Making Rattle Rattle
— Timothy Green
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.
Before the written word, there was poetry. The earliest known proto–writing appeared as ideograms carved into tortoise shells along the Yellow River some 8,600 years ago, yet the oral tradition stretches much farther back into the historical abyss. For ages immemorial — literally — priests and elders have set their stories into verse, having not yet learned how to set them in stone. Meter and rhyme were bridges to the past, the only tools they had to keep their records pure.
Civilization has come a long way since, but in many respects poetry hasn’t changed. With all of our books and computers, we don’t need to keep a formal oral tradition but the heart of poetic experience is still memory. You might argue that all art is concerned with truth and beauty — but what’s more memorable than a beautiful vision or the brilliant spark of epiphany?
So when people ask what Rattle looks for in a poem, the answer is easy: something we won’t forget.
Unfortunately, the execution is much more difficult. We read approximately 150 submissions, typically containing five poems each, every week of the year. That means whittling 39,000 poems down to the 200 or fewer that we have room to print. That’s about one–half of 1 percent. In the wake of this endless tidal wave of language, chances are slim that we’ll remember a poem the next day.
It’s impossible to make a list of what not to do, all the obvious pitfalls — the mixed metaphor, the failed line, the lazy cliché. The truth is, most of the poems we don’t publish aren’t bad — they’re just bland, forgettable. All that readers want is poetry that resonates so much that it rattles around inside of them, banging into their heart and knocking the air out of their lungs until their skull is vibrating like a bell that echoes into eternity. Is that so much to ask?
So how does a poem become memorable? A while ago I came up with three features that seem like the fundamental elements of great poetry. Not every memorable poem works on each of these levels, but they seem to always work on at least two of the three, to varying degrees. Try as I might, I haven’t been able to improve upon this list:
Lyrical: Is the poem fun to read out loud? Does it sing? While the overall impression is subjective and intangible, all the usual lyrical criteria apply — alliteration, end rhyme, internal rhyme, meter (regular or irregular), pacing, etc. For example, these lines from Alan Fox’s Silk Woman:
am I the moth inside
her mouth where words
form, silk cocoon dark skin
The “moth inside / her mouth” dances on the tongue like . . . well, like a moth inside your mouth. There’s an innate pleasure to the simple textures of language, and as any fan of E.E. Cummings or John Ashbery knows, sometimes pure lyricism can make even a line you don’t understand very moving.
Intellectual: Does the poem present an original idea? Interesting facts? Can you learn something just by reading? A great example of this is Alan Greenspan by Tony Trigilio. What could be less memorable than a poem about the chairman of the Federal Reserve, right? Wrong. Did you know that he was a saxophone player? Intimately involved with Ayn Rand? Just reading this poem changes the way you look at the world, the way you see this man we keep seeing on 7 televisions all at once.
But like any good intellectual poem, it’s not just about those interesting facts — there’s also a wonderful cognitive leap in the final line that transforms it into an important statement about the absurdity of this moment in history: Things are like they are now, like never before.
Emotional: Does the poem evoke a visceral response? It’s not easy to write a few lines that make others burst out laughing or feel like they were just punched in the gut. Even more difficult to parse out how those lines achieve their effect. Often emotional poems deal with subjects of gravity. One of my favorite examples is Cheryl Gatling’s poem of longing and loss, Even the Nails in the Sheet Rock Missed Her, in which a personified house misses the missed loved one. The curtains hang, keening, the bed prods him (the one left behind) in his sleep, until finally:
And when he sat up, his hand on his chest,
how could he breathe,
when all the air had gone out into the street
calling her name?
The poem isn’t particularly lyrical, and doesn’t present anything new, yet the conclusion, as it unfolds, can make us weep.
Interestingly, each of these three elements of poetry corresponds with a different form of memory. Lyricism is the physical memory — it’s stored in the muscles of your mouth as they shape the words, in the feel of the breath your throat, in the rhythms of your pulse as you read. The emotional element is the nonverbal memory of the id, the tide of neurotransmitters, the joys and fears of the heart. And the intellectual element is, of course, the rational, verbal, conceptual memory of the ego — the expressible facts and concepts. It’s no wonder that a poem operating on all three levels is likely to stay with us the longest.
And the best poems stay forever. Sophia Rivkin won the first annual Rattle Poetry Prize with Conspiracy. As you read, pay attention to each of the three elements — the insistent, soldier–like marching cadence, the novelty of her “conspiracy,” and the emotional power behind that realization. And see if you can forget that “white–faced crowd” of which we’re all a part:
The husband calls from two hundred miles away
to say he cannot stand it, his wife is dying
in a rented hospital bed in their living room
and he must put her away, somewhere, anywhere,
in a nursing home and she is crying looking up at him
through the bars like a caged animal —
she is an animal with foul green breath
and buttocks burnt raw with urine —
he cannot lift her, he cannot change her often enough,
and she is crying for the children’s pictures on the mantle,
she cannot leave the silver candlesticks,
the high school graduation pictures.
And I say, yes, it is time to put her away,
I am the friend and I say it,
the living conspiring with the living,
death standing like a Nazi general or a stormtrooper
with a huge cardboard chest covered with metals,
and he leans over her and pins a gold star
through her skin and it pricks us,
pricks us through the brain,
through our skin
but we do not bleed
when death is pushing her
out of her bed, marching her away,
while everyone stands white–faced
among the white–faced crowd,
blending in, blending in.