You probably ought to read the first post “#thestack” before this one.
When it came time to peruse the March/April 2005 issue of American Poetry Review – the third one in the stack – I was greeted by the pretty and pleasant face of Stephanie Brown on its pale-blue and bright-red cover. I had never heard of Ms. Brown, and the other names in red on the cover weren’t the same ones I had seen in those first two issues. Nice, I thought, a little variety.
My hope were high as I started flipping pages, since Stephanie Brown’s author photo lacked the weird awkwardness of some I’d seen – she seemed to be saying, please do come in. – but this issue didn’t have many author pictures! Where are all of the author pictures? Of the five in this issue, including the cover, three featured the writer in a Glamor Shots-like pose with face-resting-on-fist. In the other two, poet Paul Hoover looked a lot like cheesy radio host John Tesh, and Brian Clements’ face superimposed onto a laptop screen reminded me of main character Dante Hicks in Clerks.
To the poems! (And the essays.)
Starting at the beginning, I really liked Stephanie Brown’s poems— and not just because she’s pretty. “Library” jumped nicely from subject to subject without being confusing; the three-section “Education” was poignant; “The Satanists Next Door” was funny; and “The Devouring Father” was frightening and sad. From “Education,” I also learned a new word: incunabula, which is an “early printed book,” usually from before 1501.
There seemed to be a lot of ads in this issue, so I almost flipped past Christopher Janke’s five “psalms,” which were next, but I did notice them, stop, and read. They were very short, but being Catholic, I didn’t think were psalms at all and didn’t have a sense of why he titled them that way. I’m accustomed to the Psalms being used in Mass, having a response for us parishioners to repeat, usually something about God’s love or mercy. Maybe that’s a prejudice of mine that APR‘s editors don’t share.
And then there was Donald Hall, looking better in this author photo than he does on the cover of his more recent Essays After Eighty book. “Knock Knock II,” he explained, was a revival of a column that he used to write – the title based on a knock-knock joke told him by Richard Wilbur – and then I learned another new word: bouleversed, which is the French verb for “to upset.” (I understood why he didn’t just used the word upset: bouleversed has a ring to it— like being nonplussed or some such.) Unfortunately, the first part of Hall’s revived column got on my nerves, with too much name-dropping, so I almost didn’t keep reading . . .
But there, at the very bottom of the third column, on the right-hand side of the page, right above the page number (9), Hall began the discussion that grabbed me: “Poetry out loud is never quite so beautiful as poetry read in silence.” Hall went on to describe the differences between poetry and performance, which aren’t the same thing. While he did note one very real problem that I’ve seen/heard too many times:
Too many poets, reading aloud, ignore their own line breaks or chew consonants like gristle or drop into inaudibility at the ends of lines.
In the very next sentence, Hall was also remarking upon this:
There seems to be confusion between the sound of a poem and the performance of a poem, and between the value of a poem and the response of a live audience.
I’ve also seen this more times than I can count: an audience that cheers – not for the poetic skill, but for the popular message – so the poet takes the applause as evidence that the poem itself is good. Not necessarily so. People who likely don’t know much about the art or craft of poetry, and who only hear the poem once, can’t rightly be trusted as judges of a poet’s work. They’re cheering because they like what they heard.
A short ways down, Hall also shared this idea:
In slam poetry speed is valued over slowness, as humor and attack are valued over emotion and thought. The beauty of sound – which exists independent of feeling or idea – is absent.
Yes, sir, exactly. Slam poetry isn’t necessarily about the recognition of beauty; it’s about getting an audience riled up and keeping them entertained.
As Hall ended, he again resorted to the name-dropping that annoyed me in the beginning, but it seemed more appropriate as he made his summation:
Although we publish ten times as many books as we used to, and have ten times as many magazines, we have a thousand times as many poetry festivals and readings. But even the best contemporary work lacks the sound beauty of Milton and Keats, Hopkins and Pound, Lowell and Roethke.
Yes, sir again, Mr. Hall. I’ve loved poetry for a long time, most of my life. I began my first attempts at writing it in my teens, and as a high school senior, rather than writing my year-long thesis project on some gimme topic, I wrote on Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” proposing that Satan was an Aristotelian tragic hero. I wrote on that subject partially to piss-off my Bible Belt, private school teachers, but also because we had read an excerpt from “Paradise Lost” and, left unsatisfied, I wanted to read (and study) the whole thing. Even though I was a Generation-X teenager in Montgomery, Alabama, John Milton’s late-Renaissance poetry was and is beautiful to me. And I also agree with Hall about Keats, Pound, and (Amy?) Lowell, whose works I teach, though I’ll admit that I’m less familiar with Gerard Manley Hopkins and Theodore Roethke, the latter of whom Hall also mentions in the beginning of the column— maybe I ought to give him another look . . .
In each of these issues of APR, I’ve found one work that has really reached me, and in this issue, Donald Hall’s essay – the second half of it – was that one. I read Hall’s statements about the problems of performance, pondered them, and wondered to myself whether it is even possible to bring something as beautiful as finely crafted poetry to an audience who have come out in the evening to be entertained. Years ago, I went to a Li-Young Lee reading at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and though Lee is a fine poet, it was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen.
Now, about the rest. Maybe the other two essays in this issue were good ones, but I’ll never know. After reading Hall’s comments and mulling heavily on them, I just didn’t want to read page after page about “Louise Bogan in her Prose,” nor Kulik’s essay that accompanied Robert Desnos’ poems, several of which I liked. Desnos, whose work I didn’t know before reading it here, had that nuanced element where words spring up in places I didn’t expect them to be, creating a surreal kind of surprise that kept me reading. And Garcia-Lorca, whose style I like particularly, the same. It may sound strange, but I liked Desnos’ and Garcia-Lorca’s poems enough not to want to write about them here. I’d rather let them be, as some things I enjoyed, rather than attempting to break them down.
Among the rest, Paul Hoover’s poems were unimpressive: “Driver’s Song,” which was a real stinker, and “Reality and Its Antecedents: Fifty Statements on Life and Art,” which was a numbered list that struck me as a pretty trite and not terribly original.
To be frank, this issue contained some real clunkers, poems that I read and went, Okay . . . Most of the poems were short, so I did re-read them, thinking that maybe I had missed something, but each time I felt the same way. I know this must seem like I’m bashing the poets and the editors, but I’m not trying to.
This issue ended with an interview with Quincey Troupe, done by Jan Garden Castro. In the interview, Troupe, an African American poet from New York, dealt heavily with issues of race and the under-representation of black people in media and the arts, and he was highly critical of the mostly white establishment in those fields. Although Troupe made some very good points and hit on some difficult truths about which voices get heard and which don’t, I was still swimming around mentally in Donald Hall’s sound/beauty/poetry essay and found myself unable to give Troupe’s ideas my full attention. I could see his point but by the end of the issue, I was tired.
However, one thing in the introduction to the Troupe interview shot out at me like a ray of light. The first sentence in the article read: “Quincey Troupe has been featured on two PBS television series on poetry.” I’ve written about this twice before – once about the lack of poetry on TV, the second time about the lack of poetry on Roku – so I had to wonder, what series are those? I went digging online and found one PBS series called Poetry Everywhere that I’d never seen before; it was available online and through the App Store and iTunes. But I saw nothing about a second PBS series on poetry. I still say that if someone were to create a mainstream news-magazine style TV show about poetry – something like “Entertainment Tonight” or “CBS Sunday Morning” – I know that people would watch it and poetry’s audience would grow. If you ask me, there’s an audience out here, waiting.