Thanks for stopping by. If you are new to this magazine and have never studied poetry before, you may want to skip to “Start Here.”
Once again, the poets flavor this magazine as much as the editor. And once again, the talent of a new(ish) writer impresses me. Kristine Ong Muslim’s imagination recalls that of Russell Edson (another poet for you to read if you have not), but with her own smoky savor. If she continues to sharpen her craft, I fully expect to hear her name on the lips of every hip reader—whether they read poetry or not. I plan to read issue #3 of GrendelSong in which Kristine Ong Muslim is to be its featured poet.
Darin Bradley’s “Hieratics” stuck in my craw for a long time, so I thought it necessary to accept. Along similar lines if more playful, “E MAIL TO DAMNISO LOPEZ 70” by Duane Locke is to be enjoyed less on the intellectual level than for the words themselves. Like some of Frost’s work, Norman Ball’s “Quantum Semantics” and “Respect” by Stephanie Maclin are more subtle than they first appear.
The final three poems— Marcie Tentchoff’s “Ash,” Rachel Swirsky’s“A Season with Geese” and Janet Parkinson’s “What happened”—are more narratively driven and are most likely to appeal to fiction readers as well, although their compactness means they should linger in the mouth and mind more than longer narratives.
Start Here, a short course toward becoming a model citizen in poetry
A number of poets seem to wander by Abyss and Apex and, not noting what kind of magazine it is, say, “Hey, this magazine takes poems! I’ll send them some of mine. They’re better than Metallica and Madonna combined!” Most of these submissions are also what I would call “Rock ‘n’ Roll poetry”—poetry inspired by lyrics they’ve admired on the radio:
Honey, I need your lovin’.
What you got in that oven?
Hey, Lady, I’m the only hombre for you.
Help me open this can of chew.
There are a number of problems with R’n’R poetry.
- R’n’R poetry usually lacks images. Images are poetry’s petrol. They generally fuel the poem’s engine (not always, but it’s the place to begin).
- Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme anymore. If you make it rhyme and you lack meter, it looks like you’re writing rockband lyrics—whether you mean to or not. Moreover, the poet tends to write unnecessary lines in order to make the next line rhyme. In our sample poem, lines one and three (without further context) would be relevant to a love poem. Of course, lines one and three are also the most boring. Throw them out. Forget what you meant to write about and go for lines that have real imagistic weight behind them.
Thee in thy panoply, thy measured dual throbbing, and thy beat convulsive;
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel;
Thy ponderous side–bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides;
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar—now tapering in the distance;
Thy great protruding head–light, fix’d in front;
Thy long, pale, floating vapor–pennants, tinged with delicate purple;
The dense and murky clouds out–belching from thy smoke–stack
—from “To a Locomotive in Winter” by Walt Whitman
A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw —
He bit an angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.
And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad —
They looked like frightened beads, I thought —
He stirred his velvet head
—from “328” by Emily Dickinson (note how she captures bird movements—note the rightness of the word choices)
A great place to start the poet’s journey is with an introductory anthology such as Donald Hall’s To Read a Poem, X.J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry, or John Frederick Nims’ Western Wind. (Check you library. These same books can also be found in massive “introduction to literature” texts.) The first chapter you study should focus on images. This is poetry’s bread and butter. Then wander among those on sound, telling good poems from bad, connotation and denotation, saying vs. suggesting, sense vs. sentimentality, word choice and word order, symbols, and whatever else catches your fancy. If you like rhyme, read the sections on forms.
Other introductory books also offer exercises to focus the poet:
The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
In the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kowit
The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux — emphasizes the content of poems.
The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell — big book o’ exercises with some discussion.
Writing Poems by Robert Wallace
Now that you’ve got a feel for the poem, take a look at the direction that poetry has been moving in:
Modern American Poetry by Louis Untermeyer — nineteenth to early twentieth century poetry
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Ellmann, O’Clair — great breadth and indepth introductory commentary (interesting to compare to Untermeyer’s which includes far more minor nineteenth century poets)
Contemporary American Poetry, A. Poulin — mid to late twentieth century poets of note
Contemporary American Poetry by Ryan Van Cleave — a cross between a brief survey of contemporary poetry in 90s and poetry exercises. Helps focus the reader on reading the poetry with a poet’s eye.
Beginning in the mid–twentieth century, one branch of poetry took a different course. For my money, their poetic theories tend to be more interesting than the work itself, but there is stuff to be plundered here to be sure. When reading postmodern poetry, keep in mind these quotes:
“The author’s conviction on this day of New Year is that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music; but this must not be taken as implying that all good music is dance music or all poetry lyric.”
—ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound
“[T]he poet’s theories should arise out of his practice rather than his practice out of his theories.”
— T.S. Eliot
The New American Poetry by Donald M. Allen
Postmodern American Poetry by Paul Hoover
(I don’t include Joris and Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium as I find the doorstop volumes more useful for understanding the purpose of experimental poetry than for demonstrating quality poems—for my taste.)
Some of my favorite anthologies are collections of poems discussed by the poets themselves:
50 Contemporary Poets by Roberta Turner
45 Contemporary Poets by Roberta Turner
Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms by David Lehman
Introspections by Robert Pack and Jay Parini
David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series also has commentary on the poems in the back, but these are usually superficial in nature—perhaps due to space constraints and/or the poet’s humble reticence to discuss their art.
If you’ve explored this far on your own, you probably already know about University of Michigan Press’ Poets on Poetry series, collecting poets’ thoughts on other poets, poetry, and themselves.
One kind of poem that I enjoy reading is where women seek to know themselves. Curiously, poems of self-exploration by male poets are largely absent from the slush. I’m not sure why. Are we too macho to understand ourselves? I certainly do not want poems that beat up on other men to show how sensitive the male poet is over other men (a time–honored tradition to help men get laid by lying to women and saying how this man is the only worthy sperm–donor in the universe). One anthology that might get men thinking about who they are is Robert Bly’s Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. I heartily recommend.
Now you’re a poet who should catch my eye with regularity.
Editorial © 2007 Trent Walters. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted.
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