There's No Such Thing as a Great Poem

This blog has been full of discussion lately, and I love it — it gives me things to think about (and thus post about).  In a comment thread from last week, “G the Art Spy” argued that we publish too much poetry these days — that a journal that published infrequently and was “extremely choosy” would be most successful.   I replied that there’s no such thing as great poetry — only good poetry, and it’s hard to get people to agree even on that.  A hyperbolic statement, and the ever-engaging Cafais called me out: “Really? The great ones are rare, but they are still out there.”

Cafais is right, of course, but I do believe it’s practically true that there’s no such thing as great poetry, at least from the standpoint of a literary magazine.  Great poems exist, but they’re so rare that it’s most effective to operate under the premise that they don’t.

Like “God,” great poems are defined by consensus.  A great poem is any poem that a vast majority of poetry readers would acknowledge to be great.  I can only think of a handful written in the last 100 years.  “Howl” and “Prufrock” certainly — probably “The Wasteland,” too, although I know several people who seem to despise it.  Plath’s “Daddy.”  Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.”  Maybe Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.”  Maybe something by Cummings, but I can’t decide which one.  The most recent I can think of are Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” and (I would argue) Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror / Terror of the Future” sequence.

It’s interesting to explore what these poems have in common — an epic harnessing of the contemporary zeitgeist, etc. — but that’s not the point.  The point is: look how few and far between.

As an editor, you can’t pretend that you’ll be able to publish one of these poems — you’d be publishing one poem every decade…and how would you find that one poem, if you’re not receiving any submissions or being active in the literary community?

While there are very few great poems, there are a great many good poems — poems with a strong voice and a resonant energy, that will connect with some in particular and, for them, rise to the level of greatness.  And that’s what you have to focus on.  Every issue of Rattle contains maybe a dozen poems that move me personally — the rest are poems that I think might move other readers, the goal being that no matter who reads, everyone will be able to find their dozen.  Poetry is subjective; that’s all you can hope for.

In the 15 years of Rattle, we’ve published one poem that I think has a strong case for being called great.  Donald Mace Williams’ “Wolfe” is a flawless epic, and in turning the legend of Beowulf into a critique of man’s encroachment on nature, it has a chance at ringing the bell of the current zeitgeist.  That’s why we took the unusual step of reprinting it as a chapbook.  Does it have the power to move enough people to call it great?  The odds are long, but only time will tell.

We’ve also published several poems that border on greatness.  Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings.”  Lynn Shapiro’s “Sloan-Kettering.”  Sophia Rivkin’s “Conspiracy.”  Salah al Hamdani’ “Baghdad, Mon Amour.”  And there are others.  But I don’t think any of them have the  universality to be called truly great — they’re great for some readers, but merely good for others.  We all have different histories and proclivities.  And that‘s what’s really great.

What I want to do, though, is ask you:  What poems do you think are great?  List as many as you can think of, and maybe we’ll make a big list.  I’d love to find some that I haven’t read yet.

A New Kind of Book Review

The first book was written 5,000 years ago, and the first book review 4,999 years, 11 months, and 28 days.  There’s been quite the hubbub ever since, particularly when it comes to reviews of poetry.  Should we waste space writing negative reviews, when so many brilliant collections languish in the shadows?  But if they’re always positive, don’t they become as uninteresting and distrusted as blurbs?  Does critical opinion even matter?  Is any publicity good publicity?  And so on.  Here are some recent rounds of the brouhaha: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  (Hey, one of those is me!)  There are plenty more where that came from — if you read any of those articles, there will be links to other articles, with links to other articles, and so on.

Most of us fondle the elephant in the room, but for some reason we stop short of naming it.  Maybe (to borrow Marlon Carey) the elephant is just so evident that addressing it can’t be revelant.  Or maybe there are just too many careers at stake.  Either way, no one seems willing to confront how fundamentally subjective art really is, or how successful art — and I mean art that has the power to transform people — is an unharnessable snowball of luck and skill and temperament and vision and time and timing.  I’ve been to the contemporary art museum.  I’ve seen Frank Stella and Blue Square #2.  Doodles my kid could draw — and I don’t even have a kid!  It’s not, as Vonnegut muses, that there are detailed frescoes buried beneath three gallons from a Sherwin Williams color swatch.  Mark Rothko couldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel.  And yet people are moved by post-minimalism and abstract expressionism — at least enough people to fill a room if you hang a painting there.

I’ve never read art criticism in my life, but I can tell you how Red Rectangle with Yellow Stripe works.  Stripped of all referents, all sense of time and place, the viewer is forced to enter the painting — is forced to daydream, not in the direction the artist commands, but anywhere the mind desires.  With all the claptrap of meaning removed, we see art finally for what it fundamentally is:  a mental mirror.  Art is the place we go to lose ourselves in the oneness of creation, and the best way lose yourself and touch the infinite is to dive deeper within (I don’t want to get off on a tangent, so just trust me on that).  Hence the subjective nature of art.

Every reader carries their own baggage on that journey, because there’s no one there to carry it for you — it’s an entirely private experience.  Through the dual miracles of nature and nurture, we all have a hell of a lot in common, but no two people share the same history or identity or logophilia.  We have moods that can change in minutes.  All of that effects the way we encounter books (or any works of art).  And everyone knows it.

Over on the Harriet blog, Thomas Brady posited that the public’s lack of interest in poetry is due to a failure to sustain consensus of opinion: “if no façade of objective stability exist over and above that subjectivity, and the public senses no objective control, public interest is sure to wane—eventually destroying contemporary poetry’s legitimacy.”  I would argue the opposite:  If anything turns the public off of poetry, it’s the pretense of objectivity — it’s the professor in your ear telling you that Edna St. Vincent Millay is great, when you can read for yourself and see that she does nothing for you.  In the baseball metaphor we were using, you don’t need a box score to tell you that Babe Ruth just hit a home run — you’re at the game, you can use your own eyes.  And the disconnect appears when that voice in your ear doesn’t match what you’re seeing on the page.  That’s why so many people who don’t read it say “I just don’t get poetry” — they’ve been taught that poetry is something to be gotten, instead of what it really is: something to be experienced.

Critics like to pretend that an official scorer is necessary, when we’d be better off at the other end of the press box — the TV booth, where there’s as much color commentary as there is analysis.  The game is right in front of us and we can score it ourselves; we just want the experience enhanced.  Tell me where to look, not what to think.

So three days before the quincimillenial anniversary of the first book review, I’d like to propose a new kind of book review (and maybe it’s not even new for all I know).  Let’s stop pretending these are objective critiques and start writing personal narratives — don’t tell me whether or not a book is good, tell me about your experience with the book.  Tell me why you picked it up in the first place — did you know the poet, were you drawn to the cover, the title, what was it?  Where did you read it?  How long did it take?  Were you transported immediately or did you daydream?  Which poems resonated with you and why?  The speaker in the poem reminded you of your sister?  Your experience of Brazil was different?  You’re growing tired of poems about divorce?  Why?

Not only would reviews like this be more interesting to read, but they’d be more honest, more true to the real experience of reading poetry.  Because every time you respond to a book, that response has just as much to do with you as it does to the author.  Let’s finally face it.

This is an idea we’ve been kicking around since publishing Cameron Conaway’s review of Clifton’s Voices.  Conaway starts and ends the review with an anecdote about having dinner with Clifton when she visited his college — it was a strange way to write a review, and at first we were skeptical, but the more we thought about it, the more we liked it.  And I think you can go a lot farther than Conaway did.

So we’ve decided to add this note on style to our guidelines.  Getting poets to follow guidelines — or often even to read them — is like herding cats, and we have dozens of traditional reviews scheduled to be published over the next few months.  But I’d like to gradually phase in this new style — the personal narrative review.  We have hundreds of books available for review, and we’d be happy to send you a few.  Anyone willing to write yourself into the script?

Why Tribute African Americans?

In a comment on last week’s very brief post, Cafais asks, “Why, in 2009, is a tribute to ‘African American’ poets necessary?” It’s a very important question, of course — I asked the same as part of the promotional blurb for the issue.  The main point, Cafais writes, seems to be that black poetry should be allowed to flourish — but wouldn’t we all agree that this should apply to all kinds of poetry?  Why focus on race at all?

The question is too big for a single issue of a magazine to answer, or for a single person to answer, I suspect, but I’d hoped that we could at least help cultivate an answer within the body of our audience.  The point wasn’t to provide a solution, but rather, to open up an internal dialogue on race.  But Cafais is a subscriber, who’s read the issue, and still he asks — so maybe I should attempt an answer.

The short version is simple.  I consider myself a liberal, open-minded person — I’m young, and like almost everyone in my generation, I find it difficult to even comprehend the fact the Civil Rights Act is only 45 years old (that my parents were alive during segregation!).  The idea itself is completely foreign to my sense of morality, alien to my entire world view.  It seems like we’re so far past that.

And still, I’ve learned more about my self and my country in putting this issue together than in any other project I’ve ever worked on.  If the issue can have that kind of profound effect on me, I think it can have an impact on others as well.

Another short answer: As Cafais mentions, there was a time when African American authors were segregated to the back of the book, with the implication that their poetry wasn’t real poetry.  As always, our “Tribute” is a tribute — a celebration of black poets that, rather than echo that wrong, hopes to move beyond it.

The long answer stretches the bounds of articulation.  I think the center of all poetry is empathy.  This is the only medium where your audience is the medium:  poetry is an art of ventriloquism; a poet is using your body — your breath, your heart beat, your vocal chords — to produce his voice.  Together the two of you are working symbiotically to create an acoustic and linguistic experience — every single time you read the poem.  It’s the only experience we have where you’re not just stepping into someone else’s shoes, you’re stepping into their body, their mind, their moment in time.

Unless we’re an African American in the United States in 2009, we cannot know what it’s like to be an African American in the United States in 2009.  Unless we lived as a black American through the civil rights movement, we cannot know what it was like to live as a black American through the civil rights movement.  The fundamental lesson when dealing with issues of race or gender or sexuality isn’t that we should all be treated equally (that should be self-evident), and it’s not that we all have different experiences — it’s that we can’t know those other experiences, trapped as we are, within our own private world.  If we want to try to understand other experiences — and we should — then we need help.

When I was an undergraduate I attended a lecture that tried to teach us how to visualize a multidimensional space as a way to better understand superstring theory.  We started with a three-dimensional sphere, and imagined how that collapses into an infinite series of circles in two dimensions.  Then we went back to the sphere and tried to do the opposite, blowing it out into 4-D — it looked like a kind of donut, where any point on an infinite number of spheres translated to a point on the surface of the donut.  It wasn’t easy, but after an hour of straining our minds to the brink, most of us could get at least a fleeting grasp of the image before it fell apart again.  We felt good — and then the lecturer said, “Now just do that 7 more times and you’ll have the 10-dimensional space required for M-theory.”

That’s how issues of identity work.  I can’t know the experience of being a woman, let alone the million experiences in being the woman that is my wife.  I can’t know the million experiences in being the black man that is Terrance Hayes.

But poetry, as a fundamentally empathetic medium, gets me closer than anything else.

You might then ask, why not just publish the poetry of Terrance Hayes?  Well, obviously, we do — several of the poets from this summer’s tribute section have appeared in Rattle in the past.  I can’t be sure, but I’d bet that there isn’t a single issue of Rattle that doesn’t have African American poets in its open section.  The difference is, those poets appear without a context — we read those poems without an awareness of their self-identities, and so they only speak to the topics they directly address.

In gathering together 30 African American poets, we’re providing a context where the poems can speak to each other, as well as to a broader whole.  The collective effect, I think, is exponential — the overall impact is magnitudes larger than it would have been, had the poems appeared individually, scattered throughout an issue.

Obama aside, we’re not living in a post-racial America.  There are still lessons to be learned, wounds to be healed, experiences to understand.  The very reaction like that of Cafais (and please don’t feel like I’m singling you out, you’re not alone) is evidence enough.  In the past we’ve done tributes to Native American poets, Italian poets, Vietnamese poets, Filipino poets — none of which were met with skepticism or unease.  With this issue I’ve had those doubts myself.  Race is still a sensitive subject in this country, a horrible historical fact that we haven’t finished dealing with yet.

So that’s why a tribute to African American poets is necessary in 2009.