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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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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: Poetry Magazine (Oct. 2015) – Part V: Matt Hart

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

links to individual texts:
Matt Hart, "The Friend"
— headers to the sections are also links to the texts

 


the other posts in this series


 

list verse; more on pop-formatting; and defenses of texts

 

– some editing, Apr. 4, 2016

 

This post will cover only one text, that which comes next in the contents of the October, 2015, Poetry Magazine, Matt Hart's "The Friend." My original plan was to pair it with "Vert," by Catherine Staples, which is found farther forward in the text. Both works are of the same structure; though, each approaches the structure differently, and to different degrees (and forms) of success. However, for reasons including the length of the below, the want to gather up threads before beginning with "Vert," and a project or two that is requesting my attention, I will save the latter work for the next post.

 

That "The Friend" is in its base structure a list is seen in that the core of the text is constituted by a list of statements about "the friend," statements with either "the friend" or "you" as the subject of the sentence. However, that is not the only type of statement within the text: there are also statements that do not have either "the friend" or "you" as subject, and have no direct connection to that primary list; and statements (or clauses within statements) that are the repeating "him/her" motif, which first appears in lines 5-7. The motif appears twice more in the text (lines 15-16, 35-37) and is echoed in lines 32-33:

and being a friend with your hands in your pockets,
and the friend's hands in your pockets.

Before going to the idea of the list, let me give word to this motif.

They read entirely as an appeal to pop-poetic sentiment. They do not come off as clever but as a gimmick, a 'hook' in pop music terminology, a trope meant to make the text memorable (in a pop sort of way). As with all appeals to pop sentiment, their function is entirely to say to the reader, "Look, this poem does things that pop poetry does" – ergo, then says the pop reader, this is a good poem. They are, to continue with the theme begun in the previous posts, meant to be recognized, not read. Not meant to be read because when read they are revealed for the sham poetics they are. There are two interrelated reasons why the lines fail. The first is revealed in the contradiction within the first appearance of the lines.

You put your hand on her shoulder,
or you put your hand on his shoulder.
The friend is indefinite.

Saying "her" and then "his" is the opposite of "indefinite": the text is being very definite by pointing to the sex of the person, even if it is creating an ambivalence with that pointing out. Just because something is ambivalent does not make it indefinite: in fact, it makes it the opposite. A sophisticated writer would not try to create indefiniteness by offering a choice: they would create indefiniteness by avoiding any choices, by avoiding any moves to the definite, even if the result is ambivalent (or ambiguous).

But, then, the statement "the friend is indefinite" is going against the entire thesis of the text, which is pointing out the very definiteness of what a friend is. Of course a friend is not indefinite, a friend – a "friend" – is a very definite thing, a thing to which the text is striving to give definition. In the first appearance, the lines fail by being in contradiction to the neighboring text.

If it creates a contradiction, why then is "the friend is indefinite" in the text? The line reads to me as though the writer intuitively knew that the her/his lines did not work within the text and was trying to band-aid a solution onto the lines with the "the friend is indefinite" statement. Yet, no matter how flesh-colored or transparent they may claim to be, a bandage is always visible as hiding something: here the clash created by the appeal to the pop sentiment.

What clash? The pop-cultural-critical effort to put in the her/him statement – a move to definiteness – when, through the rest of the poem, there is only "the friend" and "you": two terms which are indeed indefinite as to the physical reality of the characters. The point of the text is to describe the qualities of the friend that gives them value. Only, those qualities are not found in physical characteristics. So there is a clash: a general text that is about psychological or emotional or spiritual characteristics, and a refrain that points to the physical. And the as soon as the latter appears, the text sees the error and tries to cover it up, as though saying, "Wait, I didn't mean to give a specific physical reference; I mean that the friend is 'indefinite.' Yeah, that's the ticket."

This is not a rare thing in pop poetry or unsophisticated verse, because such verse is written linearly, not with attention to the unity of the piece. In the progress of the text the writer comes upon an idea and attaches it to the end of the text-in-progress. Only, they recognize that there is a clash between the newly added text and what proceeds it, and, refusing to abandon their clever idea, seek instead to correct the course in the following lines. Contradictions such as in the three lines above should be a hint to the writer that there is something wrong with the text as written: not something that can be corrected with tweaking, but something fundamentally wrong; here, that the her/him lines do not at all belong in the text. Why then are they present?

The answer is the writer fell into pop conventionality. The lines are reiteration of an an appeal to established, pop poetic sentiment, an appeal to the pop cultural obsession with identity politics – itself something that exists almost entirely within the shallow puddles of pop sentiment, but that's another matter. Except, it's not; it's precisely the matter. Pop poetry does not engage philosophical explorations: it appeals to the bumper-sticker mentality of pop thought. Gender/sex is now a frequently appearing theme in pop poetry[FN]: and it is rarely engaged above the level of pop thought. It exists only to serve as an appeal to topicality: "Look at me," the text says. "I'm being all pc with my gender politics. Oooh, how conventionally liberal of me. It's obvious I'm a good poem." Only, it's politics, not philosophy; and all politics are but appeals to cultural convention, the opposite of sophisticated writing.

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[FN] Humorously, one of the more overt cues of how the discourse on gender/sex has devolved to pop sentiment can be seen in how frequently pop poetry (and pop social criticism) fails to make that essential distinction between gender and sex.
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Here it need only be recognized that the writer is making a direct appeal to pop social criticism: which, like the pop-poetic convention making the appeal, is not meant to be read deeply but only recognized. It does not generate independent thought, it merely duplicates what has been said a thousand times elsewhere, what has become, indeed, a quickly recognizable bumper-sticker; a label by which the writer identifies themselves as part of a certain herd mentality: or, in the least, appeals to that herd mentality (whether they themselves are a member) so as to gain for the text popularity.

That quite obvious appeal to pop sentimentality – all the more obvious since it sticks out from the rest of the text – is a universal sign of poor writing, of gimmickry and sham. Because it is so unavoidably part of pop-thought, no sophisticated writer would ever make such a statement: that is, except in satire. Which is itself ironic in that the lines here work against their intent, and work as satire of the text itself: the text is unwittingly mocking its own intellect, seeking to define what is uniquely special about "a friend" while at the same time appealing to conventions to garner recognition. Such self-mockery is a frequent result of social criticism when it appears in pop verse.[FN]

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[FN] But, then, self-mockery is a frequent result of social criticism, for anyone who can take enough steps back to see the performance.
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These repeated lines on their own are sufficient cue as to the quality of the text, and should have been enough to reject the text for publication: something so blatantly pop-poetic is a neon sign that the rest of the text is probably not going to be all that good. I would not as an editor ever publish a text so marked, because I would then be marking my own journal as being anchored in pop public sentiment. We'll call it – for the moment – the "if you want to be taken serious as a musical artist then you might want to stop hanging around with Justin Bieber and Katy Perry" argument. It's an imperfect comparison, but to the point. If your magazine is filled with gimmickery, sham, and pop, then don't make claims for yourself beyond gimmickery, sham, and pop.

 

Now, it is yet worth giving a moment to the use of the phrases as a kind of refrain through the text. The difficulty with writing a text that is essentially a list (a list that is the whole of the text, not a list that is tucked within a larger text) is justifying the presentation of the text. When a writer presents a list – as with any text – the text should speak that the list is a well-crafted list, one that exists in the way presented as a unity, as a list that is successful not solely in the contents of the individual members of the list but successful also because of the presentation of the list as a whole, in the order and manner presented. A well made text based upon a list would create a flow, a development, from beginning to end: in its simplest, no two elements could be exchanged without ruining the experience of the text.

The use of a refrain within a list – be the refrain ideational or material or both – is one way to create unity. It breaks the list into sections, which prompts in the reader the want to see why the sections are there broken up, to see what unity (ideational and/or material) marks the sections themselves and why the refrains occur where they occur. So the idea of using a refrain in "The Friend" is not a bad idea. Unfortunately, the content of the refrain does not belong in the text. The question of whether the use of the refrain (in its structural use only) creates something successful toward the experience of the text of "The Friend" as a whole – something greater than its parts – or merely cuts up the list into manageable bites I leave to you.

 

I am going to hold off on the somewhat non sequitur moments, and turn to the main body, the 'list' that constitutes the central structure and content of the text. One might expect that in a text titled "The Friend" the constitutive statements would be primarily about the qualities of friend. That's not the case here, however. In fact, when you look at the statements as prose, the list is somewhat a jumble, jumping back and forth between descriptive statements about "the friend" and situational statements about "you." It is more easily seen when you list the core of each statement:

The friend lives half in the grass.
[The friend] walks over to your house.
You are both so tired.
The friend's crisis of faith about faith is unnerving.
You tell the friend the best things you can imagine.
You and the friend remain twisted together.
The friend brings black hole candy to your lips.
So much confusion – and being a friend.
You find a higher power.

Having the statements toggle between subjects works against unity. You have to keep in mind there's nothing inherently wrong with creating a work out of the structure of a list. The problem within pop poetry culture is the form becomes in itself justification for the text: success lies in the imitation of the structure, not in the resulting work. If you are structuring a text like list verse or clothesline verse, there should still be aspects to the list that both tie the elements together into a whole and create energies (from interplay, from ordering, from style, etc.) that build to an experience of the whole greater than that of the parts. Having statement jump about in focus – not so much that the grammatical subject of the sentences change but the focus of the sentences changes – creates disorder in the list, which can only work against the reader's experience of the text as a whole.

With the long sentences trimmed down, it is also easy to see the list nature of the text: easy to see because there is no real flow or development along the statements: they are but statements, all loosely on the same subject. Which is not to say there cannot be development from entry to entry, as will be seen with "Vert." Here, however the statements could be switched about in order with out any substantial change to the identity of the text.

As for the sentences themselves, they are, for the most part, out of control sentences (both grammatically and ideationally), yet more bad prose hidden through the text being chopped into line breaks that work against the text's natural structure. Indeed, the sentences themselves point to that linear nature of unsophisticated writing, the same linear writing that creates run-on sentences in the essays of students low on the learning curve of composition and grammar. In syntax, gaining the ability to recognize a run-on sentence is development of the ability to see a sentence as a whole. When I see sentences like that found here, especially considering the arbitrary line breaks, I do not see "poetic" sentences; I see only poor prose, prose written without consideration to the unity of the sentences; and, as such and in turn, a text written without consideration to the text as a whole. The end result is that "The Friend" does not give me much confidence in its construction, in the thought put into its writing.

Question: is there demonstrated in the text any legitimate reason to have the text broken the way it is?

A natural line/stanza breaking can be found in most any text, even if that breaking be very simplistic, cut merely as cued by grammar. For example, taking the opening four sentences of "The Friend":

The friend lives half in the grass and half in the chocolate cake,
walks over to your house in the bashful light of November,
     or the forceful light of summer.

You put your hand on her shoulder,
or you put your hand on his shoulder.

The friend is indefinite.

You are both so tired,
no one ever notices the sleeping bags inside you and under your eyes
when you're talking together about the glue of this life,
the sticky saturation of bodies into darkness.[FN]

I am not saying this is a terribly clever thing to do; I am merely saying that every text can be broken into lines of some manner or another in a way natural to the text. Indeed, such breaking rarely if ever results in interesting verse: it is merely breaking a sentence, not crafting lines.

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[FN] The stanzas tend to fall one sentence/one stanza because the text is composed of a list of long, mostly independent sentences. I separate "The friend is indefinite" as an independent stanza because of the phrase being repeated: I mark it visually as a refrain.
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Now, it seems to me an obviousness that any variation from this basic structuring would demand self-spoken evidence that that variation improves the text. So it has to be asked not only with pop poetic texts like "The Friend" but with all texts: if I as reader cannot find a legitimate, text-oriented reason – a beneficial reason, a clever reason – why the text is formatted in the manner offered, is it false for me to read the text as poorly formatted; specifically to pop poetry, formatted in the way it is formatted because it is the conventional way, the way that texts in pop poetry culture are supposed to be formatted, the text itself be damned? Considering some of these sentences, it strikes me as odd that the text is not written differently. For example, this sentence

The friend's crisis of faith about faith is unnerving in its power to influence belief, not in or toward some other higher power, but away from all power in the grass or the lake with your hand on her shoulder, your hand on his shoulder.

completely loses grip on itself at "in the grass." Indeed, the phrase "in the grass or the lake" comes off as a desperate (and half-assed) attempt to put a concrete element into a wholly abstract statement. (Does not "away from all power in the grass" contradict the opening statement of "the friend lives half in the grass"?) What's most curious about the sentence, though, is the addended her/him phrases: they make it a sentence that cries out for the use of line breaks to create organization.

The friend's crisis of faith about faith is unnerving in its power to influence belief, not in or toward some other higher power, but away from all power in the grass or the lake
               with your hand on her shoulder,
               your hand on his shoulder.

The sentence itself is clumsy, granted (when parsed, the "but" phrase makes no sense in the sentence); but, hopefully you can see how those last two lines are an element in themselves: connected to the sentence as part of the sentence, but separate in that they exist primarily to repeat the her/him refrain. They want to be marked off through verse structure. Failing to do so hides them in a scrunched up paragraph; takes away from them most of the value they are meant to have in the text as a refrain. It is worth pointing out that variation from what is prompted in the text is not in itself clever writing. Enjambing lines just to break from the 'norm' of lines ending between grammatical or syntactic elements does not create clever verse simply because it is different from the norm. The result has to be judged on its own merits according to the text offered.

Most of the time in pop poetry, breaks from the norm read only as though the writer could see neither why the break fails to add to the text nor why the norm itself succeeds: they read only as someone with poor skills in versecraft. Simplicity is far more often the correct path than not. Variations from simplicity must be self-justifying, or they fail. In "The Friend," there is a refrain. This is verse, as such, the simplest approach would be to mark off the refrain through line/stanza form. Yet, the refrain is here hidden in the text's being written at a run across arbitrary line breaks. I am brought to ask with every such example: If the writer was not going to let the text speak its own structure, if the writer was going to force the text into a block that to all appearances looks defined primarily by line length – that is, by narrowed margins –, then why bother to write the text in verse? Why not write it as a paragraph? The answer is because as a paragraph the texts makes for terrible, out of control, unacceptable prose. So it is written in lines, because the in pop poetry, terrible, out of control, unacceptable prose is somehow acceptable when arbitrarily turned into verse.

Why? Because it is good verse? No. Merely because it is recognizable as what stands as verse in pop poetry today.

Indeed, in "The Friend," I see another example of verse that speaks to me how the artificial line/stanza structure serves to hide from the reader the problems in the text. When you clear away the arbitrary chopping up, the text looks unavoidably iffy. I break up the sentence for ease of reading:

The noiserocks fall twisted into each other's dreams,
     their colorful paratrooping,
     their skinny dark jeans,
          little black walnuts to the surface of this earth.

Are the noiserocks "falling into each other's dreams" or "to the earth"? The sentence turns back on itself before it ends. And then, what is a "noiserock" supposed to be? Googling the word I can only find references to a form of punk rock. If it is a black walnut, as the sentence directs with the mundanely grounded final phrase, what are the "skinny dark jeans" supposed to be? Black walnuts are fat, round things; "skinny" and "jeans" don't quite apply. How do walnuts "fall twisted"? Are black walnuts "colorful" or "paratrooping"? Finally, if "noiserocks" are not supposed to be black walnuts, why that last phrase?

The sentence is wholly out of control. It is with the constant discovery of such poorly constructed sentences in pop poetry that I am brought to wonder if the pop poetic line breaks work just as hard to hide the content of texts from their writers as well as their readers, to wonder if writers never bother to write out the sentences as I do here, or if they just merrily string along words, phrases, punctuation marks, moving from sentence to sentence, phrase to phrase without looking back, adding line breaks when the text gets to the desired length, then calling the text a "poem" when they come upon something that fits well the requisite, faux-philosophical, final line.

Another example, one more subtle but just as much a problem:

                                   The friend
brings black hole candy to your lips, and jumping
off the rooftops of your city, the experience.

I wonder at times in reading texts like this, whose sentences have such a clumsy, stumbling sound, what the writer hears when they themselves read their sentences. I have in the past listened to the audio writers just to hear how they speak a text that does not read very smoothly. Usually, it does not speak very smoothly either. When it is spoken smoothly, it usually points to an error in the text: the sound the writer thinks is on the page is not.

The friend brings black hole candy to your lips, and jumping off the rooftops of your city, the experience.

The third element rings wrongly in my ears because of the combination of it being (1) an abstract element after two concrete elements; (2) a short element after two longish phrases; and, most importantly, (3) a break in parallelism because of the use of "the." Notice the difference between the original and

The friend brings the black hole candy to your lips, and the jumping off the rooftops of your city, the experience.

or

The friend brings black hole candy to your lips, and jumping off the rooftops of your city, experience.

That solves some of the aural clash because of the elimination of the faulty parallelism, but there's still the ideational stumbling from two developed phrases to a cheap appeal to a general abstraction, one that emerges out of nothing in the text, and ideationally dies as soon as it is read. The sentence does not read as a well crafted sentence, but as a string of phrases, phrases that on their own and in combination soung like the kind of thing that you find in quirky pop verse.[FN]

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[FN] Which, granted, is often also imitation of what can be found in sophisticated verse. Though, where in sophisticated verse the text is integrated to the whole, in pop verse the event is always but a moment. The thinking, if unconscious, goes as such: "This is an opportunity to do something like that comes of like X, which is just like what I have seen elsewhere." Yes, the bottom half of the learning curve of any art form is climbed greatly through exploration via imitation, but imitation does not in itself give value to a work. But then, the bottom half of the learning curve is mostly learning, and not meant to be seen outside the atelier.
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Indeed, this text is full of pop-poetic moments.

[. . .] the sticky saturation of bodies into darkness[. . .]

(which makes no sense)

The eggbirds whistle the gargantuan trees.

(is that intended that way or is that a typo on the part of Poetry?)

[. . .] in physical lawlessness, in chemical awkwardness.
It is too much to be so many different things at once.
O gongbirds and appleflocks!

These moments exist primarily as pop-poetic moments: there to be seen and recognized, not to be read. When read they rarely make sense within the text, even often within their own sentences; nor do they often add any ideational substance to the text beyond the moments of their own existence. They offer nothing beyond their being a quippy, catchy, pop-poetic phrase. "O gongbirds and appleflocks!"?? How in the course of this list did the text get from "you put your hand on her shoulder, or you put your hand on his shoulder" to "gongbirds and appleflocks"? The answer is that the text didn't get from shoulders to flocks: rather, shoulders happened and then flocks happened. Flow, progression, development, continuity, as with so very much of pop poetry, is not to be found except in the most superficial and the shortest of threads. To all appearances, at some point in a text describing "the friend," the writer became violently possessed with the spirit of Edward Lear and eggbirds took over the stage.

In the context that has been established by the text, what am I as a reader supposed to take from those sentences.

The eggbirds whistle the gargantuan trees. The noiserocks fall twisted into each other's dreams, their colorful paratrooping, their skinny dark jeans, little black walnuts to the surface of this earth.

They are a very odd insertion into the text – their oddness in part hidden by the arbitrary line breaking, which acts to fragment all the long sentences, making no one line all that different from any other. The insertion is very strange, and offers nothing in itself by which to give it sense within the whole of the text. And, as described above, with the latter sentence being of little sense even in itself, I question as a reader whether the writer was at all thinking in terms of the text as a whole, or whether the text was written through a process of uncritical blurting.

 

The moment gives opportunity, however, for what may be a worthwhile digression, a thought experiment as it were. Imagine a situation where a text with characteristic like "The Friend" is handed to you for criticism. After reading it, you offer criticism in the manner like I have offered above. To go beyond basic diagnostics, you ask the writer to defend their work. The point in this experiment is now not about the text but about the justifications. I have three situations. Keep in mind these hypotheticals are not about "The Friend" specifically; I am only using the text as an example-on-hand. (In no way am I putting words in Matt Hart's mouth.)

(1) You say to the writer: "While I see you are going for a structure like a list, the elements of the list come off as an incongruent, disordered, or lacking any order."

The writer responds: "That's the effect I am going for ."

It is a simple response that can be used to falsely justify a lot of errors. Bravo the effort to explore writing texts beyond simple structures, yes. But exploration is not in itself success. The text must yet speak for itself its own success. If the text reads as a weak text, then it is a weak text. If the desired aim was a weak text, then success! But I doubt anybody – well, anybody of literary sophistication – would want to read it. The fact that there is a beginning and an end to a text speaks that it exists as a single thing, and it must yet be crafted as a single thing. If there desired effect is that of a conglomerate of elements, they must still unify into a whole greater than the parts. You cannot justify a text's value simply by saying "that what's I meant to do." You cannot use "I meant to do that" as an excuse to escape the effort needed to create a strong text, as a justification for intellectual laziness. It's self-parody, like the often seen jokes in films where a character falls on their face, stands up, and says, "I meant to do that."

In pop poetry, the idea of "I meant to do that" is often visible in the text itself, present without the explaining words of the writer. In "The Friend," for example, the her/him lines speak "I meant to do that." As with most pop poetic texts, that "I meant to do that" is spoken through the questionable element of the text not melding with the rest of the text, its existing in the text in spite of the rest of the text.

(2) You say to the writer, "These eggbird moments in the text are very strange."

The writer answers, "I am playing with surrealism."

First, what the writer was trying to with any part of the text does not free the writer from the necessary effort to unify the whole of the text. You cannot justify a section of a text with "well, I was exploring X there" if that section ultimately comes off to the reader as not fitting within the text as a whole.

More, though, I want to look at the direct appeal to something that exists already in literature. Surrealism is here a good example both because the Surrealists were very influential and because Surrealist literature tends to be distinctive in style. Appealing to another body of literature, as with "I am playing with surrealism," is fundamentally saying, "They did it, which means I am allowed to do it." That does not mean that other body's of literature are invalid avenues of exploration. It does mean however that a writer so exploring must somehow move beyond or outside the body of literature being explored or all they are accomplishing is mimickry and imitation. As with any appeal to authority, the mere presence of the word surrealist in a description or defense of a text does not establish genuine value or merit. Writing fourteen, rhymed and metered lines may mean you wrote a sonnet, but it does not mean you wrote a meritable sonnet, something worth reading.

(3) "The Friend" has as epigraph "for Nate Pritts." Let's keep the epigraph but take the real Nate Pritts out of the equation.

You say to the writer, "These eggbird moments in the text are very strange."

The writer answers, "Nate Pritts is a friend of mine, and the lines are a nod to his own work."

Again, as always, not an escape from the necessity of the text succeeding as a whole. The source and motivation of any part of a text is irrelevant before the question of does the text work? If the section in question does not fit, no explanation is going to make it fit. If between the writer and their friend the text successfully works as a kind of private joke, then that's fine within the limited audience of the writer and their friend. But beyond that limited audience, the text fails. The same goes for texts written as tribute or homage, whether the author knows the tributee or not. The test is a simple one: the text works if a reader who knows nothing about the tributee, indeed, with the text missing the epigraph, can read the work as a successful text. Though, also, there is a second, necessary layer of success: the association with the tributee, when revealed, should increase the success of the work, as opposed to, say, the work becoming revealed as little more than copying someone else's efforts and style.

All three examples, once written, seem obvious. And yet, it is not uncommon to come across all three defenses of texts – both by the writers themselves and, curiously, in reviews about the works. As with all such appeals – including appeals to pop-poetic convention – they are always used to pull the reader away from the question of whether the text works on its own. "This text gives address to gender; therefore it is good." "This text is written in the manner of the Surrealists, therefore it is good." "This text is a nod to another writer, therefore it is good."

I have myself only ever one question for the texts: "Are you, yourself, on your own, good."

And, only one question for forums like Poetry Magazine: "Are the texts you present as worthy of publication indeed, on their own merits, worthy of publication."

If they're not, why should I support in wallet or voice your magazine?

But that's enough of "The Friend." I have already put it under far more scrutiny than it could possibly bear – which, in the end, is not a lot. It is not at all a well written text, by most standards would be considered quite poor; I would find it surprising to see it published in a major literary journal except in that this is Poetry Magazine and this is, after all, the general state of the culture of verse in the U.S.

In the next post I will pick up again the general ideas put forward here with a second example of list verse, "Vert," which I hope will stand as an example different enough from "The Friend" to offer the benefits of contrast.

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