"Re: Print: Poems from Ten Exciting New Books," an article in AMERICAN POET, Fall 2009
[First published in Small Press Review, XLII/1-2 (January-February 2010)]
PROSE AIN’T “POETRY"
In the Fall 2009 issue of American Poet, “The Journal of the Academy of American Poets,” is a feature titled “Re: Print,” sub-titled “Poems from Ten Exciting New Books.” As no one is credited with making the selection, can we suspect a committee perhaps of poetic academicians or probably of some editorial assistants, if not student interns, bless ‘em?
The most revealing quality shared by the ten poems is prosy syntax. From each of the ten I quote opening words, incidentally inviting the reader to guess where the line-breaks might be in the original printings:
1.) This is a tale of light and shadow, what we hear and the silence that follows. Remember this as we set out across sea and high roads, as talk turns to gentlemen and valets….
2.) He is watching the music with his eyes closed. Hearing the piano like a man moving through the woods thinking by feeling.
3.) I am impatient to be well again, as the spring’s false hope skates idly on the surface of last winter.
4.) In the unravel of circumstance and clout, some things remain hinged: the manifesto of three-eyed sight and funk-sight, piss smelling of jail cells.
5.) A father wanted to do something for his children so he sent them to the bomb shelter and went to sleep.
6.) The sky can’t hold the electricity forever—it keeps spilling out. In Oklahoma, the radio tower lost beneath its flashing light was a dark web I knew to be there (though the lit house on the black hill never quite landed in its thought--).
7.) Men in America have a dog. I come back from Europe and you have a dog but not. Men in Europe have. I bark up the stairs and tap the tree for advice.
8.) I woke in the middle of the night in Nevers, Frawnse. Nuhvair.
9.) The way prayer is root to precarious : two crows creep the steeple.
10.) The little-boned complex underthing that is private stemming toward a leaf breaks open….
Considered apart from their original contexts, most of these lines sound like the openings of bad novels that would be quickly discarded. (How did they ever get into “Academy”-certified poems?) Prose is more easily read aloud, which has become for some poets the more common publication channel than print.
Should I mention that the ten authors are Rita Dove, Jack Gilbert, Noelle Kocot, Adrian Matejka, Dunya Mikhail, Wayne Miller, Sawako Nakayasu, Frederick Seidel, Brian Teare, and Emily Wilson? (Now, after accepting my first challenge about line-breaks, try to guess who wrote which?) And need I add that the publishers of their books are W. W. Norton, Alfred A. Knopf, Wave Books, Penguin Books, New Directions, Milkweed Editions, Burning Deck, Farrar, Straus, the University of California Press, and the University of Iowa Press? Joking I’m not.
Considering these examples, along with their august source, may I suggest that one initial measure of Poetry, especially distinguished poetry, should be that it can’t be copied as prose? (Needless to say perhaps, mine can’t.)
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