Reading the poems for this contest takes me back to 1966, when fate was a mailman coming through the door in East Duke Building with a certified letter, to interrupt my conference with a freshman English student. I had won second prize in the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s annual poetry contest, and the check for $250 allowed the refrigerator in our graduate student duplex to die gracefully. Since then I’ve believed in a kind of synchronism whereby words, sent out to the unpredictable attentions of editors, judges and readers, can sometimes transmit my own human “inside” to the “inside” of someone else, who sends back a sign. I hope that my choices and remarks can stand as signs to the authors of the poems I will mention, and to others–signs that poems can carry our experiences and emotions out into public spaces, though the inner world at times seems so entirely private.
Looking again through the group of my almost-final choices, I felt the sting of other, acutely recognized selves, rendered without self-conscious posturing, caught up in experiences as direct and real as the persons behind them. I looked further, for a verbal grace and economy appropriate to the material. An artful intersection of life-vividness and word-vividness was my final criterion for selection.
But how can any record of life be vivid if the language isn’t? Well, events can scream at us from the newspaper, and even a joke or a rumor repeated in conversation can be memorable. I looked for a telling that did not exceed or hype up what it had to say, and for a use of form that encouraged discipline and precision. Only one of the finalists used rhyme, but others used irregular stanzas, wherein an impetus of statement made a line a line, and gave anecdote the inevitability of its own special cadence.
Some poems got themselves noticed first by the impact of their subjects. But on the third and fourth reads through, I put aside (regretfully) the one about the girl who loved to make love with boys who reminded her of Jesus, the one about watching the watchers at the porn flick, the one about the woman whose crotch was scalded by McDonald’s too-hot coffee. It turned out that the language of these somehow didn’t continue to keep pace with the knock-over idea. The emotions and evaluative attitudes implicit in their language didn’t quite convince me of an appropriateness to the subject.
The fine adjustment of style to sense is partly tonal. We expect, perhaps without ever having formulated this to ourselves, that the really good poem will show and say an experience, and also suggest, more acutely than we had foreseen, how to feel about it. Poem is moving image and soundtrack, object and commentary. The musical suggestion of attitude may be almost inaudible, a subliminal notation inscribed into the sights and sounds and hardly rising into consciousness. But it is there.
I heard the South Florida landscape of my top choice saying and showing the blunt violent vitality of folks in pickups who envied the Taliban their control of women and who casually killed the country’s snakes and turtles. It is part of the South I recognize, but newly minted in these terse, almost-violent words. Powerfully, the poem articulates its fascination and aversion.
Like an Olympic skating judge, I have biases. Can a non-Christian really love Dante quite so much as the believer? Probably not. Since I am of the Church of Quentin Compson, he of the liturgical refrain, “I don’t hate the South I don’t … ” the writer of this poem perhaps had an advantage.
But I was moved almost equally by all my top four choices, admiring especially the expressive electrical storm that concludes “Familiar Strangers.” By this lightning, the narrator sees the illusion of his naked lover against the old barn, “like a bright passage from one strange world to another.” The conflict of emotions in the speaker, whose mother’s mind is dying before her body, is externalized and transformed in this young apparition who flickers against the death-old wood. The emotions generated in the synaptic leap to Eros from Thanatos are appropriately complex, rich and deep. Regret and love whirl in an embrace across the void.
The third poem on my list uses stanza and rhyme, but with a subtle, almost self-parodying interruption of stanza-continuity, to represent the risk and hesitation of the air traveler, now:
the wealthy tourists tell me how it feels
to be going home. Our black suitcases
have handles that collapse and broken wheels.
This poem plays off the reassurance of rhyme against the fear of returning, the fear of not having done enough, the fear of both dwelling on earth and rising above it. The enough/rough rhyme of the penultimate stanza juxtaposes effort and uncertainty. In the final stanza, the narrator’s flight seems already perhaps numbered by fate, though the traveler (who is everyone, today) can’t know–until, of course, too late. The bleak perfection of the late/fate rhyme subverts the consolation of form, by a conclusion suggesting the opposite of formal predictability. In this way the structure of the language lives up to the duality of emotion for the post-Twin Towers air passenger.
I don’t mean to say that a poem gives the way to feel about a certain kind of experience. But it gives one way to feel–gives a feeling or emotion that comes into being as the experience is being re-made into words. The experience may not have been entirely grasped by the writer until this re-making, and the articulation of the appropriate feelings is part of this process whereby the mysterious becomes comprehensible. Good poems grasp the mystery of their material without reducing it to the obvious, but make it at least expressible. Those persons we see on the news, deeply traumatized by horror, are often numb, in shock–living mechanically. To feel and say the terrible thing and thus to mourn it, and maybe to heal from it, can be the work of years.
The fourth poem on my list is dated 1967 and set in a military hospital in Texas, where wounded men from Vietnam are working their way back into the full human condition. Their shifts and dodges include prostitutes, wheelchair races, and drinks brought them by “older men, with limbs still attached.” The men in the poem are still warriors, unconventional ones now, who fight for their freedom to be emotionally whole despite missing some body parts. The author makes us see their boyish high jinks as a form of courage, and the play of language makes their play in the ward meaningful. They don’t feel sorry for themselves and the poem doesn’t pity them. It shows them as real and as human, with appropriate emotion.
A contest for poets may seem a kind of wheelchair race, since all of us roll along in words, bearing and baring our wounds, seeing others in similar shape and extending empathy in the knowledge of our own hurts, maybe solacing others along with ourselves. “Brooke Army Medical Center” proves a fruitful place for healing, and thus an effective site for poetry.
But as “Route One, Central Florida, December 2, 2001” shows, poems don’t have to dramatize healing to be fine poems. In this landscape, the Bush billboard early on predicts later male attitudes. The emotional simplification of politics is underlined, subtly but effectively, by “black and white,” and leads into images whereby the poet portrays, with his wider empathy, the contracted empathy of these guys who “crush 50-year-old turtles.” Poetry is about empathy, about the feeling implicit in persons and situations, as it is developed for the reader when the poet re-creates experience in language, in a process of discovery and attitudinal definition. Good poems, like these four, give us strong subjects in contexts of language finely adjusted to their materials, convincing us that the implicit conceptual and emotional evaluations are accurate and just.
Ever since the writing contest I mentioned in the beginning, I’ve felt a possibility of connection to others whereby I write poems out of the mystery of life as is comes to me, and send them out into that other mystery of magazines, publishers, readers. The joy is in the writing, and in that occasional, unpredictable sign that words have transmitted my own human inside to the inside of some other person. As I write this in my house beside Seven Mile Creek, the trees outside the window seem to receive arcane signals from the changing season, their branches like antennas. Poems are like such messages received, including the violent static of disasters along with the seasonal pattern. Poems create relationships among the widest array of elements, from the Big Bang to the horror show broadcasts of “When I Was a Child I Was Afraid of TV.” This poem, like the delicate, strong gender-issue statement of “Of How the Men Saw Us,” and the vivid memory-landscape of “Thirty Acres of Adventures,” might well have been the top choices of another judge.
These, and others I haven’t mentioned, are genuine poems. Unlike the simplifications of politics and the lies of advertising, they bring words into authentic relationships with the mysteries of experience and our feelings. I’m told that there were over 1,000 entries in the contest. So poetry is alive and well right here. In this era of so many inhumanities, it is consoling to hear the voices of poems and to feel, in their comprehensible, human scale, emotions that we can believe–that we can trust to guide us in our empathies.