07 September 2005

Prose in Poetry

I am a relatively naive reader of poetry, and I doubt I would enjoy any if I weren't. The dogmas, ideologies, spats, quarrels, and manifestos don't much interest me, because my taste, such as it is (instinct might be a better word) seems incapable of tying itself to any school or movement, or even a range of them, and any explanation I might offer for being interested or not interested in a particular poem or poet is likely to be unenlightening and flatfooted. Since I don't write poetry criticism, this is not a problem. It allows me, though, to appreciate people who write poetry criticism that is engaging, clear, and thoughtful.

Another confession: I have for a while thought that, in general, I dislike the poetry in Poetry magazine. I wouldn't have said I hated it -- rarely had I found a poem in Poetry that stirred me to such a passionate response. When I was in high school, and even college, I thought Poetry was where the "good poems" were supposed to be, and so I read one issue after another, hoping and hoping for something that excited me as much as Eliot's "Prufrock", which Poetry originally published. Finally, I just stopped reading the magazine.

Nonetheless, when the magazine offered seventeen issues for considerably less than the price of a subscription, I took them up on the offer, partly because I wanted to see what Rick Moody had to say about Olena Kalytiak Davis's Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities, a book I adore, but also because I was curious to see what sorts of things were being published now that $100 million bequest from Ruth Lilly had begun to settle in.

The magazines just arrived, and I've spent a few hours reading through them, often with pleasure. There's something to be said for having low expectations -- surprise is not impossible. What most surprised me was not the poetry, most of which still doesn't hold much appeal for me, but the prose. Moody's review was fine (positive, adequate), but I particularly liked what it was part of: "Six Novelists on Six Poets", a fun way, at least in theory, to break through some of the cant and repetitiveness that inevitably grows where people only write about the subject they know best.

I liked, too, many of the short reviews in each issue. It shouldn't be surprising that poets can write reviews that are both succinct and effective, but I've read plenty that are neither. Some of the longer reviews are interesting as well: Meghan O'Rourke's "Subject Sylvia", Danielle Chapman on Samuel Menashe, Michael Hoffmann on W.S. Graham. There are "exchanges" between two writers on assigned subjects: Meghan O'Rourke and A.E. Stallings on Lorine Niedecker, Averill Curdy and Dan Chiasson on poetry prizes, four poets on "Ambition and Greatness". Probably the biggest surprise for me was how lively the letters columns are, and how much what gets argued about would, in general, sound familiar to readers of the messageboards of magazines like Asimov's and Fantasy & Science Fiction: the death/undeath of x, y, or z; the usefulness/destructiveness of negative/positive reviews; the accuracy of particular reviews; the declining/rising quality of the magazine; political correctness/lack of diversity; etc. (Seen one subculture, you've seen 'em all, I suppose.)

Part of what made me appreciate these issues of Poetry was not just my low expectations, but the fact that I had seventeen issues to browse through. It's easy to ignore the stuff that doesn't appeal when there you've got plenty of material to roam through. Had I subscribed to Poetry, I probably would have let my subscription lapse, since I tend to prefer the sorts of poetry found at places like Jacket, and a subscription to Poetry is hardly cheap (they get $100 million bequested and they still charge people $35 a year?!), and -- well, I could go on and on, and would risk trivializing how interesting I really have found the prose in these issues of Poetry, and even a couple of poems.

On an unrelated point: The cover of the latest issue of Fence has stirred up some controversy, particularly in light of what editor Rebecca Wolff says to explain it. (Me, I'm with Dan Green, concerned less with the cover and more with how little content the magazine puts online.) Via Josh Corey I discovered a 2001 screed against Fence, along with a great discussion that followed. And people think science fiction fans get fiesty...