The Spoon River Poetry Review
Letters to the World
— Bruce Guernsey
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
— Emily Dickinson
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.
I wish the answer to what makes a poem memorable were as easy as the graph that Robin Williams’ character mockingly uses in The Dead Poets’ Society — one coordinate for importance of subject and the other, mastery of form. Editing would then be a matter of statistics and charting, and not the intuitive cloudiness that it really is.
The Spoon River Poetry Review receives about 3,000 poems a month during our reading period, September 15 through April 15. We also run a very successful contest called “The Editor’s Prize,” which attracts more than 1,400 poems (winnowed to 50 or so finalists). That’s a lot of poetry, and I am blessed to have a very fine staff of first readers who are all excellent poets themselves. But, as editor, I have to make the final decision on the hundreds of poems submitted to the magazine, plus I screen all the work that comes in for the prize. So, what do I look for and what tips the scales one way or another?
Here’s a poem that answers these questions. It’s by Hope Coulter, an Arkansas poet:
The Last Joke
My last trip home before my brother
fell, spiraling down,
out of his green prime
(the orchards in full leaf
the cows wading through thick grass
straining to hear over the sound of their cud
the gears of his truck
the clang of the gate
an oath or two borne their way
on the summer breeze) —
my last trip home before his lungs seized up
with a rare and deadly condition
first identified in veterans of tropical wars,
before his blue amazed eyes flicked toward us
over a hospital gown, his bulky forearms
brown and hard as split wood
resting so strange on a bedsheet —
before the time when his dirt–caked boots
leached by long days of their shine
sat empty beside his guitar,
his cases of worn books,
on the tables his caps, the day’s mail —
before all that, home for a visit,
I got in my car to find
hooked to the fabric over the driver’s seat
a cicada shell, split down the back,
pale, nearly transparent, light brown,
raising its little barbed feet in attempted menace.
Or prayer. Its bulbous dry eye–skins glared
as I plucked it off the upholstery,
and I shook my head, startled into a laugh,
thinking: a brother’s way of saying hello,
trying to get a rise out of me,
even now. Forty–nine, and this is the towel–snap,
the affectionate pop of the rubber band
sailing across the room.
I didn’t know
it would be a last message
before he split his own skin
into whatever sort of rise
might be granted, not to be seen again
but only heard, heard in the roaring absence
that towers over our heads, like a chorus
unseen, stacked in the trees day and night, that twangs
like a giant rubber–band choir, a choir of curses
borne on the breeze.
He didn’t know
when he stuck it beside the visor (cracked carapace,
buggy salute) where he was going,
what he was finding out soon.
“The Editor’s Prize” is stiff competition, and not only in those staggering numbers but in quality. So, what led me to include Coulter’s as one of the finalists I sent on to the 2007 judge, Ohio poet Philip Brady?
Here’s a hint: Instead of scanning her poem onto the page just now, or duplicating it in some other technological way, I typed it. Indeed, had it been acceptable, I would have written the poem out by hand because The Last Joke has that kind of feel for me — that it was handwritten. It’s precisely that kind of poem I look for: one that is really “a letter to the world.”
So much of what I read as an editor seems hurried, computer–driven, written for the purpose of publication and the enhancement the poet’s “career” — the poem as exercise, based on some obscure quotation or reference to an esoteric source, perhaps a painting or musical composition. Certainly, great poetry has come from such sources, but when I read dozens and dozens of poems with the same kind of allusive genesis, I suspect that I’m really reading assignments from a master of fine arts class.
There is none of that in Coulter’s poem. Instead, there’s an urgency at its source that has led the poet from silence into sound. And I’m not talking about “sincerity” here — some of the worst poems ever written were the most sincere. A cry or a wail is sincere, but neither of these is poetry. What lifts The Last Joke from mere moan into powerful verse is its wonderful ordering of sound and sense which are both in service to what Robert Frost called “the lump in the throat” that generated the poem to begin with.
I also look at how a poem appears on the page. When I see no white space, I confess to being cautious because silence is as much a part of a poem as is sound. The poem that floods the page with verbiage suggests to me that the poet has not paid much attention to shaping. And I listen as I look, wanting to hear lines, not sentences disguised as such. Is there a rhythmic pattern at work here, or are the line breaks determined primarily by dependent clauses or prepositional phrases — that is, by syntactical units instead of sound?
When you go back to Coulter’s poem, you will hear a powerful pattern based on anaphora as the poem proceeds at the same time with necessary exposition and exacting imagery. Her metaphoric use of the cicada is both brilliant and heartbreaking, but metaphor is something I find sadly lacking in so much of the poetry I read. A poem is burdened by adjectives not enhanced by them, and all too often I find the literal description trying to do what a figure of speech can do far more succinctly and, thus, more memorably.
We seldom get personal letters anymore, ones with actual handwriting, both inside and on the envelope. When we do, those kind of “letters to the world” stand out in the mailbox — and on the page.