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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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Friday, March 11, 2016

Review: Poetry Magazine (Oct. 2015) – Part VIII: Quickly Now, Through the Rest

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

links to individual texts:
Camille T. Dungy, "Frequently Asked Questions: 10"
Maceo J. Whitaker, "Evanescent Hesse"
Maceo J. Whitaker, "Thor and Saturn's Tête-à-tête"
Maceo J. Whitaker, "The Mad Man from Macon"
Catherine Staples, "Vert"
Thomás Q. Morín, "Salad Days"
Julian Stannard, "Donut"
Jessica Greenbaum, "Green Permanent"
Jennifer Chang, "A Horse Named Never"
Hailey Leithauser, "Arrhythmia"
Susan Elizabeth Howe, "What Is a Grackle?"
Susan Elizabeth Howe, "Advice from the Grackle"
— headers to the sections are also links to the texts


the other posts in this series


more on moments, less on wholes


– minor changes to one section, Mar. 12, 2016
– minor editing, Apr. 4, 2016


As complained in the last post in this series, I have grown tired of this endeavor. But, then, a person should only be expected to be able to take so much slogging through bad writing. Up to this point I have been able to use the series to talk about aspects of writing and reading verse in general; and, I did begin a new post in that vein. However, it was not long in the writing before that post began to feel too repetitive of what has come before to justify its existence. The project has to me become the equivalent of explaining why a poorly written novel is a poorly written novel, moving chapter to chapter through the whole of the book. The demonstration should need only one chapter.

Obviously, this is not a book by a single author, so some effort will have to be made beyond the first 'chapter.' It is however a volume by a single editor or editorial staff. Yet, now more than half way through, I believe it still safe to say that the general quality of the works selected, and thus the quality of the work of that editorial staff, has both been demonstrated and demonstrated as consistent. Whether one author or many, this is a volume mostly of bad writing; and, at this point there is no reason to believe that it is going to get any better. In fact, it is, but for a couple or three works, so bad a collection that for a discriminating reader it would have taken a much smaller sampling to close the volume. Yes, if there was a gem hiding in the slough . . . . except there is no reason to expect a gem in the slough. There is rather every reason to believe the editorial staff would not be able to recognize a gem when they came upon one. Indeed, it is quite natural to expect that any of the gems that came their way would have been rejected as too different from everything else.

So, I am going to bring this project to a close in two posts. In the first, this post, I am going to very quickly run through the rest of the works, limiting myself to but a comment or three, focusing on interesting points. I will not go into the quality of the works beyond quick comment: they are for the most part as bad writing as that which has proceeded them. I would hope that going through the previous posts any reader would by now be able to see for themselves in the works not yet discussed some measure of their faults. The next post, the final, will be conclusory in nature, something not based on any of the containing works but based on the project as a whole, pulling attention away from the individual works to the editing of Poetry Magazine and to the general culture of verse (and by extension literature) in the U.S. today. As my notes for the last post are developing, I am hoping to have some fun with it as well.

After that, I hope to turn my attentions to more positive endeavors for a while: returning to explorations of ideas within literary criticism and theory; examinations of works that can actually bear critical examination; reveling in what is great about the discourse of literature (as opposed to the discourse of "sharing your feelings through bad writing"). I have some ideas already lined up (which, I will admit, will include some negative critiques of published books). Though they may be slow in the coming, I have long been eager to be done with this project so I may begin giving them proper attention.

So, let me breeze my way through what remains of the cultural embarrassment that is last October's Poetry Magazine. Following my normal guidelines (see the first post on Apollinaire), I will skip over the translations (Luis Chaves's "Equestrian Momuments" and Primo Levi's "Unfinished Business"). Giving fair warning, my guiding principle here is brevity: so my statements will be quick and to the point. Expect short, sharp shocks.



Camille T. Dungy:
"Frequently Asked Questions: 10"


The presence of another grackle should be information enough to doubt the quality of the work. As I said earlier in the series, the odds against finding a number of verse of quality for one edition of a journal that all have the word grackle in in them is simply too high.

The poem is prose with line breaks, and not very good prose at that. The second sentence,

A mob of them is apparently mouthing off outside when I put down my newspaper and we all gather to stand beside my daughter in the bay of kitchen windows.

demonstrates little control and is undefendable.

Really, though, I would like to point to that opening line below the title:

Do you see current events differently because you were raised by a black father and are married to a black man?

Because of the title of the verse and the "10" therein there is no reason not to believe that this is part of a series of bits that are responses to questions like the above. However, I do not believe that is enough to escape what is a very good point of writing advice: never explain your jokes. Indeed, as a person who is not very good at telling set-piece jokes, I take this as life advice. If your audience didn't get the joke, either (in the minority case) they were never going to get it, or (in the majority case), you did a bad job telling the joke.

It is the latter case here. The text should work as an answer to the question without the question ever having to be asked. If I have to look back to that line to understand the text, then it is difficult to overcome the judgment that the text is poorly written. In truth, speaking of this particular answer, it is a rather empty, pointless one at that.



Maceo J. Whitaker:
"Evanescent Hesse"


Three works are included by Whitaker, all of which show the general poor quality of pop verse. Whitaker's preferred convention (at least in this offering) is that of short statements loosely strung together (rather like what you see in bad pop music) with dropped moments of pop culture

Rap along to Pac; rip Big's Faith

and lame literary jokes/references

It is, after all, so cold (the plum)

and pop line-breaking

The crushed shrapnel of Red Bull

(can you explain that break?) and cheap gimmicks

For nightmare – Dana Dane – to STOP
Effluvial rainfall.

The quality of the verse in general makes the phrase "effluvial rainfall" look like Whitaker didn't bother looking up effluvium in the dictionary, not like clever writing. It's an issue of confidence: if I have no confidence in the skill of the writer, risky clevernesses will only look like bad writing. To say, this is not a risky cleverness: this is slapping words together into something that looks "poetic."


"Thor and Saturn's Tête-à-tête"


The opening is case in point to the stylistic issues already named.

To thwart? To abet? To mete?
Quixotic cobbler, spread apocryphal

mendacity from Styx to Mt. Dix.

There may be aural play going on, but ideationally it's mostly out-of-control nonsense. There is nothing being accomplished here except an impersonation of poetic technique.


"The Mad Man from Macon"


The issue comes to a fore in this attempt at a sestina. That the text runs on for two, large paragraphs after the sestina is completed speaks in itself that the work was poorly conceived. One of the points of writing a sestina – or sonnet or villanelle or whatever fixed form – is that the content fits within the form. That the text here runs on – and "runs on" is the correct phrase – after the form has closed – and in prose blocks at that – should not only be a hint to expect some bad writing, but should also be hint that the sestina itself is going to be fudged.

This is related to the arbitrary line breaking that normally defines pop free verse. If you break phrasing into small enough elements, present generally irrelevant information, completely ignore meter line length, and mostly ignore ideational flow, it becomes fairly easy to create rhymes and (here) repetitions. Why then bother to have the text written as a sestina? Reading this makes me think of my young daughters playing rpgs on xbox. They see me playing an rpg, see something I'm doing that looks cool (like going across city rooftops to find treasures), and want to do it too. So when they play they wander over to the town and do the cool thing. Do they understand playing the game as it was designed? No; it is too complex for them at their current level of sophistication. Do they play the game in the sense that one would normally think of as regarding "playing an rpg" – that is, are they capable of playing it successfully? Again, no, for the same reasons. They like walking around, visiting shops, beating up easy monsters, and doing the things they see when I play. It's not playing the game; it's playing – in a different sense of the word – with the game. It is at best imitating playing the game, pretending to play the game.

Pretty much the same here. There is no demonstrated skill or technique here. Rather, what is demonstrated is mostly means to avoid the difficulties of the form. Compare the prosody, syntax, and semantics of "Mad Man" to the first half of "Concord," a sonnet by Robert Lowell (which I pick rather arbitrarily out of the mammoth Collected, which happens to be on the desk for different reasons).

Gold idles here in its inventor's search,
For history, for over city ricks,
The Minute Man, the Irish Catholics,
The ruined Bridge and Walden's fished-out perch,
The belfry of the Unitarian Church,
Rings out the Hanging Jesus. Crucifix,
How can your whited spindling arms transfix
Mammon's unbridled industry, the lurch
For forms to harness Heraclitus's stream!

Now, are my daughters having fun? Yes. Are they learning how to play rpgs? Yes. Both of which are also important. But I won't here go father down this path other than to give notice to the measuring of the lines and the flow across the lines, the unity of text (no superfluous fluff), and how even though it is a tight form Lowell yet presents his own voice. I have already given more words to it than I intended. As well, I want to hold on to this discussion for a future endeavor. Originally I had planned to use "The Mad Man from Macon" with "Arrhythmia" (farther down the line) to write a post about form. But the two works are not really strong enough, or the right examples of weak enough, for what I wanted to do.



Catherine Staples:


"Vert," with Frank Wright's flawed "The Raising of Lazarus," may be the best of what is generally a very poor showing. There are a couple of interrelated questions to ask of it, which I leave (in my hurry) to your own contemplations.

(1) Even though it begins with a clever structuring idea, does the text loose control as it progresses? That is, was the idea developed enough so as to give structure to the whole of the work, or does it start to lose strength and as such relevancy; and does it risk by doing so that potentially clever idea starting to sound like an overworked gimmick?

(2) The line breaks are mostly guided (to appearances) by five beat lines. But that choice of structure does not at all fit the structure of the word play. Would the verse have come out better if it was structured, from the start, around the word play? Asked another way, does the falling back on loosely measured lines speak that the writer is really still falling upon prose structure for guidance, and the lines are more counted out and broken than written?

(3) Does the text's ideational themes maintain tightness? To me it starts to fall apart by about two-thirds through. Does that mean that the text was not really thought through once the word-play started to fall apart?



Thomás Q. Morín:
"Salad Days"


More out-of-control, bad prose with line breaks. Take a look at how that first sentence wanders:

We were not green in judgment or cold in blood like Cleopatra in her youth who still was ordering chopped radish in her bowls back then, the hearts all gone to pieces next to the winter greens that in our days we never had use for so smitten were we with fire and ovens that I was gravy in judgment, which might not mean much unless you've taken a spoon of it and poured it back over a dumpling shaped like your heart so that it became even softer, something you could not have thought possible.

And, yes, that's the first sentence in all its runaway glory. Breaking it into lines does not excuse the bad control. There is no evidence in the work that the line breaks are being used as a form of punctuation, nor any evidence that the lines are being crafted. As such, the sentence should be read – and analyzed – as a prose sentence. And a sentence like that would only collect red pen marks if offered up as prose.

There is an interesting error in the first lines.

We were not green in judgment or cold
in blood like Cleopatra in her youth

(I am ignoring the rest of the work, but then the rest of the work seems to mostly ignore these lines). They are in error ideationally: if a person was cold in blood I would think that that cold nature would be so guiding in character that the possiblity of "judgements" or naïveté would be eliminated. The problem lies in that while the "or" does create an option where there can be one but not the other, seemingly eliminating the error, after the "or" comes "like Cleopatra," which unifies the two "options" within the one person making them no long options.

It is a perfect example of the idea of how bad writing – an unsophisticated writer – looks at the moment and not the whole.

A final question for "Salad Days": does the work as a whole come off as a too long telling of a lame joke?



Julian Stannard:


I find it interesting that this follows "Salad Days," as I have the same question with this as I do the previous: is this a too long telling of what ends up nothing but a lame joke?

This work is but more prose with line breaks that really has no reason to be verse and would probably be better if it were written – and fully developed – as prose. (Is it yet another piece of evidence for the pile that most writers of verse today are primarily people who are too lazy, intellectually, to write prose, which requires oh just soooo many words?)

Here's a question. Why are the grammatically needed commas missing at the end of the first two lines?

O, Benjamin P. Lovell, 19
from Oneonta, New York State
who appears in the police blotter

It's not stylistic, because father down we find the comma being used.

mentioned Brando K. Goodluck, 18,
from Manhattan, charged with seventh-degree

Either Poetry Magazine sucks at transcribing texts (which may be the case), or the writer here isn't paying much attention to their own work (which is far more likely the case). Doesn't bode well for reader confidence. Never mind being inexcusable in published, edited, work. It's basic grammar.



Jessica Greenbaum:
"Green Permanent"


How is this not verse measure by length? Why is this written as verse? It is prose, and not just bad prose but really bad prose.

Paneled in warped wood and abandoned like a mine, you find the string for the light in the middle of the room, as he must have known how to find it in the dark, and again you see the pegboard walls covered with constellations of polishing tools, the larger buffers hooked onto the paneling like fuzzy planets, the smaller ones stuck in a Lucite block he customized to hold them like the varied moons those hanging planets might need, or a miniature copse of fantastical trees.

It is very telling when you have moments like "he customized to hold them." It is a complete change in subject in the middle of the sentence. Trim down the sentence and what do you get:

You find the string for the light and again you see the pegboard walls, the larger buffers hooked onto the paneling, the smaller ones stuck in a Lucite block he customized to hold them like the varied moons [. . .]

Even more trimmed down

the smaller ones stuck in a Lucite block he customized to hold them?? like the varied moons [. . .]

Is it only the "them" that is in error?

the smaller ones stuck in a Lucite block he customized to hold like the varied moons [. . .]

Because now, semantically, "hold" now points to the block not the buffers as is being misused

the smaller ones stuck in a Lucite block he customized to hold with pliers

The correct construction is "so as to hold" or "so it may."

You find the string for the light and again you see the pegboard walls, the larger buffers hooked onto the paneling, the smaller ones stuck in a Lucite block he had customized so as to hold them like the varied moons those hanging planets might need, or a miniature copse of fantastical trees. [. . .]

This is bad writing and nothing but bad writing. There error should have been caught by the writer, and should have been quite audibly noticeable when read. Except the sentence as a whole is out of control which helps to hide the error, but that as well only speaks to bad writing The only conclusion from the presence of the error is that the writer was not paying attention to their own text. Too many of these moments and the conclusion becomes the writer is not sophisticated or competent enough to recognize and/or fix such problems in the text. Again, adding line breaks does not turn bad, out-of-control prose into good verse. This is nothing but bad writing.

Even worse, it is bad editing. The only conclusion from the presence of the error is that the editing staff was not paying attention the text. Too many of these moments and the conclusion becomes the editing staff was not competent enough to recognize such problems in a text. And considering the quality of the verse in this issue – as with most issues of Poetry Magazine –, you know my thoughts on the matter.

There is that alternative: they just don't care.



Jennifer Chang:
"A Horse Named Never"


To read this text you need to look beyond the breaking up of the text – which too me comes off of the habits of poor paragraph writing that have been perpetuated by journalism and the writers of blogs – and look at what is actually being said. The first six stanzas – if they can be called stanzas – are but irrelevant description. Ask: are the other horses necessary to the text or are they just descriptive fluff? The difference between the one horse and the other horses is not where the text is going; it is going to the relationship between the one horse and the narrator. As written, the opening list is superfluous.

Then comes

We could neither flee nor be kept.

It's a trite statement; the standard pop poetic attempt at profundity by suddenly sounding deeply emotional or emotionally philosophical. The moment defines this text, not in its content but in its use: the whole of the work is mostly either blunt description or blunt action peppered with these trite statements. Here's three in a row.

Why I chose Never I'll never know.
I fed him odd lettuce, abundant bitterness.
Who wore the bit and harness, who was the ready steed.

As prose this is a laughable text. Yet somehow with the "stanzas" – if they can be called "stanzas" – it is supposed to be of merit?

If an idea in your text is being stated by a single phrase, whether trite or not, consider these two questions. If the idea is not central to the ideation of the verse, then should you not drop it as either irrelevant or distracting? And, if it is central to the ideation of the text, isn't that idea something that is supposed to be being developed through and by the text rather than merely being stated by a single phrase? Indeed, in the best works, you will find that central ideas are almost never overtly stated: it is the work itself, as a whole, that is the statement.



Hailey Leithauser:


Here we have another go at formalism. We have the shape of a sonnet, only it lacks the volta, the turn in thought that occurs with the change in structure (the defining aspects that distinguishes a fourteen-line verse from a sonnet). Here, it would occur at or around the change from quatrains to triplets. Yet, the text is nothing but a list. (And meter is not followed.) So why write it as a sonnet? Why not write it in a shape that works to the advantage of a list? This is again similar to the arbitrariness of pop free verse. Yes there is form, but the content is merely being plugged into the form.

And when the content is a list, it because all that much easier to match the ends of the lines. At which, the writer here does not quite succeed. I would be much more willing accept the very loose rhymes of the opening stanza – shuttered/white and kiln/swan – if the text were otherwise tightly written. But that is simply not the case. As such, the text comes off, as with the "sestina" in "The Mad Man from Macon," as finding shortcuts to the difficulty of the form rather than as attacking and mastering the form.

It is worth noting that these two lines

The heart of a skink is a mink, The heart
[. . .]
The fey mouse heart rides a dawdy dust-cart.

clash, within the offered form, in a sophisticated ear because of "heart" carrying a stress and "cart" not carrying one. But, then, that "cart" line is a rhythmic mess.

It is also worth noting that the ideational center of the text lasts for only one line: the last. The rest is a list that neither plays off of nor develops that idea. The text reads like a children's book trying to look like an adult book by putting it in the form of a sonnet. It probably would have ended up a much better text if it were written as prompted by the idea: where the stanzas are defined not by some arbitrary form but by the list itself. Thus the often seen form of rhymed couples with such nursery-rhyme-like works.



Susan Elizabeth Howe:
"What Is a Grackle?"


And finally we come to the last writer, and the explanation for all grackles that have been popping up. Was there some kind of "use the word grackle in verse" contest behind the scenes? Was it a conspiracy to submit grackle-laden texts? It doesn't matter. To turn the phrase on its head, whatever the means, the ends did not justify them.

The writing here comes off a little stronger than most of the rest of what precedes it. But only when you are looking at the moment and not the whole. "What Is a Grackle?" is punchline verse: the "deep meaning" is revealed in the last statement:

[. . .] We've fallen
from Mayan temples. In a past life
we prophesied. In a past life we were gods.

Which for me doesn't really work as a final, defining statement, not only because of the conventional punchline nature, but because similar can be said for other birds: sparrows, for example, which are far more often seen in parking lots than grackles where I live, and which in some cultures were believed to be psychopomps. Indeed, there are many animals that "in a past life," were revered as gods. The punchline fails for the work’s failure to distinguish grackles from other birds or animals.

Consider also the brunhilda moment.

[. . .] Grackles glint
like lacquered ebony, the females brunhildas,

if by brunhilda you mean "brown-headed,"
not the German "ready for battle."

That doesn't make sense. I am looking entirely at the sentence structure, ignoring whether the statements are true or not. The phrase "not the German 'ready for battle'" signifies that "Brunhilda" translates (in some way) as "ready for battle." But, if it does, where does "brown-headed" come from? If brunhilda actually translates as "brown-headed," then where does the "not the German 'ready for battle'" come from. The text as written makes no sense. Then, even more fundamentally, why say "if by brunhilda you mean 'brown-headed'" when not four words before you identify grackles as ebony?!

The text has the 'sound' of serious writing, but when you start to look at it, it all falls apart. It is another situation of paying attention to the parts and not the whole. Even the drift into and then out of the theme of battle speaks of a lack of a unifying idea behind the text: which explains why the final statement appears in the manner of the conventional, out of nowhere, pop-poetic, faux-philosophical, punch line ending.


"Advice from the Grackle"


Did you notice the clash between "After joy raises you into the stratosphere" and "The ascent out of despair" Parts and wholes; parts and wholes.

And I'm done with this. I'll see you next time in the grand finale.

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