The Asheville Poetry Review
The Final Frontier: Honoring The Condensery
— Keith Flynn
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.
Trying to teach someone how to write poetry is like assembling an instruction manual for a sunset. What the reader of poetry craves are surprise and astonishment, doors opening to true vistas for the first time, radioactive poetry; the right words in the right order, lending light, beautiful accidents. These accidents enter our writing because of our ability to listen and to be open to the possibilities of any influence, to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost and all will be possible. “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone,” said Rainer Maria Rilke. The best poems stop us in our tracks, shut us up, make us read the poem again and again because it has opened another room in our brain that was hidden to us before. But how?
“All art,” said Pablo Picasso, “is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Condensation is the final frontier for the poet, after the pulses of the syllables, the break of the lines, the word choices, punctuation, and stanza order. Learning what to take away is one of the hardest things for a poet to practice. One poet whose lifelong commitment to concision yielded some of the most beautiful poems in American letters was Lorine Niedecker:
How white the gulls
in grey weather
Niedecker’s commitment to pare away all but the essence allows each poem its own identity and power, letting the color nudge up at the end like flowers in the underbrush. Niedecker’s boundaries are firm, but there is a bounty in her discipline.
Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life —
Was enough to carry me thru.
Ezra Pound believed that each line of the poem was a component to be tested for its authority. He advocated a line–by–line examination: Move to the top of the poem and remove the first line. If the music or meaning of the poem is not altered, then that line has no place and must be deleted. Then the weight of the second line is judged, and line by line, the poem is trimmed, its essence distilled.
While a foggy or repetitive tone can become a caul over the head of the poem, the beats and arpeggios of breath inside the poem can rescue it from monotony. If we think of each word as a note, then the language becomes an enormous piano with the poet at the keyboard. A poem should be a long, angular, hungry momentum, a flow with no impediments. Over the course of several stanzas this momentum picks up more and more lines. Rhythm is the entire movement of the poem, the recurrence of stress and unstressed syllables as they relate to the pitch and texture of the sentences, one against the next. It is important to acknowledge inspiration’s worth here: We have to give our emotions free rein at the outset. Most writing impediments are either technical problems obstructing the poem’s flow or psychological problems blocking the writer from recognizing the true impulse — not the first impulse, mind you; first thought, best thought is a worthless conceit, and a lazy writer is like a desperate salesman; neither one can close the deal.
If a poem is dynamic, its rhythm headlong, then the turbines of this momentum are the verbs. As space yields to nouns, time and pace are controlled by the verbs with their various tenses and energy, and it is valuable to try and replace those verbs that lack heft or dynamism. Action verbs muscle up a sentence and help its propulsion. They create astonishment. We should examine every verb for a more powerful alternative. Another method to make the sentence livelier is to turn a noun into a verb. Look at the surprise at the end of Stephen Roberts’ poem, Sex, when the noun “maple” becomes a verb:
Each love creates
its own final cause.
pink and violet
wisps arch behind
the oak and pine
distant, unseen slope.
The gray, creaky,
projects from the reed
rimmed shore into
the spectral lake.
Leaves sink surface
to sediment while
driven waves maple
out into darkness.
We see the waves curling down along the shoreline like branches and receding out against the darker surf. “Maple,” turned to a verb, brings a moment of quiet surprise that also provides the sentence’s motion. The poem turns in on itself and follows the motion of the waves. It takes a single verb, cleverly chosen, to set a poem on the tip of a pin. See how Niedecker makes the cold come alive in this untitled poem, animating it by her choice of a verb usually thought of as a noun:
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in
The choice of “mouse” in the last line almost makes us see the cold as it sticks its nose into every crevice of the house. A mouse is insistent, and the cold is a pervasive foe. It’s a liberating choice, allowing the poem a final motion as the lines nestle and resonate inside the reader.
When we place our work in the hands of editors, no amount of background, biography, or back–slapping will help them decide to publish or reject a poem. There is only the poem in front of them and any decision an editor makes in those moments is arbitrary and dependent upon his or her mood, the weather, the themes of the issue, conscious and unconscious stylistic bias, their digestion, the time it took to read the mountain of poems, their child’s piano lesson, the lack of a title, the length of the title, the worth of the first line, the color of the paper stock, the unmitigated gall
to send a multi–page biography, it’s another damned sonnet, it’s the perfect damn sonnet, the lack of a shower, bravado, pitch, vocabulary, humility, sweep, vision, humor, shape, rhetoric, form, diction. We can only hope that the action of a good editor, however quixotic, is riveted with love and bears the quality of tenderness.