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poetry's age of plenty

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CURRENT POETRY: AN AGE OF PLENTY


Introduction

We live, if we believe the poetry press, in a age of plenty, where talent exists in a scale extending from Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, through names displayed by prestigious magazines, to those featuring in small-town writing circles and the accommodating pages of www.poetry.com. We start with the recipients of its more glittering awards.

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney


Seamus Heaney has published well-received collections of poetry, translations and critical essays, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. {1} {2} {3} He is often regarded as the successor to Yeats, though he writes a more mundane poetry, without the pondered symbolism. None of the poems showcased on The Internet Poetry Archive is negligible, but to my mind the best is Casualty {4}, from which I quote parts of Section II and III (click on the link to read the whole poem).

Casualty It was a day of cold Raw silence, wind-blown Surplice and soutane: Rained-on, flower-laden Coffin after coffin Seemed to float from the door Of the packed cathedral Like blossoms on slow water. The common funeral Unrolled its swaddling band,
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poetry's age of plenty

Lapping, tightening Till we were braced and bound Like brothers in a ring. I tasted freedom with him. To get out early, haul Steadily off the bottom, Dispraise the catch, and smile As you find a rhythm Working you, slow mile by mile, Into your proper haunt Somewhere, well out, beyond... Dawn-sniffing revenant, Plodder through midnight rain, Question me again. From Casualty by Seamus Heaney.
There is much to like: the subtle a b b c c d e f e g h g h rhyme/pararhyme scheme, the aptness of Like blossoms on slow water, the exact, almost eidetic imagery, and reluctance to make emotional or political capital from events. But before asking whether Heaney's account should not rise more to the occasion, let's look at another poem. Less well known that Heaney, Jim Barnes has combined a successful academic career with a steady output of poetry, stories and translations. I quote from the opening section of Heading East Out of Rock Springs. {5/13}

Heading East Out of Rock Springs On a high plateau where the earth rounds off the edge of nothing and the sky pours down like hail so heavy that the pickup squats on its springs and groans toward the horizon, you think of Andy, all those years long gone. What had he thought when he left Missoula and headed toward a millennium of doubt he called poetry?--his own old Ford fooling itself under the hood and gasping out of the long valleys then turning south Heading East Out of Rock Springs by Jim Barnes. Published in Quarterly West (Fall 2000)

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poetry's age of plenty

Like Heaney's, the poem inhabits a a definite place, but that place is brought to us by elements of a landscape conjured up by emotions less obviously sought for. Heaney has written a poem commemorating a friend killed at a bar during curfew hours. The incident came three days after the Derry murders, and it's the funeral of these thirteen that the quoted section refers to. An amateur might have found himself looking for words to express the obvious emotions shock, grief, anger, sadness but Heaney is a practiced writer, and his solution has been to evade such difficulties. The first stanza describes the friend, his behaviour in the bar and his love of fishing. The second alludes to Heaney and friend fishing together, and the third says simply: He was blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew / Others obeyed, three nights / After they shot dead / The thirteen men in Derry. Then comes the description of the cathedral funeral, followed by But he would not be held / At home by his own crowd, which leads to a brief description of what happened and concludes with I hear him say. 'Puzzle me The right answer to that one.' In the concluding stanzas Heaney muses on his friend's funeral and more on their fishing together both are exactly described and ends with Question me again. Very apt, of course, sending us back into the poem to mull over the pointlessness of the murder. But the funeral section ends with Unrolled its swaddling band / Lapping, tightening / Till we were braced and bound / Like brothers in a ring, which is too obvious a contrivance, in the clumsiness of the writing, the Christian symbolism dragged in and the heavy alliteration, to achieve the emotions wanted. We may recognize our common humanity in public funerals, but those feelings need to arise out of the particularity of memory. What is swaddling band doing with the boxing image of in a ring? The poem is about the unbrotherhood of man, or possibly brotherhood despite sectarian differences. Public poetry is extraordinarily difficult for Modernism, and even Yeats was often unsuccessful. Is the ending of Easter 1916: {6} Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born. not too deliberate, too strident in rhythm and rhetoric? Beauty for something that was widely condemned at the time, and led to the squalid murder and retaliation of the Troubles? In Heaney we have He was blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew, the banality of which is perhaps intended to shock us into thinking on the precariousness of life, and on the affections through which we live it, but instead opens a hole in the poem. We could say that the better work of a Nobel laureate should be more accomplished. Or that Heaney's modest art of reportage, of drawing significance from the quotidian and personal, does not merit so enthusiastic a following among critics and the reading public. But we should also be grateful for what poetry does achieve, occasionally, and here with a difficult subject. In short, the villain is not Heaney, or the publicity machine of the poetry establishment, but ourselves what we will not demand or expect of poetry today.

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poetry's age of plenty

Pulitzer Prize Winner Charles Wright


Charles Wright is the winner of numerous awards, {7-14} {8-15} {9-16} including the Pulitzer for his Black Zodiac (1997). I reproduce two sections of a poem on The Academy Of American Poets site, {13} itself excerpted from a longer piece.

Body and Soul II The structure of landscape is infinitesimal, Like the structure of music, seamless, invisible. Even the rain has larger sutures. What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together, Is faith, it appears--faith of the eye, faith of the ear. Nothing like that in language, However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms Blown by the wind. April, and anything's possible.

Every true poem is a spark, and aspires to the condition of the original fire Arising out of the emptiness. It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite. It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by. Shooting stars. April's identical, celestial, wordless, burning down. Its light is the light we commune by. Its destination's our own, its hope is the hope we live with. Wang Wei, on the other hand, Before he was 30 years old bought his famous estate on the Wang River Just east of the east end of the Southern Mountains, and lived there, Off and on, for the rest of his life. He never travelled the landscape, but stayed inside it, A part of nature himself, he thought. And who would say no To someone so bound up in solitude, in failure, he thought, and suffering.

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poetry's age of plenty

From Body and Soul II by Charles Wright. Excerpted from A Short History of the Shadow by Charles Wright. Copyright 2002 by Charles Wright.
Two quotes to start with: "The various landscapes of Wright's life the South, California, Italy have inevitably found their way into his poems, but his landscapes are deeply interior, often surreal. . . As Helen Vendler has said 'they defy exposition.'" {17} "Charles Wright is a poet of lyric impulses. . . His poems are structured associatively rather than narratively, and he has created a poetics of luminous moments. . . They mark and isolate the self, transporting it to another realm, weakening its boundaries. They are inchoate and asocial defying language, destroying time. . . Over the years his work has become larger and more inclusive, with narrative overtones rather than undertones, though from the beginning he has written a poetry of flashes and jump-starts, of radiance glimpsed and noted down transcribed, transfigured." {18} I like the tone of this poem, whatever my doubts over Wright's scholarship: Wang Wei {19} did not see himself as a failure, {20} or a traveller within his own landscape (the Chinese painter's relationship to his creations is much more fascinating. {21}) My difficulty is with the first section, not with what it means, but where it leads. We can call it surrealism, but a blunter phrase might be rigmarole. A landscape may be subdivided infinitesimally, perhaps, but is not so constituted. The structure of music is not seamless, or not unless we are interested in the mathematical expression of its chords and harmonies, and it is not audibly invisible, which is the only sense worth considering. What sutures (stitchings) can the rain have, and what is faith but one of the great Romantic verities smuggled into an alien setting? In fact, contra Wright, there's good deal of faith inherent in language, it being a tenet of one philosophy of language. Of course we can go sleepwalking through the poem, taking things we stumble over as profundity, but the inaccuracies and obscurities are disquieting. Poetry is not philosophy, but we want to feel the emotional particularity of an event has been properly sought for. Moreover, though Zen masters do jolt pupils from mundane stupor by provocative questioning, {22} {23} the technique forms part of a spiritual discipline not to be acquired by simple reading.

Small Presses
The small presses are proud of their record of having published some of the best of modern poetry. The most prestigious of such presses are classified in the 2004 edition of Poet's Market {24} as preferring "submissions from poets with a high degree of skill and experience", and it is from these outlets (and additionally those with Internet representation, so that readers can access the whole poem), that I take the following examples. The manifestoes are also those printed in the 2004 Poet's Market publication. Atlanta Review. Atlanta Review is a semiannual primarily devoted to poetry, but also featuring fiction, interviews, essays and fine art. Wants: quality poetry of genuine human appeal." Has published poetry by Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Maxime Kumin, and Naomi Shihab Nye. . . We are giving today's poets the international audience they truly deserve.

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poetry's age of plenty

Here is the last part of The Lost Poem by Albert Huffstickler:

The Lost Poem And ponder / the lost poem. Perhaps thats / part of it: Im driven to create / that poem I cant recall, the / poem that carried him through / four years of Hell and home / again. Or perhaps Im driven / to write a poem that will serve / someone else as well. Its a / nice thought anyway: my poem / in someones pocket, bent and / faded, nourishing him, healing / him through his own private / Hell. A man could do worse / with his life. I evoke my / fathers image, our eyes meet, / he nods in agreement, starts / to speak then turns and walks / off into the distance, bearing / the lost poem with him. From The Lost Poem by Albert Huffstickler:{25}
The Spoon River Poetry Review. The Spoon River Poetry Review is a biannual "poetry magazine that features newer and well-known poets from around the country and the world." "We want interesting and compelling poetry that operates beyond the ho-hum, so-what level, in any form or style about anything; language that is fresh, energetic, committed, filled with a strong voice that grabs the reader in the first line and never lets go." {24}

To Poem#---6 Before the before / there was again and again. / The fan's on, thinking / in breezes. And in the shadows / the music-mushrooms mring, mring, / he sweet potatoes sleep orange. / This is about the coming, / which is always good, for the was / is of course dead and over, / ivy withering all over its face. You / are the host in the garden, / you whose face hasn't flowered / as yet, whose eyes haven't opened / to the letters we are made of. / And if you need an occasion, / look at today, the drought / cracking the soil, the recent flood, / the souls hymning just above / yesterday's train crash in India, / or the silent requiem to Bonnie's friend, / or the struggle of the ladybug / across this crack in the concrete / or the ha-ha-ha of the perpetual motion / of these two white butterflies / returning daily, webbing the world / shut with their dance, as if / there were no thinking, no / music-mushrooms, no sweet potatoes asleep / through all the train crashes, / or as if there were. From To Poem#---6 by Helen Degen Cohen:{26}

Cohens poem appeared in The Spoon River Poetry Review Winter/Spring 2002, V. 27.1, and won 2003 Illinois Arts Council Literary Award. New Zoo Poetry Review. New Zoo Poetry Review is published annually in January and "tends to publish
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poetry's age of plenty

free verse in well-crafted lyric and narrative forms. Our goal is to publish established poets alongside poets of great promise. . . If you are not reading the best of contemporary poetry, then New Zoo Poetry Review is not for you. {24}

Funerals Other funerals get layered over that one. I wear the same dress, / even though I am 23 the last time and 6 the first. I locate my father / in each closed coffin. I drive away the bitter taste of losses / with the same candy. I eat the long noodles, bought by the same / wrinkled Chinese man whom only my uncle knows. From the end / of the long counter, the man nods and raises his hand. That is all. / The noodles make me wish longevity on her, my mother, who rocked / and sipped after we two had gone to bed, dumb and quiet. / Now, at surprising moments - on the train, in bed with you, throwing / snow balls for the dog - I grieve for her because I can't believe /she ever had the chance to do it the way she wanted to. From Funerals by Sandra J. Chu {27}

I have shown the line breaks but all pieces read as prose, perfectly acceptable prose, if a little meandering. The Huffstickler piece is in fact in stress verse, deftly patterned by four stresses to the line. No one could take offence at these pieces. They don't strain for effect, or anywhere hit the wrong notes. The sense is clear, and they are rounded off intelligently. But where is the "strong voice that grabs the reader in the first line and never lets go"? Or the "well-crafted lyric and narrative forms"? If a novel or short story can only pack in what is relevant and engrossing, why should poetry, generally considered the more demanding form, be so loosely constructed? And without getting into definitions, one aspect of poetry that usually commands assent is that a poem cannot be rephrased without some loss in meaning or effectiveness. What is lost here? And ponder the part of it I cant recall, the poem carried by him to Hell and home again. Or perhaps Im driven to write a poem for someone else, someone in his private Hell. A man could do worse with his life. I evoke my fathers image, our eyes meet, and he starts to walk off, bearing off still the lost poem with him.

What's Happening?
I have tried to select the best work for consideration, and not the merely "ho hum" that readers can find
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poetry's age of plenty

easily enough for themselves. Why is the work so disappointing? Many poetry magazines have to deal with thousands or tens of thousands of submissions annually. Acceptance rates quoted in the 2004 Poet's Market {24} range from a few percent to considerably less. What happens to the great majority of submissions, particularly those sent by email? They go into the slush pile, {28} to be looked over if space appears in what has already been selected from the work of friends, from names that will enhance the magazine's standing, {29} or from those who seem supportive of the magazine's ambitions. Nothing unusual in that try sending an unsolicited article to a national newspaper or publishing house and perhaps it only underlines the importance of a covering letter or the personal contact. So all honour to those editors and I don't know how many who do read every submission. It may still be possible. But with a narrow and, it must be said, rather fixed notion of what constitutes poetry, editors who do read generally cope with the deluge by imposing tight filters. As a result, though magazines claim to publish according to merit, and to seek out original work, the practicalities make this unlikely to be always the case, or perhaps even generally the case. It is my experience that editors of well-known magazines can have an unerring gift for publishing the worst poem in any batch sent them, or for accepting nothing until repeated submissions brings the level down to the most prosaic, sometimes even then querying lines that rise above the mundane. A cavalier incompetence arising from the unpaid nature of the position? Possibly, but truly deadening must be the treadmill of reading endless not-verygood submissions.

References and Resources


1. Seamus Heaney (b. 1939) Links. http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/poetry/heaney.htm 2. Seamus Heaney's Cure at Troy Politics and Poetry. Marianne McDonald. 1996. http://www.ucd.ie/ classics/96/McDonald96.html. Short essay looking at Heaney's Sophocles translation. LNB 3. Seamus Heaneys middle voice by Richard Tillinghast. 1999. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/14/ dec95/heaney.htm. Article in The New Criterion Vol. 17, No. 9, May 1999 4. Casualty. Seamus Heaney. http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/heaney/casualty.html LNB 5. Heading East Out of Rock Springs. Jim Barnes. http://www.thehypertexts.com 6. Easter 1916. W.B. Yeats. http://hyde.park.uga.edu/~crice/east1916.html LNB 7. Charles Wright. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/c_wright/c_wright.htm. Essays, poems and links on the American Modern Poets site. 8. In a Dark Time The Eye begins to See: Charles Wright's Appalachia. Mar. 2003. http://www. lorenwebster.net/In_a_Dark_Time/archives/cat_charles_wright.html. Weblog comments on several of Wight's poems. LNB 9. This Old Poem. Dan Schneider. Sep 2002. http://www.cosmoetica.com/TOP22-DES20.htm. An illtempered piece of criticism: some good points made on Wright's work, though clich is an overstatement. 10. Ian Hamilton, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English (O.U.P., 1996), 588. Q 11. Edward Hirsch, "The Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright," in The Columbia History of American Poetry, (Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), 789. Q 12. 300 Tang Poems. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/chinese/frame.htm
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poetry's age of plenty

13. Wang Wei, Li PO, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Li Shang-Yin Wang Wei, Li PO, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Li Shang-Yin trans. David Young, (Oberlin College Press, 1990), 24. Q 14. Like Water or Clouds: The T'ang Dynasty and the Tao. A.S. Kline. Feb. 2004. http://www.tonykline.co. uk/Browsepages/Chinese/Allwaterhome.htm. Good account of Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu. LNB 15. Zen MetaLab. http://www.ibiblio.org/zen/. Introduction to Zen Buddhism, with exercises and links. 16. Buddhism. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/subdivisions/zen1.shtml. BBC site: short accounts and links. LNB 17. 2004 Poet's Market. (Writer's Digest Books, 2004). 18. Atlanta Review. http://www.atlantareview.com/Fifth%20Anniversary/Lost%20Poem.htm LNB 19. The Spoon River Poetry Review. http://www.litline.org/spoon/awards/iacaward2003.html 20. New Zoo Poetry Review. http://www.members.aol.com/newzoopoet/poetry/funerals.htm 21. Will Allison, Four Editors Discuss Turn-Ons, Turnoffs, and Slush Pile Trends, in 2004 Poet's Market. 22. The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents: A Report from the Dark Underbelly of Academic Creative Writing. Briggs Seekins. Apr. 2001. http://www.cosmoetica.com/D4-BS1.htm. Sobering view of the US poetry network. Note: Earlier visitors will recall a section on Robert Pinsky, which I have now removed following helpful emails from Judy Diamondstone on 26/2/2010 and 3/3/2010. C. John Holcombe 2007 and 2010. the usual way. Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in

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