by David Lehman
What makes a poem great? What standards do we use for judging poetic excellence? To an extent, these are variants on an even more basic question. What is poetry? Poetry is, after all, not a neutral or merely descriptive term but one that implies value. What qualities in a piece of verse (or prose) raise it to the level of poetry? The questions face the editor of any poetry anthology. But only seldom do we discuss the criteria that we implicitly invoke each time we weigh the comparative merits of two or more pieces of writing. And to no one’s surprise, it turns out to be far easier to recognize the genuine article than to articulate what makes it so, let alone to universalize from a particular instance. Thus, so astute a reader as Randall Jarrell will linger lovingly on the felicities of Robert Frost’s late poem “Directive” only to conclude sheepishly: “The poem is hard to understand, but easy to love.”
The standard definitions of poetry spring to mind, each one seeming a near tautology: “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge), “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” (Pound), “memorable speech” (Auden). Other justly celebrated statements may stimulate debate but have a limited practical application. Is poetry the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth) or is it precisely “not the expression of personality but an escape from personality” (T. S. Eliot)? The statements contradict each other except in the mind of the reader who enjoys with nearly equal gusto the poetry of the Romantic movement, of Wordsworth and Coleridge, on the one hand, and that of the modernists who reacted so strongly against them (Eliot, Pound) on the other.
Poetry is “what gets lost in translation” (Frost); it “strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty” (Shelley); it “is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself” (Hazlitt). Although poems do come along that seem to exemplify such statements, the problem remains unsolved except by individual case. Archibald MacLeish’s famous formulation (“a poem should not mean / But be”) is conceptually useful in a class of writers but leaves us exactly where we started. Asking herself “what is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose,” Gertrude Stein makes us understand that poetry is a system of grammar and punctuation. “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns”—a valuable insight, but try applying it to the task of evaluating poems and see if it gets any easier. Wallace Stevens, a master aphorist, has a score of sentences that begin with the words poetry is.
Poetry is “a search for the inexplicable,” “a means of redemption,” “a form of melancholia,” “a cure of the mind,” “a health,” “a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” It is metaphorically “a pheasant disappearing in the brush” and it is also, in one word, “metaphor” itself. The proliferation of possibilities tells us a great deal about Stevens’s habits of mind. But epigrams will not help the seasoned reader discriminate among the dozens of poems crying for attention from the pages or websites of well-edited literary magazines.
The emancipation of verse from the rules of yore complicates matters. It is tough on the scorekeeper if, as Frost said, free verse is like playing tennis without a net. (Some varieties of free verse seem to banish ball as well as net.) But even if we set store by things you can measure—rhyme, meter, coherence, clarity, accuracy of perception, the skillful deployment of imaginative tropes—the search for objective criteria is bound to fail. Reading is a frankly subjective experience, with pleasure the immediate objective, and in the end you read and judge the relative value of a work by instinct. That is, you become aware of the valence of your response, whether it is positive or negative, thumbs-up or -down, before you become aware of why you reacted the way you did. There is in fact no substitute for the experience of poetry, though you can educate your sensibility and become better able to summon up the openness to experience that is the critic’s first obligation—that, and the ability to pay attention to the poem and to the impact it has made on you. Walter Pater asked these questions upon reading a poem or looking at a picture: “What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? And if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?”
Whatever else it is, American poetry today is as plentiful as it is diverse. And because very good poems may reflect esthetically incompatible ideas, an editor’s job has an added complication; one must be willing to suspend one’s natural critical resistance. Poetry may happen “in the valley of its saying,” in Auden’s phrase, but discussions of poetry take place on academic battlefields. There are possibly as many different movements or schools, cliques or cabals, as there are states in the union. Conflicts may erupt, just as states may quarrel over their share of the federal budget. (The budget for poetry is small and exists therefore in an inverse ratio to the intensity of the skirmishing among poets.) The good reader is or tries to be indifferent to all this—to everything, in fact, except his or her own experience, when sitting down with, say, the latest issues of FIELD
, Antioch Review, New England Review,
and Green Mountains Review.
I can report, having just spent pleasant evenings with these magazines, that there is a wonderful symposium on Richard Wilbur in FIELD,
that one of Richard Howard’s schoolboy memory poems graces Antioch Review,
that Joanne Dominique Dwyer has a brilliant poem addressed to St. Teresa of Avila in New England Review,
and that there is compelling work in Green Mountains Review
from two poets previously unknown to me: Anna Maria Hong and the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst, whom Stephen Dunn singles out in an interview. Many poems in these and other new journals pass the first and arguably most crucial test a critic asks of them—that they give pleasure, sustain interest, and compel a second reading.
It may be that in specifying these pragmatic criteria, I have strayed from my original question when I meant merely to rephrase it. What do we ask for in poems of high excellence? To answer you need to make a list, and by the time you get to the third or fourth item you realize that no poem can do all the things people expect from poetry, not only because we may be perfectionists when it comes to judging the works of others but because we want mutually exclusive things. Do we read for moral fortitude, humane knowledge that can help us lead our lives? (Thus, to elucidate the dominant strain in Frost’s poetry, W. H. Auden quotes Samuel Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”) Or are we more interested in what the scholar calls transcendence and the reader knows to be escape—whether to Xanadu or Byzantium? (Thus Emily Dickinson: “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away / Nor any Coursers like a Page / Of prancing poetry.”) Perhaps we respond to feats of ingenuity: complicated verse forms mastered and married to colloquial speech, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s sestinas: diabolically clever meaning-making puns in the service of a narrative, as in a sonnet sequence by James Merrill. There is a delight in artifice. In past editions, The Best American Poetry
has published a poem consisting entirely of palindromes (Lydia Tomkiw: “sad as samara, ruff of fur, a ram; as sad as / Warsaw was raw”) and another that exemplifies the zeugma in every line (Charles North: “To break the silence or your newly acquired Ming vase, / or raise my expectations and the flag over the Brooklyn Navy Yard”), in addition to tricky sestinas, villanelles, pantoums, centos, traditional sonnets, ballads, the occasional abecedarius, chant royal, and narrative in terza rima, though these are vastly outnumbered by the many varieties of poems in plain speech, such as you will find exemplified by Robert Hass in the 2011 volume (“When the police do a forced entry for the purpose / Of a welfare check and the deceased person is alone, / The body goes to the medical examiner’s morgue”) and by Mary Ruefle in a completely different way (“I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive”).
Marianne Moore valued the “compactness compacted” that she found in Louise Bogan’s poems. But excess has its proponents as well, and there will always be those who want the act of writing to be an act of defiance before it is anything else. Too many poems fail because they try too hard to change the world. But then along comes a work proving that poetry does make something happen. The timely cry of protest may have a longer shelf life than poems with immortal designs on them. Consider the case of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” tried for obscenity in San Francisco in 1957, lionized nationally more than a half century later with the release of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s full-length film homage in 2010. The actor James Franco, who has studied creative writing at Columbia, UCLA, and in the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program, “captures the Ginsberg we hear in our heads and know in our bones,” Ken Tucker writes in his review. The acting borders on impersonation. Franco “looks at the camera with Ginsberg’s cockeyed...