I recently picked up several copies of Poetry magazine, the grand old dame of American poesie. I used to read the magazine whenever I could, with great interest and delight, always with the hope of finding some inspiration and, perhaps, even some glimmering aspiration. And why not? The list of contributors over its 90-plus-year history serves as a pantheon of modern lit.
It had been too long, several years, in fact, since I last read an issue all the way through — though I am guilty of sins of omission, not commission– so I was eager to see what’s been going on with the bellwether of American belles lettres. Especially so since, over the last few years, the venerable monthly has received a $100 million endowment, picked up a new editor (only the 11th), experienced a modest redesign, launched a podcast, etc. Things should be looking up, right?
Wrong. What a letdown. The biggest disappointment was that I found so little “poetry” in Poetry, so little lyricism, that’s for sure. Very little of it was readable, enjoyable. For one thing, many of the poems were burdened with unnecessarily complex, high-falutin’ diction — two of the 26 poems in this issue used the word “inflorescence”! I had to look it up (it means “a flowering or blossoming,” and either word would have been the better choice) — as well as obscure references to literature and literary figures; abstract, illogical metaphors and comparisons (“postage-stamp bright” and “chasms of flatness”); tin-ear rhymes (“state/copulate” and “drowses/blouses”) and hamstrung syntax (“surfeit of distance and the wracked mind waiting”). Who talks like this? No one, and that’s the problem. No wonder none of my friends say, “Oh the new book of poems by So-and-So,” when I ask them what they are reading at the beach this week.
Another thing, only a handful of the contributors listed no affiliation to the university system (what Ezra Pound called the “unifarcity”). That would perhaps explain the peacockery and in-crowd jocularity so evident. (Can’t you hear them sniggering?) I suppose that, if you have to get published to get tenure, then what (or who) makes for a better subject to write about than academics. The bottom line here for me is that virtually no one in Poetry is writing for readers, is writing to be read by anyone other than their friends, colleagues and classmates. Too bad.
Now, granted, I only read 2 issues out of 1 year’s worth of publishing. So it’s not fair for me to base my opinion on so small a sampling. Maybe the pickings for publishable poetry are slim these days (I seriously doubt it). Maybe my tastes have changed over the intervening years (I doubt that, too). But I prefer a quieter, subtler, easier-to-relate-to, honest-to-goodness poetry, written by poets who live their lives and chronicle it. The purpose of poetry, as Louis Zukofsky says, is to “record and elate.” It’s that simple.
There are plenty of poets writing today, famous and not-so, who understand and abide by this dictum. Off the top of my head I can think of Hayden Carruth, Wendell Berry, David Budbill, Louis Simpson, Jim Harrison, Cornelius Eady, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic — poets who write clear-minded, plainspoken, impassioned, musical poems about personal matters (without slipping into solipsism) that speak directly to universal themes. Their poems resonate with a wide range of readers and can be easily understood and memorably appreciated by anyone.
But one writer that I have come across several times lately (but not in Poetry, which has only published 2 of his poems), and whose words catch my attention and make me want to read and reread, is Li-Young Lee. An award-winning poet whose work does not seem to have trouble being heard above the din of the publish-or-perish crowd, Lee is nonetheless not well-known among general readers.
Lee, who once wrote, “Sad is the man who is asked for a story/and can’t come up with one” (a commentary on the state of poetry today?), has a new book, “Behind My Eyes” (Norton), that may bolster his status. A great example of the kinds of poems found in the collection, his fourth, is “To Hold.” Consider these few lines: “One day we’ll lie down and not get up./One day, all we guard will be surrendered./Until then, we’ll go on learning to recognize/what we love, and what it takes/to tend what isn’t for our having.” Such a poem reflects his influences (the simplicity of the classic Chinese poets, his faith, a devotion to family), uses straightforward yet melodic language, and provides a sensitive observation of the beauty of the everyday world — you know, the one that exists outside the walls of the academy, the one world we all live in and try to make sense of. Lee “records and elates” and he deserves to be heard.