Statement of Philosophy

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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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Poetry Magazine (Oct. 2015) – Part I: Introduction; Matthew Sweeney, Guillaume Apollinaire

The October 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine can be found here.

links to individual texts:
Matthew Sweeney, “Five Yellow Roses”
Matthew Sweeney, “Dialogue with an Artist
— headers to the sections are also links to the texts

 


the other posts in this series


 

Introduction

– some editing, Apr. 3, 2016

 

If you at all have read this blog you might know that I am more than willing to take shots at Poetry Magazine, the touted flagship of verse journals in the U.S. But, then, I have always been far more puzzled by than impressed by the magazine. Never in the many years that I have looked between its print covers have I considered its contents worth the price of possession. Even with it now in electronic format, I have never found it worth the price, counted in time, of reading. Even its reputation has for me, over the years, become less and less impressive. The more I come upon references to Poetry Magazine in the history of U.S. literature, the more the supposed stature of the magazine within U.S. literary culture has become more myth than reality, a myth based primarily on popularity and after the fact branding than on any actual, positive effect the journal may have had upon literary culture. As example, if perhaps an easy example, take this moment from John Tytell's biography of Pound:

By summer [of 1913] Pound was back in London and beginning an involvement with a new magazine. He had already experienced difficulty with Harriet Monroe: her taste had to reflect that of her backers, who were mostly wealthy businessmen or their wives who preferred inconsequential light verse to what Pound regarded as real poetry, so each issue was a balancing of the inane and the more serious. Pound objected strenuously to what he called the 'rot' in Poetry and wanted a magazine in which he would have more control. (Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987): 89)

For as long as I have been picking up and putting down the magazine, "inconsequential light verse" has been a more-than-apt phrase to describe both the output and orientation of Poetry Magazine. Though, "inconsequential" may be too kind a phrase, for as equally, and perhaps more and more in the last years, "incompetent" has become a necessary adjective.

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[FN] It should be said that I have never given Poetry any extended consideration before these last few years; in those years only because it has been available on-line. As implied above, I refuse to pay money for a magazine of valueless verse, verse that rarely prompts thought beyond that of "why would anyone consider this worth publishing?" Because of this, any observation by me of trends across time can only be casual. Though, I have generally found Poetry Magazine unimpressive if not pervasively uninteresting.
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It is my observation that Poetry Magazine has always and only been a flagship of pop-poetry in the U.S., never a standard bearer for intelligent literature, for literature qua literature. If Poetry wants to be the Hollywood pulp of the literary world, that is fine with me. However, where I cross swords with the magazine is in the pretense that it is something it is not, whether that pretense be created by the magazine itself or created elsewhere and never by the magazine denied. When Poetry Magazine publishes barely competent pablum, when it publishes incompetent shamwork, it holds that shamwork up – simply through association to the magazine's own banner, its own history and importance (however mythical) – as meritable verse. In that, Poetry Magazine offers only detriment and progressive deterioration to literary culture – to its values, its standards, its intelligence. Literary culture in the U.S. today is dominantly pop-lit: I say dominantly to distinguish it from majorily pop-lit, which is and always will be the case in any culture. It is not merely, today, that pop-lit is the majority of what is published and praised, it is what defines what is published and praised. In that lowering of standards, in that eliminating of standards, we have created a culture of literature, a culture of participants in verse, be they writers or readers, incapable of intelligent discernment of what is merely competent verse, what is incompetent hackery, and what is genuinely meritable literature.

I would like here to offer an extended passage from a book recently in my hands, the opening paragraphs from F.R. Leavis's New Bearings in English Poetry.

Poetry matters little to the modern world. That is, very little of contemporary intelligence concerns itself with poetry. It is true that a very great deal of verse has come from the press in the last twenty years, and the uninterested might take this as proving the existence both of a great deal of interest in poetry and of a great deal of talent. Indeed, most anthologists do. They make, modestly, the most extravagant claims on behalf of the age. "It is of no use asking a poetical renascence to conform to type," writes Mr J.C. Squire in the Prefatory Note to Selections from Modern Poets. "There are marked differences in the features of all those English poetical movements which have chiefly contributed to the body of our 'immortal' poetry. . . . Should our literary age be remembered by posterity solely as an age during which fifty men had written lyrics of some durability for their truth and beauty, it would not be remembered with contempt. It is in that conviction that I have compiled this anthology." Mr Harold Monro, introducing Twentieth Century Poetry, is more modest and more extravagant: "Is it a great big period, or a minutely small? Reply who can! Somebody with whom I was talking said: 'They are all of them only poetical persons – not poets. Who will be reading them a century hence?' To which I answered: 'There are so many of them that, a century hence, they may appear a kind of Composite Poet; there may be 500 excellent poems proceeding from 100 persons mostly not so very great, but well worth remembering a century hence.'"

Such claims are symptoms of the very weakness that they deny: they could have been made only in an age in which there were no serious standards current, no live tradition of poetry, and no public capable of informed and serious interest. No one could be seriously interested in the great bulk of the verse that is culled and offered to us as the fine flower of modern poetry. For the most part it is not so much bad as dead – it was never alive. The words that lie there arranged on the page have no roots: the writer himself can never have been more than superficially interested in them. Even such genuine poetry as the anthologies of modern verse do contain is apt, by its kind and quality, to suggest that the present age does not favor the growth of poets. A study of the latter end of The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse leads to the conclusion that something has been wrong for forty or fifty years at the least. (5-6, ellipsis in original)

New Bearings was published in 1932, and the book is primarily demonstrating the how and why of the then new work of the Modernists – specifically, Hopkins, Eliot, and Pound – were a break from the culture of verse of the time and, in reverse, demonstration of the state and nature of that culture.[FN1] Poetry matters little to the modern world: a wonderfully complex opening line that is immediately – at least on the surface – refuted by recognizing the large quantity of verse being published at the time. The change in terms between the first two sentences is the key to the lock. Poetry matters little. Yes, there is a great deal of verse being published, but no – or precious little – poetry. It is a distinction that is inherent and assumed to the history of literary criticism in English: just because a text is verse does not mean it is poetry. The latter requires something beyond material form, something that carries the text above the quotidian.[FN2] It is this distinction that is absent from contemporary verse – indeed literary – culture. It is this distinction that is by necessity removed from contemporary verse culture. It is the case with every cultural art form: it is the difference between  music and popular songs, the difference between art and popular painting, the difference between literature and a well-told story. The distinction is hidden in general discourse by the pop-use of the terms: if we call, say, the Game of Thrones books literature, then they are literature, at least to anyone who has not bothered to consider what the word literature means in such a claim, how the word functions in such a claim: which is to give works (and by extension all pop culture) an importance that cannot be – cannot have been – sustained within the traditions of literature qua literature, of literature (to use the terms correctly) as poetry.

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[FN1] Leavis was addressing the culture of verse in England; though, there is no reason to believe the critique would not carry across the ocean. Indeed, he elsewhere implies the situation is always worse on this side of the water.

[FN2] Of course, it must be recognized, that "verse" here includes free verse, includes any variation from everyday prose; and "poetry," within the history of criticism, is not limited to verse, though in context of Leavis's book it is verse that is the subject at hand. Similarly, through these essays, that same limited context will, for the most part, be assumed. (On this dividing of verse and prose from the poetic and prosaic, see my post on Donnelly's "Hymn to Life" which explores Owen Barfield's examination of the terms.)
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The elimination of the distinction is especially important today in a culture of literature that is so overrun by pop-politics and so-called cultural criticism. The claim that some book of "poetry" that speaks to the situation of whatever repressed subculture is an "important literary work" falls apart when literature is understood as being more than mere verse. If the term literature is held to a higher standard, that book is suddenly no longer important literature. It may be a cultural document, yes; but it is not literature, it is not poetry. It is not meritable within the tradition of literature, in English or whatever language. Indeed, within that context, it is in truth inconsequential – and, frequently, if you but bother to give look, incompetent. But contemporary "poetry" culture, in its obsession with politics – and cultural statements are always only politics – has far too much to lose to permit observation of any distinguishing between poetry and mere verse, between the literarily meritable and literarily inconsequential. There are podiums and popularity and interviews on NPR or Huffington Post and invitations to TED talk and manifesto-space in Poetry Magazine or Boston Review to be had. God forbid verse culture and the critical apparatus within which it thrives is weighed against the idea of poetry lest its voices be revealed as inconsequential poetastery, sham bluster, or outright intellectual fraud. And yet, if we but look at the back covers of published (even, award-winning) books of verse, we see ourselves as readers surrounded by important voices of whatever peoples or plights.

And Leavis: Such claims are symptoms of the very weakness that they deny: they could have been made only in an age in which there were no serious standards current, no live tradition of poetry, and no public capable of informed and serious interest. Three well-chosen factors, characteristics, symptoms.

An age in which there were no serious standards. One of the false conclusions that people take from lines of thought like that which I am presenting is the assumption that it is a call for the elimination of popular literature. It is not. There is supposed to be popular literature, popular music, popular art: the absence of such would speak a sick society indeed. (Though, that popular music today is less "popular" and more the product of an industry, immediately disposable consumables force-fed to an uncritical audience, is itself symptom of cultural illness. The same idea can be said about popular literature, if not to the same degree. Pop literature, pop poetry, is playing catch-up in that regard.) The problem being confronted is not the presence of popular literature, of a pop culture of literature. It is the destruction of the culture of high literature in favor of and by participants in that popular culture. The consequences of that destruction are important, and extend far beyond the mere question of what gets published and publicized; indeed, the destruction of the culture of high literature is followed by the destruction also of the culture of popular literature. Following that, however, takes us beyond the scope of this project, except perhaps to point out what should be obvious: when there are "serious standards" of literature qua literature, those standards, those works and authors striving to meet and surpass those standards, pull popular literature up with them, increasing the vibrancy of both, increasing the vitality of both.

We are in an age in where there is no live tradition of poetry. What more evidence do you need beyond the idiocy of the cry of "dead white males" within cultural criticism and cultural literature? a cry that has never served any purpose except those self-serving ones listed above: podium time, political popularity, and resulting academic and cultural positions. A person truly interested in literature does not – to a very great degree – give a damn about who wrote what literature. It is the literature that is important. Something not lost but intentionally abandoned in the contemporary climate. However, it is important to focus upon that word "live": a live tradition. A contemporary culture in engagement with the tradition of literature that precedes it, both within and beyond local geography. It is always the true literature that is in living engagement with the tradition that rises above the rest; and it is not for naught that MFA culture, a degree that has little to do with learning within the tradition, generally eschews and at time vocally rejects engagement with the tradition.

An age in where there is no public capable of informed and serious interest. The key phrases to everything (not forgetting that very important word live[FN1]): a public capable of informed and serious interest. It is a simple question: how can there be serious interest in literature within a culture of literature that does not take literature seriously? in a culture of literature that does not take the study of literature seriously; in a culture of verse-writing that does not take the most basic study and discourse of poetics, of verse, of prosody, of language, seriously? Under the lens, it is not only the verse that appears in Poetry Magazine that suffers from this lack of informed seriousness but also the articles, essays, and reviews, in spite of all the pretense. If you can at all step outside the discussion and look at it objectively, you will see that the discourse of contemporary verse culture is far more about justifying contemporary verse culture than it is about discussing or exploring it.[FN2]

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[FN1] I hope to return to this word, "live," in posts to come in this project.

[FN2] I have had the want to give demonstration to the lack of seriousness in the prose found in verse oriented magazines and websites, and have started efforts to that end, though never to what I would consider success. Perhaps I shall try again in the future.
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A more recent – and U.S. directed – speaking of this state of literature can be found in Denis Donoghue's well known address, "The Use and Abuse of Theory":

In 1992 the work of literary criticism cannot be said to be impelled by a new literature. No literature written in the past forty years has called for a distinctive critical response; by this, I mean a response such as was required to deal with the formal organization of The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. So far as I can judge, critics no longer feel impelled to devise new procedures to deal with current poems and novels. Nor do poets and novelists show much interest in the theory and practice of criticism. (The Modern Language Review 87.4 (Oct. 1992): xxx)

The two moments are sixty years apart but are speaking the same situation: a culture of literature that has abandoned intelligent attention, seriousness, and informed knowledge. Donoghue is pointing to the situation through the results: how can there be – why would there be – serious criticism about contemporary literature if contemporary literature itself was not seriously concerned with literary criticism, with a living engagement with the tradition of literature, which cannot be discerned from a living engagement with the tradition of literary criticism? Poetry Magazine, and the works it puts forward, is demonstration of its own disengagement from that living tradition: its concern does not lie within the literary, it lies within the popular. Only, the popular of today is – here I break from Leavis – not merely dead but also so frequently so very bad. Thus my favorite phrase within the Leavis excerpt:

A study of the latter end of The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse leads to the conclusion that something has been wrong for forty or fifty years at the least.

The situation is not that the contemporary culture of verse (and literature) in the US is but demonstrative of certain preferences or is too embedded in a particular cultural era; the situation is such that there is something wrong with the culture of verse. The efforts of the defenders of contemporary verse to deny this – one need only look to responses to those articles that come out speaking this possibility, that there is something out of balance in the culture of literature – are themselves demonstration of the fact: they are "symptoms of the very weakness that they deny." A healthy literary culture would not stand in defiance and refusal of such critiques as Edmundson's "Poetry Slam" (to choose but one): it would question whether those critiques might have some merit. But contemporary literary culture could not bear such self-examination: how many contemporary "poets" would be willing to put their own work to the test? to any test? So, instead, the response is only ever a tell tale chorus of "nuh-uhhhh"s.

 

The argument here, in this upcoming series of posts, will be demonstration of that situation, observation of the symptoms of that something wrong within contemporary literary culture in the U.S., if an observation limited to but one organ of that greater body, one member of that greater populace. Though, for the centrality, the importance of that one member within that greater populace, it exists not as single, isolated incident: its influence is far too outreaching. Its status among the populace is not mere victim of contagion but source, a Typhoid Mary, though a not-at-all anonymous carrier of the wrongness that it actively spreads through the culture of verse in the U.S.

The project being started here is one I have wanted to take up for a couple of years now: an examination of the whole of an issue of Poetry (or at least its verse offerings) as a single, selected and edited book of verse. In that the October issue is very suitable to that end – suitable in the sense that what it offers is quite typical of what can be found in other issues of Poetry Magazine, in that it is not a thematic issue, and in that the works offered can be engaged without requiring an overly-labored approach or an overly-laborious reading of the resulting engagement – and in that its contents are comfortably representative of the general fare that Poetry offers its readers, the issue is as good an opportunity as any. The number of works offered should give opportunity both across variety and through commonalities toward a handful of posts that will still speak to the common end: the review not of the works singularly but of the October 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine as a whole, the review of a single volume of verse chosen and arranged by a single organizing editor (or editorial staff).[FN]

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[FN] To note, I will make no effort to complete the survey before October ends. Nor is there reason for me to do so.
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As for the authors, while they did submit these works for publication, and as such are in some degree complicit in the works' ultimate publication, for the most part the authors – lacking any final say in the issue of the magazine itself – are removed from critique. The finger of accusation points (almost) entirely upon the editors of the issue.[FN] As such, the greater questions raised in these pages will be directed to the magazine and to the role that that magazine plays within the culture of verse in the U.S.

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[FN] Guilt cannot be wholly removed from the authors. Can a writer be removed from guilt when they chose to send poor work to major magazines for publication? Is there not guilt in questioning whether any particular work should be published in the first place, especially in a prominent venue?
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I do not wish, in this project, to break from the general approach I follow on this blog. That is, I still want to look at these works from the point of view of writing, look at the works to see what they offer toward the exploration of the writing of verse, whether it be from the positive or the negative. This project is not solely to the ends of condemnation: I want to the critique to remain in a context of exploration. However, it will be my effort to maintain the fore-staging of certain themes, greatly in conjunction with the observations by Leavis and Donoghue above.

  1. That, as in the time of Leavis's observations, popular verse is mostly dead-on-arrival.
  2. But beyond that, how the popular verse of today is not just dead but plainly bad.
  3. That much of what is lacking in contemporary verse culture is intelligence.

There is a fourth: how contemporary verse continually refuses engagement with the living tradition of literature in English. Though, within the frame of one volume of verse, that might be at best an incidental, or opportunistic endeavor. The difficulty of such a demonstration lies not so much in demonstrating the nature of association of the verse with the tradition (that is, say, by the connection to the tradition being primarily mimicry as opposed to living engagement), but in that incompetence seems to rule the day. Though, it may be that that failure of engagement is thus found not in general incompetence so much as in the refusal of competence; it is in such that lies the refusal of engagement with the living tradition. To appearances, it is not that the engagement is a dead engagement, but that there is a basic refusal of any engagement at all. As such, it would be an argument from the negative: a difficult argument to demonstrate, especially with a small sampling. But, in extension to what I wrote above, when most contemporary free verse, prosodically speaking, is little more than bad prose in a narrow column, what engagement with the tradition can be dared, beyond such as those superficial (and fallacious) appeals to the works of persons such as William Carlos Williams (a favorite of poor free versers) as having broken open the flood gates of permissibility. Such arguments serve only to cover up the general failure of contemporary writers to have developed their own ear. I am sure the number of free verse writers that could fully speak on Williams' experiments with free verse is very few indeed. How quickly they can appeal to the likes of Robert Creeley to legitimize their own little lines; but do they have the ability to defend Robert Creeley from the same criticisms?[FN]

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[FN] I focus on free verse in these sentences, but writers of formal verse are not removed from the critique. The amount of bad verse written by neo-formalists is nearly as substantial as that written by free verse writers: I say "nearly" because the effort in itself of writing formal verse eliminates those writers whose skills have not even gained that measure of competency, those writers who then turn from writing inescapably bad formal verse to writing – and publishing – equally bad but somehow permissible free verse. What is curious about neo-formalism in terms of the critique above is how the neo-formalists use the appeal to formalism to shield their works from the critique of being ideationally dead verse, even prosodically dead verse. It amazes me how many of the more vocal neo-formalists seem to all soundings as prosodically tone deaf as their free verse opponents.

Free versers use the same methods in shielding their work from critique, but generally turn instead to the content of their works rather than formal properties. Same defensive fallacy; just different colors.
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My method here will be simple. I will take up the contents – the verse only, not the two essays – in the order presented on-line. (I presume it is the same order in the print version. If I get a chance to check, I will.) When opportunity arises to reach ahead (or, occasionally behind) so as to group works under one topic of discussion I will take it. In reading through the issue, most of the works here have something worth discussing, so it will be few if any that I wholly pass over. (And those, like the Apollonaire translations, will probably be passed over for other reasons, as will be explained.)

As the editors of Poetry are far more culpable as regards the contents of their magazine than the authors of the verse within the magazine, the authors themselves will for the most part be left out of the discussion. That is my general rule with this blog; though, it is a rule I occasionally break. However, because Poetry is an anthology of sorts, and because I doubt anyone believes that the works selected for publication are selected anonymously (nor do I believe Poetry ever makes that claim), there is a degree wherein who the authors are has some importance. As such, I will not shy from bringing in the authors when they legitimately should (not merely can) be brought in (as with the Irish authors and the Claudia Emerson pieces).

I will post the parts as I write them. As such, even though I am to some degree writing ahead of my place in working through the magazine, this series will suffer from those difficulties and problems that one would expect to find in a work written in installments. I do not offer that as excuse. This is but a individual's blog; I have no outside editing body overseeing my work, and I have no intention to obsess over every comma and clause. Imperfection should be expected. So, I offer that more as warning, in case the progression of though prompts a sudden change – or even major correction – in course.

That said, let's end this introduction and move on to the contents of the October 2015 Poetry Magazine and the opening poem, Matthew Sweeney's "Five Yellow Roses."[FN]

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[FN] The first and third authors in the October issue – the first two contemporary authors – are Irish, not U.S. writers. It makes me wonder if they are left overs from the previous issue, which was dedicated to Irish writers. That, in turn, it makes me wonder what prompted them to be printed: if there was some motivation besides "we wanted to but there wasn't enough space." That these two writers are Irish does not remove their work from the critique of the culture of verse in the U.S.: it is in the end the editors of Poetry that decided to offer the poems to the U.S. public, and as such their publication is yet firmly embedded within U.S. verse culture.
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Matthew Sweeney, “Five Yellow Roses”

 

It is humorous that Poetry would lead off this volume with such a poor work. Humorous, but not at all unexpected.

If you are an attentive reader you hopefully saw on the first or second go the rather blatant error in the text. Not an error of fact (though it creates something of a contradiction in fact); not an error in grammar. An error in basic writing skills, one so sloppy that on that one error alone the poem should have never made it to print in an edited magazine. It occurs in the fourth stanza:

while an albino conjurer magicked a hare
to leap from his heavily-ringed brown fingers.

The conjuror is an albino and yet has brown fingers? Is not the mark of albinism the absence of color within the skin? Yes, an albino need not be totally devoid of color, but that defense is little more than a dodge that fails to escape what is the more telling issue: the use of the word albino is undermined by the subsequent use of the word brown. The idea that is generated by the use of albino is the idea of the lack or absence of color; it is defining the appearance of the conjurer. Whether or not the conjurer's skin is wholly devoid of melanin, whether or not the conjurer's hand could still, potentially be considered "brown" is irrelevant to the point that it is simply poor writing when a word – "brown" – enters into a clause as though completely oblivious to that it is causing an ideational clash with the more potent word already used to define the scene. There is no reason for "brown" to exist in that clause: it is unnecessary to the point: it was already stated the line previous that the scene of the conjurer occurs "in Madras." Indeed neither is "albino" necessary to the line. What the word does, forgive the pun, is color the moment with a sense of strangeness – if a undeniably trite strangeness[FN]:

while an albino conjurer magicked a hare to leap from his heavily-ringed fingers.

At this point, not only does the use of"brown" have neither reason nor purpose, the use of the word is an error in writing. The only reason one would put the word in the clause would be to call attention to the color of the conjurer's skin. But that has already been done with "albino." So not only is the clause-as-written unnecessarily calling attention to the color of the conjurer's skin twice, it is changing the color of the conjurer's skin in the process.

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[FN] I am ignoring the rather questionable assertion that the central woman of the poems was "born [. . .] while an albino conjurer magicked": it creates odd questions when you realize that an albino was playing with a rabbit in the same room as a woman in the moments of giving birth, or that in some way the magicking of a rabbit was connected to that birth.
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This is a very basic error in writing. One that should have been caught by the author; one that especially should have been caught by the editors of Poetry, who, ostensibly, are professional readers of verse. Yet there it is on the first page of verse in the issue. And it is not merely a goof in writing that did not get caught by the writer: it is an error that speaks either the complete lack of attention to the words on the page or the lack of sophistication in language and writing skills – or both – on the part of the author. And worse, the absolute lack of attention and lack of literary sophistication on the part of the editors of Poetry. There is no excuse for such two lines to exist within a professional print magazine: it would never have survived editing in an essay journal; what possible justification could be had for it existing in a journal of verse?

It is not like this is one issue within the text. The whole of the piece speaks of poor writing if attention is but given to the text. "Magicked a hare to leap [. . .] from his fingers"? Is there any reason for it to be "fingers" and not the far more sensical "hand"? And the "magick" of the conjuror is only that a hare leaps from his hand? The conjurer has to use magic to get a rabbit to leap from his hand? Yes, the author probably intended something more, well, magical. But that is not what lies before me on my printed page. The entire, extended phrase again speaks of the lack of effort and attention to what is being written. It was not mere playful chiding when Leavis wrote of the popular verse of his time, "the writer himself can never have been more than superficially interested in [the words on the page]." It was clinically descriptive: descriptive here also of the editors of Poetry: if they were seriously, intelligently interested in the words on the page, how did this poem pass the through selection into print?

Nor is it that the poem was successful up until that fourth stanza. First stanza:

                                                 with five
yellow roses, bulked up with green fronds
and tied in a dinky knot with olive twine.

It is a basic syntax error: the sentence says that the roses are tied in a knot and the twine is used to accomplish. It does not say that the twine was tied in a knot. It is bad prose masquerading as poetry. I will pass on the aural and ideational cymbal crashes of "bawling" and "dinky" in the stanza because there is no need to speak of poetic ear when there are far more fundamental issues to be had. Second stanza:

There was no card to say who the flowers
came from
.

Yes, whom. But to the point, the second half of that sentence is superfluous, if not grossly pointless. There was no card: so obviously the flowers were anonymously sent. The latter seven words are redundant, add nothing to the poem, and thus are again bad writing. Then comes the rest of the stanza:

                The man's uniform was blue
with a brown insignia of a spider on his right
top pocket that she saw he kept unbuttoned.

What is the point of this information? What is the value of this information? Does it in any way add any ideational energy to the central idea of the text as a whole? Can it not be said that it is, in fact, completely pulling away from the central idea of the work (that of the woman's emotions)? On a more subtle analysis, does not the shift in focus create an awkwardness within the ideational flow of the piece? In writing, the question should be being asked with every part of any text: what is the point, the function, the value of any moment in the text? If there is not one, if there is not one that works positively to the experience of the text, then it should be deleted as unnecessary to the text, if not and more importantly recognized as deleterious to the text: something that does not belong in a text invariably weakens the text by its inclusion. Beyond the issue of the presence of the sentence within the poem, the sentence itself is terrifically clumsy prose:

The man's uniform was blue with a brown insignia of a spider on his right top pocket that she saw he kept unbuttoned.

There is little evidence here that was any more thought to the writing of this sentence than what it took to transcribe the sentence from thought to word. The situation is even worse in the next stanza. Again, I write it as sentences to eliminate any disguising by what are completely arbitrary line breaks.

As he waltzed down the path to the gate the Siamese cat that frequented the garden raised its back and hissed. The man laughed and flounced out to his waiting white van.

"Waltzed"? "Flounced"??!! Where did that word come from? Notice the ambiguity in "he" (is it the man or the cat?) created by the sloppy control. And then there's the out-of-nowhere anthropomorphizing of the van, once again creating a shift in focus, now even farther away from the woman who is supposedly the point of this piece of verse. Or am I missing some secret importance of the van within the text? The quality of these sentences are as one would expect to find in a story written by a middle school student who had just taken their first steps upon the learning curve of writing: it speaks – it screams – of a text written without intent consideration during or after the fact of writing, without competent editing. They are laughably juvenile. This extended moment – and the moment previous – remind me of those moments on Monday Night Football where a quarterback would throw up a high-arching duck and Dierdorf or Micheals would shout out "Somebody shoot that thing!" By the time "flounced" came along I was shouting, "Somebody shoot that thing!" And yet there those moments are, wearing their new clothes of "poetic line breaks," leading off an issue of Poetry Magazine. [FN]

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[FN] I will belay addressing the issue of line breaks until a future post, where I have time and space to give full attention to it.
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"Flounced"?!?!?!

First piece in the issue and it is undeniably not merely ideationally and creatively dead – which it is, though I do not here go deeply into it – but generally incompetent. It is a terrible piece of verse. It is something that never should have been submitted to anything, nevermind accepted to and printed in the “flag ship” of poetry journals in the US. And this is not what I would consider the most egregious example of willingly published bad writing in the issue. (Though, nor is the rest of the issue all as bad as this work.)

So, right off the top, you should be able to see why I have only disdain for Poetry Magazine, its editors and its staff. How can a poem that is as poor as this one – and I in no way exhausted my panning of the piece – make it through the selection process? What possibly could have justified the printing of this poem above however many thousands of other submissions? Speaking as an observer of contemporary U.S. literary culture, there is an obvious possibility as to why. It is found here:

                                                OK,
she'd been born in Madras,

and here:

                           Enough to encourage her
to cook saffron rice, with turmuric-tinged prawns
and sautéed yellow courgettes.

The most likely suspect is the absolutely conventional reference to a non-white-Christian-male subculture. Cultural reference – especially sub-cultural reference – is arguably the dominant means of justification of bad verse in U.S. verse culture today. Write any piece of schlock about Hindus in Ireland and the inadequacies if not incompetencies have a great chance of being overlooked in favor of that sub-cultural topicality. For readers like me, readers who actually pay attention to the words on the page, reference to subcultures have become so workaday, so trite, so intellectually ideationally empty, indeed so conventionalized that it is now not even the content of the reference but the mere act of referencing itself that suffices to meet the convention. The convention has reached such a stage of triteness that any such reference is a neon bright cue that the text being read will be a poorly written one, and almost assured a fairly daft one. It is the current holder of the position of Grand Cue of Triteness that used to be held by verse about the death of the author's parents. The hollowness of the conventionality is so bad that it is my advice to wholly avoid any such references if you want escape conventionality and enter to the greater endeavor of writing poetry.

 

 

Guillaume Apollinaire; Matthew Sweeney, “Dialogue with an Artist”

 

The other work by Sweeney included in Poetry is "Dialogue with an Artist" (link to text). However, I am reluctant to comment on it because of the note below the title: "Incorporating the words of L.S. Lowry." Such notification, in that it brings to question which word-choices are Lowry's and which are Sweeney's, creates a situation very similar to that with translations. In the posts on this blog I have generally avoided translations. In line with that I will not comment on the translations included in this issue of Poetry, including the three poems by Apollinaire that follow Sweeney's two.

The reason I pass on translations is that to explore a translation one must take into account the original text. For example, there is little value in critiquing a verbally clumsy translation when it is entirely possible that it is a translation of a verbally clumsy original. As well, different translators have different ends in their work. Pound approached translation with the desire to recreate in English the experience of reading the poem in the original language. As such, accuracy of translation was not of primary concern. On the other end of the spectrum (and there are more than one) lies the goal of making as direct as possible a translation. In those texts, it is aesthetic considerations that must be pushed from the fore. A good example of this latter is Mandelbaum's translation of the Divine Comedy, a translation meant to be as direct a translation as possible without abandoning some simple poetic considerations. Because of that choice in method, even though it is written in blank verse (with occasional rhyming in mimic of the original form), the poetics of the text are mostly but competent, though often bland and occasionally clumsy. However, writing brilliant verse was not the goal of the translation: within the desired purpose, and it is a valuable purpose let us be clear, Mandelbaum's translation is quite successful.

I myself would not make the claim to be able to read Apollinaire in Apollinaire's French well enough to speak to the translations as translations. At most, I could only here make comment on the texts under the wholly artificial context that the texts were written by the translator in contemporary English. Something I do not here wish to pursue. As such, I will skip over them entirely.[FN]

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[FN] It is curious to me, as an editorial choice, that Apollinaire is the second author offered in the issue. Especially in their following the two very weak poems that lead off the issue, and perhaps also in their being positioned between the two Irish authors. Because of its positioning, the editorial choice reads to me as a half-handed appeal to aesthetic legitimacy, to poetic sophistication, an attempt to create a false impression of literary value by including works of a recognized author from the past (particularly, of the Modernist era), safely included through the guise of translation: a guise that means not only translation into English, but also translation out of any accidental engagement with English canon. It may very well be that the decision was simply to put non-U.S. writers to the front of the magazine; however, that does not eliminate how it looks to this reader.
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Hopefully that explanation is sufficient to why I will also mostly pass on "Dialogue with an Artist." Perhaps if I was a scholar of Lowry I might see something in this work to which, not being such, I am blind to. That very possibly makes me reluctant to move forward with the text beyond giving thought only to the first stanzas, in part to show that the quality of the first work does not, in comparison to with the second, seem an aberration. Mostly, however, I want to prompt a line of thought. Again, I will move to rewriting it as prose, as I see no real legitimacy to or consideration of the lines as lines of verse within the work itself:

I used to paint the sea, but never a shore, and nobody was sailing on it.

Right off the top, you should be able to see how bad the prose is: the sentence cannot decide whether it is about the sea or the shore. This is not clever prose, this is not merely uninteresting prose; this is bad prose.

It wasn't even the sea, it was just my own loneliness.
It's all there, you know. It's all in the sea.

Hopefully you noticed the lack of ideational control. In the first sentence of the text, the idea is that "nobody was sailing on" the sea: it createsthe idea of emptiness, an idea punctuated by "it was just my own loneliness." And yet, in the next stanza, you have a 180-degree reversal: "It's all there. [. . .] It's all in the sea." Which one? Is the sea empty or is the sea everything? At this point I no longer believe that the author's thought behind the making of the text carries any real depth; nor do I believe that the author is giving much attention to the thought as it is being generated through the words on the page. Through the poor control – especially after the train wreck of the work on the previous page – the author has lost me as a reader.

I want to posit an idea here, a line of thought that I will try carry forward through these explorations. (Though, I may not speak it overtly: indeed this thought has been present if unspoken through most of the life of this blog. I addressed this idea in post on Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars.) There is a bad habit within contemporary discourse about verse, a habit I believe based in part in contemporary literary culture's unwillingness to speak negatively of an author (lest someone speak negatively about their own verse); though I believe the deeper cause is the unconscious need to defend what is frequently indefensible. People who talk about literature – not only in casual talk but also reviewers and their ilk – have a tendency to pick and chose positive moments out of a text and proclaim the whole of the text literarily meritable based upon those isolated moments. I would like to propose turning the viewpoint around. Instead of looking for positives within a text, within the contents of the October Poetry, I want to try to approach the works, to approach the writing found in the works, not looking for examples of good writing, but asking instead how would a poor writer would write that whatever bit of text, thus inviting the comparison as to whether the text indeed looks like it was written by a poor writer. If what is found in a text is of the nature of what would be expected from a poor writer, then would it not be the correct conclusion that it is indeed poor writing? (Or in the least, it is neither good nor competent writing?) Instead of looking for reasons to justify a text, let's look for reasons to eliminate texts from consideration, especially as regards issues of journals, which are published on the very premise that the editors are attempting to eliminate poor writing from the discourse their magazines might generate. Rather than trying to justify, if accidentally, bad verse, let's see instead if they have the characteristics of poorly written verse. Because if they do, they are then poorly written verse.

With that in mind, I do not believe we need to go to the ideational aspects of the how the sea is treated in the opening of the work; we can go, simply, to a basic question – notice I say "question" – of grammar. Not in that it may or may not be an error, but in that it is an example of authorial choice. I am referring to the comma in the third line. I give the whole of the stanza, first with the original comma; then with the comma replaced by a period.

I used to paint the sea, but never a shore,
and nobody was sailing on it. It wasn't even
the sea, it was just my own loneliness.

I used to paint the sea, but never a shore,
and nobody was sailing on it. It wasn't even
the sea. It was just my own loneliness.

The use of a period creates a stop between the two statements, itself creating a greater emphasis on the latter of the two. There is pregnant pause at that period – that does not exist with the comma – that drops the reader into the following statement on loneliness. Now, ignoring whether or not those lines are directly taken from some text of Lowry's (and I believe that issue is irrelevant to the moment), consider this: a good writer would notice the opportunity offered by the period; a poor writer would be more likely to clumsily string the clauses together in the same manner as the phrases in the opening sentence. In that the verse as found has a comma in it and not a period, is it more likely written by a good writer or by a poor writer? The comma is a decision of authorial choice: either Sweeney saw the comma and chose it over a period, or Sweeney failed to notice the potential of the period and went with the comma. Since the final text is in the manner of the decisions of a poor (or at least poorer) writer, is it not then poor writing?

A simple decision, but a telling decision. One that speaks the absence of attention and of demonstrated sophistication of the author in writing the work – especially when such moments of authorial choice (or the absence thereof) are replete through the work. In that the two poems are full of such apparent absences of authorial consideration, it cannot be ignored. I return to Leavis:

No one could be seriously interested in the great bulk of the verse that is culled and offered to us as the fine flower of modern poetry. For the most part it is not so much bad as dead – it was never alive. The words that lie there arranged on the page have no roots: the writer himself can never have been more than superficially interested in them.

In that contemporary verse as is published in Poetry Magazine and elsewhere, both in magazines and in books, continually demonstrates a more-than-apparent absence of authorial consideration, how can anyone be seriously interested – be intellectually interested – in contemporary verse? Indeed, why should anybody be seriously interested in contemporary verse if not even the editors of the major magazines seem to show any interest in it? When the very evidence of the text being offered speaks that "the writers themselves can never have been more than superficially interested" in their own works, what interesting should I legitimately be expected to bring to the texts myself? "Superficial" in the quotation is not a passing word: it speaks the opposite of considered, intelligent, informed. And this is the overall description of popular literature today: lack of attention, lack of sophistication, lack of intelligence, lack of informed skill in the work. Why should I spend money on or give consideration to journals that demonstrate less textual attention than a Highlights magazine?

Perhaps, though, that is a false question. Perhaps Poetry Magazine is wholly cognizant that its audience has no intention whatsover to give intelligent, informed, sophisticated attention to the texts it puts forward. Perhaps, like Harriet Monroe's, today's Poetry recognizes that its audience lacks not only the willingness but the ability – the informed intelligence – to give such attention to the works it puts forward. Perhaps they recognize that, to use the wonderful joke from Shakespeare in Love, their audience is looking only for, and capable only of looking for, a bit with a dog. A damning thought for MFA culture.

But that is not an out. It is, actually, a point of culpability: for it is the editors of Poetry – and the many magazines like it – that are greatly to blame for, firstly, the state of the work they publish and, secondly, the ability of their readership to read it. If what is published is overwhelmingly light, inconsequential, if not incompetent verse then the culture of verse will gladly descend to meet that level. Such is the nature of culture. Publish ideationally dead verse and the culture of verse will become ideationally dead. Unfortunately, in a literary world that is dominated by "free verse" and falsely legitimized by theoretically empty if not fallacious claims to what "free verse" permits, verse that is so rarely "verse" at all, contemporary verse is not, as Leavis described, "not so much bad as dead."

Verse today is bad.

Conclusion reached. No reason to continue with the project. Except it is a conclusion reached from but one example. (And here I ignore the many examples I have put forward previously on this blog.) I will nonetheless continue through this journey of the dead, the bad, and the ugly. For if ever there was a situation where such an act might become a necessity, there is in today's verse culture every reason, every need to beat this dead horse.

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