Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Poetry" magazine and the missing spoken word

Patricia Smith

Poetry Magazine is such a puzzle. The magazine (and now the Poetry Foundation) serves as a well-funded venue for contemporary poets, an honored and recognized voice for poets since Harriet Monroe began publishing in 1912. Yet I'm mystified these days by most of what the current editor, Christian Wiman, selects: many of the poems seem academic, and word usage almost seems archaic. I won't name names here -- but the room needs some air. I've subscribed infrequently but never submitted a thing to Poetry, although I've thought about it from time to time.

I'm just not on the magazine's track, apparently, but that's the immediate thing about poetry itself: it either moves you or it doesn't. And, as the young Elvis once slurred into the microphone after one false start at a rocking little tune, "that don't move me, fellas. Let's get real gone for a change."

What's missing in Poetry Magazine for me is the spoken energy of poems. They are meant to be read, and not spoken, most of them. Jonathan Williams, the erstwhile wordsmith of Scaly Mountain, NC, had it right when he commented that to be appreciated poetry should be read out loud, and (more importantly) written to be read that way as well. Chaucer's Tales read by a roaring fire with wine-cups at the ready, the Six Gallery reading in 1955 with Kerouac urging readers to "go! go! GO!": the spoken poem has to have an engine that drives it, and that's what often lacks in the pages ofPoetry.

Not that the magazine doesn't have its interests for me. A recent issue has a nice interview article by Jeremy Richards titled "A Shifting Sense of Place." Patricia Smith, Todd Boss, C.D. Wright, and Frances McCue are asked what place their poetry has in the world, where it belongs. Todd Boss comes right out of the gate with perhaps the most itchy, American reply: here’s the sad truth: I’ve resented every place I’ve ever been. It isn’t “me,” or I don’t “fit in,” or it’s “too close to home,” or my wife isn’t happy there, or it’s not where I’d have chosen to live, or whatever.

Boss's first book was called Yellowrocket, and his cinematic video (for is posted on YouTube. It's no surprise that his poem "The Sticks" is filled with stuttering, stumbling, don't-wanna-hang-out-here-long energy:

my mother still mutters whenever

she remembers where we lived,
reciting then her one life sentence

of overlush underbrush, neighbor trash,
shoddy farms and fallen fences

and filthy Herefords knee-deep in
barnyard shit. ...

Now, that moves me like a twitchy needle in the groove of a 45 rpm record. Why doesn't Poetry publish more poems like that? Patricia Smith -- her 2008 book is Blood Dazzler -- doesn't write nature poetry ("concrete and glass were the order of the day ... why should I strain towards something that's so alien to me?") and sounds more at home around the jukebox rhymes of rhythm and blues: here's part of her poem, "Hip Hop Ghazzal":

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat,
swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie,
bringing them woo hips.

As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas
throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone
and singing thru hips.

Like something boneless, we glide silent,
seeping ’tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee,
clinging like glue hips. ...

That is poetry that jumps and wiggles itself off the page, and it's full of an energy that reads just as well as it can be spoken. "As a poet, you search for whatever gives a place its muscle and bone," Smith writes, and she could just as well be talking about its animation.

It's an energy Poetry Magazine could use more of, more of Eliot's elegant, intelligent Shakespherian rag: 'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?' The editors of Poetry ought not to be alarmed. There's still plenty of space in the room for the women who come and go speaking of Michelangelo.

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