blog probably already know (and for those of you who do not I will be up front about) that I have little respect for Poetry Magazine. Nor, for that matter, for most (if not nearly all) of the major poetry journals. That is because for all their posturing, they mostly fill themselves with generic, banal, and, far too often, plainly bad poetry -- but poetry which fits nicely and neatly into the category of pop. Poetry most of all, for it has become a serial issuing of poppoetry, and it should -- beyond all the others -- know better. Usually I can go through the newest issue on-line and point out with each poem the pop hook that got it past editorship despite the poem's many shortcomings. And, it does not take too critical a look at the magazine's web face to see that the magazine has become mostly a shill for the poppoetry/pop-culture-studies industries. (Just as Rolling Stone is now little more than such for the music/entertainment industries.)

However, the magazine does deserve one moment of pause in its defense.

Looking through the Poetry Magazine site, in the editorial statement by the new-ish (2011) editor, Don Share ("To Our Readers">, I see that the magazine gets upwards of "120,000 poems a year."

How, ever, could that statement be taken as a banner of excellence? How could any magazine that wades through 10,000 poems a month at all be able to succeed as a magazine seeking to print "indispensible reading" (as the 'About' page states)? One might think that such a large submission pool offers the magazine the ability to truly find exceptional writing. The reality of it, however, is that by permitting such an inundation, they decimate that very possibility, and nearly assure that they will be publishing quite the opposite.

How? Primarily in that the sheer numbers involved necessitate one or both of two editorial realities: (1) either they must have a large number of first-line readers, or (2) the individual readers must face a massive number of poems. Neither result is a positive. The issue with the second should be obvious: inundate a person with a thousand submissions and they will become numb to what they are reading. (Watch J.J. Abrams all day and you will start to think the Die Hard movies are really good.) Also, the time constraints create a situation where the readers cannot possibly approach each poem with a honestly critical eye. Considering aesthetic poetry usually takes far more effort than conventional poetry, you see the results. The readers start noticing hooks rather than poetics.

As for the first, a broad distribution of editorial labor means that your first-line readers are going to be your weakest readers: those least able to spot the wheat in the chaff, and, more importantly, those most likely to promote pop poetry: i.e., those most likely to pass a poem up the editorial ladder not because of its creative energies but because of is conventionality. It destroys the magazine's sophistication at the start, in an process that has no means of correcting it: the whole point of the distribution of labor is to lighten the load on the upper echelons, to leave to them the final decisions only. They are not going to go back through the piles to check to see if what was handed them is, indeed, the best to be found. They are simply going to accept it as such.

(This is why I generally have little interest in journals edited by university students: most of the time, the people who are working through the submissions are the people most entrenched in pop poetics. And those people are by definition the least capable of spotting the truly creative, because the truly creative is the least conventional.[FN])

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[FN] Which does not mean there is no place in poetry for such magazines. Only, those magazines should recognize that they are not upper tier journals. They should not behave as such, nor expect to be recognized as such. Rather, they should use the freedom offered them by not being an upper tier journal to be creative in the magazine itself. For example, they can get away with things like issues devoted to somewhat limited ideas. For example: "The Spring issue of next year will be wholly devoted to fiction about alien abduction: humorous, serious, poetry, prose, photography -- let's see what you can do with that." The results will be spread about in terms of sophistication; but it has the positive service of opening up -- and energizing -- avenues of creativity and creative exploration not normally available.
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So it should be no surprise that Poetry Magazine offers, month after month, little more than pop fare. Their practices -- their willingness to accept a reality of 10,000 submissions a month -- has to have sabotaged the magazine from the very start. How can there honestly be, in such a massive sample, any real possibility for the discovery and presentation of excellence, of "indispensible reading."

 

What to do about it? I can not help but think about the phrase learned in the economic crash and the profit gluttony that has followed: too big to fail means it has to be torn down. And 120,000 poems a year is definitely the label of a bloated sow. Of course, here, I am not saying Poetry Magazine should cease publication, but it should change its policies and procedures so as to make the idea of 120,000 a year a recognized issue, not a sign of success. Which is not to say they should find new means to successfully navigate the flood: the problem is the flood, not the issue of how to wade through it.

One possibility -- and I'm just going to throw out a couple of obvious ideas here -- is to have the magazine cycle through periods of editorial focus, to announce, "for the next five (or whatever) years, we will be heavily concentrating on X. Don't submit what does not apply." There are two benefits. First, it narrows the submission pool, obviously. But, second, since Poetry is so well established, it creates an atmosphere of mass exploration of poetics and poetry. Three or five (or whatever) years of absolute focus -- including web presence -- on a topic of poetics/aesthetics? Imagine the dialogue that could be created.

For that to escape pop poetry culture, however, such focusing would have to be on subjects of aesthetics and poetics. Topicality is pointless (as magazines such as something devoted to poetry about cats can demonstrate). Issues devoted to topicality (without a previously established focus on poetics/aesthetics) only generates a larger pool, because the focus is on content, not on poetics/aesthetics. And pretty much anyone can write and submit a poem about cats. Political/cultural topicality does not solve the issue: just because your theme carries political resonance does not mean the poetry is not banal: themes like "transgender poetry" or "poetry of the inner city" gets the same results -- sophistication wise -- as "poetry about cats." (The quicker the culture of poetry will admit to that truth, the better off the culture of poetry will be.)

Another obvious solution is dividing up the magazine into different titles of different focuses: Poetry/Lyricism, Poetry/Narrative, Poetry/Form, Poetry/Translation as examples. (Of course, rejecting submission to one because it also fits in another would be counter productive.) The magazine could easily divide its web presence into such, and have the primary (print) masthead be the best of the best. What it offers is not only that the submission pool is divided up, but that the reading process is performed by people whose own poetic interests are focused on that narrowed field: hopefully that results in better eyes looking over the submissions. (A reader with a aesthetic stake in narrative poetry will make for a better reader than someone who just like poetry.)

In truth, I believe the greatest weakness of most poetry/lit journals are that they are too expansive in their coverage: in being so they have watered down their own editorial talents. If you narrow coverage, you narrow the selection pool and make first-line-reader decisions much easier. But also, you present to the writers a statement of purpose: we want to see excellence in this. Can you successfully pull it off?

Now, of course, as with every awards show, for such a challenge to work there has to be the possibility of wholesale rejection. And here we get to the third suggestion, one which really underlies every other possible option with magazines that claim to be -- or, even better, strive to be -- indispensible reading: Don't print it if it's not brilliant.

As quoted on the "About" page, the purpose of the "open door" policy of Poetry Magazine is as such:

May the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius!

I think the key word there is "genius": the purpose of the open door is so as not to miss excellence because of "where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written." The point of the open door seems to me to say to the poets, "If you are willing to make the time and effort to write a brilliance like 'Prufrock' [one of Poetry's points of pride, and something would probably have no chance of being published today], then we will publish you."

But, if a magazine publishes conventional poetry, that intent and search for the "great poetry of genius" will get lost in the resulting flood. Publish only Prufrocks and Prufrocks will come your way. Publish velvet Elvises, and that is what you will get. And in far, far greater numbers.

Can you imagine an issue of a major magazine that had two poems in it?; that stated overtly, "out of 5,000 submissions, these are the only ones that were really worth publishing, that was not simply more of the same." Can you imagine if they wrote not the names of the people who they have published, but the names of the famous poets they rejected? And then prided themselves even more on the poets that came back with "oh, yeah? how about this!" and smacked one out of the park? Can you imagine a magazine that said (as so many do), "to be published in our pages means something," and then actually backed up the words with editorial actions?

Pipe dream, obviously. This is the U.S. of Mediocrity, where our major cultural awards are wholly subservient to the entertainment industry's bottom line. Where inaugural poems are at a level that invites drinking games. Where, if you are to believe the blurbs on the back, every third book of poetry published offers an experience of profound spirituality on the level of Faust or cultural insight on the level of Democracy in America.

When a poetry magazine fills its pages with what it has on hand, despite quality, it is doing a disservice to literature. That is because people read magazines as though they are printing the best of the best. People read Poetry Magazine thinking that they are reading the best poetry has to offer, which is not only not the case, it cannot be the case. The inevitable end result is a watering down of both the idea of excellence and the expectations for excellence, and an anchoring of the culture of poetry within mediocrity and pop. It leads us to accepting banality as excellence, conventionality as creativity.

Even beyond that, it creates a culture of poetry that offers bad poetry as examples of good poetics, conventionality as examples of creativity: it creates a school of creative writing whose exemplars need not hide their incompetency, because publishers of those exemplars are more than willing to ignore those incompetencies. Which tells the up and coming writers that they too can ignore incompetencies. Moreso, teaches new writers that brilliance is far easier attained than you might before have thought.

And I cannot help thinking about the Bridge of Death, and Sir Robin's enthusiatically shouted "That's Easy!"

Which leads us to today's poem, which is, if you go to the Poetry Magazine site for the newest (December) issue, the first poem on the table of contents page (here).

So, we've opened our magazine. It is the first page; it is the first poem. This time, however, let's read it differently. Let's read it without an assumption of excellence (of which there can be no real expectation). This time, read it against the grain, against the assertions of pop culture that "it is on the radio, so it must be good." Read it instead assuming, say, that the first line is an aural trainwreck. Read it instead assuming that the first stanza is laughably bad. Read it instead assuming that the poem as a whole is riddled with bad poetics and tone-deaf wording. Read it assuming that the poem's play is not clever poetics but cheap gimmickry. Read it looking for the poppoetry hooks that got it through the editorial process. Read it assuming that it is not a good poem, but something that is preying upon the fact that you are not sophisticated enough to see just how bad it is. Read it assuming that the magazine does not want a sophisticated readership, it wants a top-40 readership. Read it assuming that the poem wants you to write poems no better than it is, just as bad as it is, because then it will not need fear the comparison.

Read the poem with this expectation: prove to me you are as good as you claim, for I know most of the time that that is a lie.

Read the poem out of the natural conclusion of "120,000 poems a year": there is no way this could possibility an exceptional poem; there is every reason to believe that it is poppoetry, that it is probably mediocre at best, and that it probably got through the editorial process for reasons that have nothing to do with brilliant aesthetics or creative poetics.

When you read, demand that the poems show you they are worth reading. Where they do, you have found something to learn from. Where they do not, you very well may be wasting your time.

One of the interesting things I have noticed in reading the Poetry Daily and Verse Daily sites, in writing these posts, is that, when taken on the whole, poems that come from books tend to be better than poems that come from journals; even the prestigious ones. (Now, this an observance, not scientifically acquired data. But, one with which I am comfortable at the moment.) This does not suprise me: 120,000 poems a year makes for a poor magazine. That is the underlying truth of it. How could it possibly be otherwise?

So when pick up a Poetry Magazine, you should read its contents with this idea in mind:

 
My endeavor is to write better poetry than this.
 

That is all Poetry Magazine has to offer a poet who is striving for something beyond pop.

 


I want to add a note on the idea of "tiers" brought up in the footnote above. I believe one of the problems with poetry publishing in the U.S. is that they are all far too ecumenical, and yet so many of them still want to claim status as being a publisher of important poetry. A great number of Poetry Magazine's submissions would disappear if they simply took the stance of "We are an top-most tier journal. We only publish the best of the best." It would be a very interesting event if journals were to divide themselves into tiers, and expected from their submissions work of the level of their tier. There would be in the submissions itself a great deal of self-ordering. A poet that knows they are only of whatever degree of sophistication would not expect to be published in journals of higher tiers.

It would not be such a bad thing for the poets either; for they would know where to go to find journals that offered them something fruitful in their development; a journal that offered (perhaps in online presence) a place for dialogue at their level of exploration. Also, on the part of journals, it would prompt the end what to me is self-limited publication strategy: to go national. There needs to be more local journals: that is, that journals only reach out to their areas. Then writers of the region have journals that are interesting in their development. Does, say, Southern Review really have a stake in developing the liteary culture of its region if its eyes are all over the globe? Wouldn't it be better for both the journal and the region if they brought their eyes in?

I believe this to be a lesson learned in bookstores, both local and chain. The more a store interacts with its customer base, responds to the customer base, is developing the readership in its customer base, the more successful the store tends to be. Why does this not apply to literary journals?