Beloit Poetry Review

Quickening the Senses
Lee Sharkey

Quick Note about this issue: This Editor’s Issue of The Café Review is different from our normal published reviews. We have asked 14 editors of poetry journals from across the United States two complex question: Why do some poems stand out from others? And what is he state of poetry in America today? Their answers will surprise you. We hope this issue will give poets a better sense of what editors look for in poems. You will get the inside scoop about why different journals accept different types of poems. For teachers, this issue will answer questions students have about the dos and don’ts in submitting poems as well as the perennial question of why poetry matter.

A poem that excites me will quicken my senses, insinuate itself inside my head and rearrange the furniture there. Within the first two or three lines, I know if this is likely to happen. Predictability of language, hackneyed approaches to overworked subjects, navelgazing, sentimentality, sloppy line breaks, and anything else that indicates the author isn’t in control of her or his craft shortcircuits the process of giving myself over to the poem.

That said, I’ve learned in my 22 years with the Beloit Poetry Journal that poems in a wide range of styles and genres can and do move me. Over its nearly 60year history, Beloit has been known for the catholicity of its taste. In the early years, the journal published a chapbook paying tribute to William Carlos Williams and another with Langston Hughes’s translations of Gabriel García Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads. In 1958, it published a chapbook of the West Coast “Movement” poets (including Charles Bukowski, Gil Orlovitz, and Judson Crews) alongside the English “Underground” poets poets (including Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin). Both groups were in open revolt against the strictures of Modernism, but the contrast in styles could not have been more pronounced. Today, too, we resist getting trapped in the comfy pocket of our preferences.

The diversity of aesthetics among the editorial board members certainly helps in this effort; we talk through poems sometimes at length to clarify their intention and argue our points of view in order to bring the group to consensus.

Of course, our responses to poems we’re considering can’t be reduced to a formula, but here are some of the questions we ask about poems we’re considering: Is the language fresh? Will the poem stand up under a second reading, and a third? Does it make music in the mouth (not any particular music, but a music that announces itself clearly)? Does it resonate beyond its immediate context? Does it pass the “so what” test?

One short lyric we published recently, William Wright’s Peach Trees, Suffused with Pesticides, illustrates the qualities I’ve been describing:

     Hummingbirds stop
     to bathe in the creases of leaves
     where each grass spider
     has left the husk of its body.
     The sky ravels in the throat

     when ends of limbs tremble,
     unlatch their petals
     to a distant sea of hands:

     the body
     cannot scrub it out, this lack
     of stain, emptiness gathering.

Contrast the quiet music of Wright’s poem (if painted, it would surely be a watercolor), the slow, additive procession from image to image that pauses at the end of each line, with Matthew Gavin Frank’s Little Mouse, which appears in our Winter 2008/2009 issue:

     Cobbledtogether roustabout makes dilophosaurus
     dioramas with pegboard and stiletto shoeboxes.
     Hoping for an Aplus, pastes pennies for their eyes,
     Abraham Lincoln inward, green paint, this imagined
     standoff with the walnut brains, your mother’s extra
     long toes that once, before you, choked your father.
     Do this to avoid the holy horror of weightlifting,
     your father’s fourth eagle tattoo, the muscular
     world shoving peacocks beneath our armskin. Even
     the Romans would have slandered them in Latin,
     called their biceps little wriggling mice. But still
     you hear it, how boys belong on soccer fields.
     So many big decisions: to use the rubber cement,
     to go extinct. 

Frank’s poem pops and crackles in the mouth as it bulldozes from line to line, clustering consonants and compressing syntax. The delicious sounds made us willing to put in the effort it took to parse the poem, an antic family scene, sketched in the expressionist mode, in which gender constructions threaten the survival of the poem’s unnamed principal, and the species as well the same issue, ultimately, that’s laid before us in Peach Trees. Little Mouse had us laughing ‘til we wept; Peach Trees stilled us so we could see and feel the desolation of a not so distantly, barren planet Earth. These are political poems though clearly not in the didactic mode and we’re hungry for poems that help define, through whatever strategy, the current political moment.

C. D. Wright asks in Cooling Time, “Can poetry survive? Is it mutable, profound, sentient, resplendent, intense, stalwart, brave, alluring, exploratory, piercing, skillful, percipient, risky, exacting, purposeful, nubile, mirthprovoking, affective, restive, trenchant, sybaritic, nuts enough? Can it still enkindle, prod, or enlarge us?” Much of contemporary poetry sets lower standards for itself. Largely as a result of the proliferation of creative writing programs, the population of poets (if not readers) is mushrooming, and inevitably, the majority of what is written will be unremarkable.

Most of what comes in over our transom is reasonably skilled not much of the Hallmark verse that used to constitute half of our submissions but has little to distinguish itself from dozens of other poems that we read in the course of our screening process. Too much of it dwells on the untransformed emotional life or consciousness of the writer, as if that were an end in and of itself. There’s a lot of verbal cleverness without consequence and narratives with language flat as the Plains. That said, a great deal of original, consequential poetry is being written at this historical moment by poets old and young who bring an exhilarating range of cultural backgrounds and concerns (political and aesthetic) to their work. My job as an editor is to ferret out those poems for our readers, poems that stand, to quote Muriel Rukeyser, “against the idea of the fallen world.”