Resonance & Revelation
— Don Wentworth
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.
Poetry, in its creation as well as its appreciation, is first and foremost visceral. It is almost precognitive: the moment of seeing, close–up and in the wild, a peregrine falcon; or a pair of mating garter snakes; or a painting before intellectualization begins.
It is revelation.
Even though this is the single most important part of the process, involving something beyond words, what follows is almost as important: taking in the falcon, the snakes, the Klimt; processing the images, the intent, and the resonance. For these reasons, rarely do I accept or reject any poem on first reading. Every poem is carefully considered two, three, four times, and ones that spark a lyrical quandary are often read many, many more.
Above my desk there is a note I had written: Clarity and resonance, not necessarily in that order, and when I am queried about what I look for in a poem, I pass that statement on. (It has been part of Lilliput Review’s entry in the Poet’s Market for most of “Lillie’s” 20–year run). If you equate my note to the process described above, I’d have to admit that it would be missing that single most important element: revelation.
In my mind, without revelation there is no poetry. Clarity is specific to execution but it also applies to vision, and so we are back to the visceral and how it might best be described. And really it is beyond description. Perhaps there can be an approximation. There is, however, no definitive answer or this selection of essays solicited by The Café Review would be unnecessary. One would have sufficed.
All great poetry mirrors life, in its entirety or in some aspect. There is no definitive answer concerning life because, if there were, all the different religions, like these essays, would be unnecessary. Good poetry rarely posits an answer: it is a restating of the question. Good poems are a constant rephrasing of the one unanswerable question. Ah, theory, theory! But how is it done, how are poems selected, what makes a poem worth including in Lilliput Review?
Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry provides a glimmer of an answer. “If I read a book of poetry and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
This certainly is what I have in mind when I speak of revelation and, frankly, this is no theory.
Lillie is a magazine of the short poem. It is diminutive in size by design, for a number reasons, but suffice it to say that form reflects content. Guidelines ask for three poems, with a maximum of 10 lines each. These are the only rules. If somebody has a 10–line sonnet, I’m ready. I receive nearly a thousand batches of poems and publish, on average, eight issues a year, generally 16 pages in length. On average, there are two poems per page, occasionally one or three. I use artwork so that reduces the page number to 13. That’s 26 poems per issue, approximately 200 poems per year out of a pot of 3,000.
Now comes the tricky part; Lillie is a one–person operation and has been for 20 years. So, really, how are the poems chosen? Well, aside from what is noted above (and if my colleagues are honest, they know the following to be true), work is chosen that I personally like. In fact, I can look back over the full run and see something of a mirror, reflecting a body of selected work. It isn’t a poet’s complete poems, but it is something like that. It is something like a personal journal, a written artifact of a life’s journey. In all its honesty, foolishness, pettiness, courage — the full gambit of humanness. Folks often comment on how issues seem themed but nothing is preplanned, though sometimes an issue taps into something like a collective unconsciousness. Putting together an issue is actually a creative act; this is where it all comes together and this almost singly makes the endless hours of detail work worth every single second.
So, er, what do you like, Don?
Well, I have a dedication to the short poem. In tone and flavor, I’d say I have an Eastern predilection. I like clarity, plain speaking; I also like something that resonates, something that suggests the many realms of possibility. I love Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Sharon Olds, Kobayashi Issa, Mary Oliver, William Shakespeare, Yosano Akiko, Franz Wright and James Wright, Anne Sexton — I could go on, but you get the idea. An example of the perfect Lilliput poem might be The Jewel by James Wright. It does everything I’ve described above and much more. Here’s a poem by California poet William Hart from a very early issue of Lillie that is emblematic of the kind of work I look for:
in a fold of
This poem, comprised of eight, simple words in three truncated lines, says it all. What really is going on? Is it a Balzac statue or an imagined episode in his life? It seems to contain all the stories Balzac ever wrote and writer’s block wasn’t an issue. There is something ominous, possibly. Or it’s simply a naturalistic expression of an imagined or seen event. And it resonates like hell.
And that is precisely the point. It is all those things, drawing the reader in and forcing him or her to participate in the creation. It is the perfect melding of Eastern sensibility and Western mind.
And, oh, did I mention — it’s under 10 lines?