Poetry is safe with Poetry Magazine

In a review of Gabriel Gudding's poetry (a review which was rejected for publication by Poetry Magazine), I declared : "... we live in a time of near-systemic obfuscation — political, economic, educational — amid which the sphere of poetry hovers with an air of insouciant and facetious cleverness. Poetry per se has evolved, it seems, into light verse: an occasion for admirable displays of a poet’s intellectual graces (wit, charm, technical facility, humor, thoughtfulness, etc.)."

I've sometimes wondered whether this statement was the main reason my review was turned down by Poetry Magazine. Mere speculation, & probably mistaken... but there it is. It has occurred to me. Why? Well, maybe because it was Poetry I was thinking of, when I wrote that passage.

Is the statement fair? No. Is it accurate? No. Is it just plain mean? Maybe. Who could argue with Poetry Magazine? It arrives regularly once a month. It's small, compact & manageable, it fits in your hand, the cover art is oftentimes charming. It comes out of Chicago, from the middle of the country, from the wheatfields, from the heartland. The focus is poetry poetry poetry : there is no muddying the waters with anything but. What is the keynote of Poetry style? In a word? The nice word : "exquisite." The mean word : "dainty." The typeface is small & delicate; the poems are short & clever & sweet; tender morsels you can eat for dessert; witty companions who nevertheless know when to shut up - they have the virtue of precision, concision... they are graceful objets d'art.

Grace & gracefulness, of course, are not to be sneezed at. Many I suppose find Poetry a welcome relief from the brassy, snaggle-toothed, unkempt, vulgar, & basically uncivilized howling amateurism which is & has been rampant in American poetry for decades. But a smoothing-over & regularizing process (coinciding with word-processing & new forms of keyboards) has been underway since the 1980s. Scruffiness is out. NEATness (& regular exercise, on a high-tech exercise machine) are definitely IN. (Children born after 1975 simply cannot comprehend what I'm talking about. The scruffy edges of the 50s & 60s were being sanded down as they grew up.)

Poetry epitomizes this turn to the dainty & the manicured : in fact the magazine probably contributed a good deal to its propagation in poetry circles. The Poetry Foundation, there in the center of the country, with its fabled wealth & all its new poetry-popularization/new media projects, offers, finally a resolution to the ancient quarrel of the Poet with America - that angst-ridden, anxious, tension-filled, sexually-ambiguous, fundamentally troubled relationship, put with delightful tragicomic irony by Saul Bellow, in his novel (based on Delmore Schwartz & the other struggling poets of his generation) Humboldt's Gift :

"I had come to hear that great things might be true. This I was told on the Christopher Street ferry. Marvelous gestures had to be made and Humboldt made them. He told me that poets ought to figure out how to get around pragmatic America. He poured it on for me that day. And there I was, having raptures, gotten up as a Fuller Brush salesman in a smothering wool suit, a hand-me down from Julius. The pants were big in the waist and the shirt ballooned out, for my brother Julius had a fat chest. I wiped my sweat with a handkerchief stitched with a J."

But Poetry has solved all that (ironically, in Bellow's home town & the scene of much of the action in HG). Poetry is... now featured in Poetry! What a neat & elegant solution! The crisis is resolved! Now both America and poetry can relax - have fun - be sweet & charming & graceful again!

I hear somebody object : 'But Mr. Bones, what you got against sweetness & light? You don't like elegance? You don't like WOMEN, or somethin'?"

Me, not like women? Heaven forefend! How dare you even suggest such a thing, Mr. Somebody! Henry loves them all. But Henry grew up when women was just as shaggy & scruffy & unpredictable & disorganized as himself. He feels threatened by neat & organized (male or female).

Somehow this diatribe has evolved into a self-analysis (what else is new!). I guess I must confess that at the root of it is something personal, a very personal disappointment. As I put it over on (the highly-organized) Facebook this morning : "In the hot-muggy light of morning, a boxing match with Poetry Magazine sounds a little less cool... though this IS the season for catfights. Problem : 1) I like the magazine; 2) they rejected a poem I hold in very high esteem - after a series of rejections, which I could accept (c'est la guerre; I'm not God - believe it or not; I'm nobody special)... but this one was harder to take. Thems don't like Henry."

Thems don't like Henry. I'm not dainty enough for them. But not all that's graceful must be picayune.


sandrasimonds said...

Hi Henry

I just got done reading your post a few times. I think that you offer some interesting observations re: Poetry Magazine. However, something strikes me as curious in your post and I would be grateful if you would address it for me. What I don't understand is why you *expect* the following response: "But Mr. Bones, what you got against sweetness & light? You don't like elegance? You don't like WOMEN, or somethin'?" from some of your readers. I am having an especially difficult time understanding the last sentence. Later in the post you go on to say that you don't like elegance or neat and organized poetry from either sex. But it seems as though your first expectation--- that a reader might charge you with sexism by criticizing elegance--- could be seen as a rather *elegant* way of disguising the inherent link that you perceive between women and the negative qualities that you find in poems.

sandrasimonds said...

I guess, Henry, that another way to say this would be, I didn't even associate the ideas of order, elegance, daintiness, light verse etc. with women until you brought it up through your expectation that someone would accuse you of not liking women by leveling these complaints at the magazine. This, I find, curious and troubling.

Zachary Bos said...

If you think Poetry publishes light fare, you're free to that opinion, and the editors as free to deny that opinion space in their venue, but I'd wager that IF they rejected your review on the basis of that one statement, as you hypothesize, it is because the statement was grandiose, ungenerous, and wrong in fact as well as spirit. Is it not the case, as well, that you find the magazine itself too dainty for you?

In view of the contemporary poems I admire, I cannot agree that poetry has evolved into light verse.

Henry Gould said...

I think that passage had less to do with protecting myself from criticism, & more to do with reflecting on the psychology of my own attitude. At least that's how I'd like to read it.

There's a long complex cultural history (see 19th & early 20th cent. esp.) of opposing "manliness" to the "feminine" qualities I emphasize in this post. In fact elegance, taste, gracefulness, etc. were for ages attributed to the feminine - & civilizing - side of human nature. That's the history I'm referring to here. I make no claims as to its accuracy...

By the way, I would just like to be clear : I'm completely IN FAVOR of "elegance, taste, gracefulness, etc.".... I like civilization! Hope to become a member someday!

Zachary Bos said...

It was pointed out to me, that I should have have pointed out that I agree with you: aside from a small handful, most poets write light verse these days? As I have been reminded, "hell, even Ashbery is light verse." Where I disagree is if you think this is a recent development. The proportion of light to serious verse is probably a constant over time.

Zachary Bos said...

And yet here is a very fine review of yours: http://www.criticalflame.org/verse/0310_gould.htm.

Henry Gould said...

Yes, thanks Zachary! That's the review from which the "light verse" quote was taken.

Sheila said...

Reading Edward Sander's 'picayune' metaphorically-

I loved to hear him read

you could feel
his line

The way he could chant
with that deep base line
almost like a held vowel

the words ...
The way
he could
click open
his Zippo lighter

as a punctuation
right in the middle
of a poem
to light up a Picayune
puffs pouring out of his mouth
as further punctuation.

He faced
the terror
It seems to me
with such tender grace.