The story, as told to me, is that more than twenty years ago, while narrowing down grad school choices, I visited the University of Alabama, sat down in the creative writing office, leafed through literary journals for two whole days, and then suddenly looked up, mid-poem, and stated, “Yeah, okay, I think I could come here.”
At least that’s Tony Earley’s version, which might be slightly exaggerated.
On the other hand, I will admit to reading my fair share of literary journals, and I have a library in my home that far surpasses my college’s holdings of contemporary poetry collections. Odds are good I have books by anyone reading this blog. In fact, I have books by almost all of the previous authors who’ve written for this blog. The thing is: I think I have a deep fear that I’m missing that one poem that could change everything. I’m not neurotic—I just know there are great poems out there that are slipping past me. I find such a thought a little hard to accept.
And that’s just poems in the English language. What about poems in Polish, Finnish, Bulgarian, Swedish, Spanish, German, Norwegian, Bengali, Chinese, French and all those other languages I can’t read? Am I foolish to say prayers for the translators and all those poems over which they labor? Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, thank you for Szymborska’s “The Century’s Decline.” William O’Daly, thank you for Neruda’s “Another.” Samuel Charters, thank you for Transtromer’s “Schubertiana” and “Streets in Shanghai.” Robert Hass, for bringing me Issa, I ask that blessings be poured out upon you. Edmund Keeley, how small my world would be without Yannis Ritsos.
In the September 2008 issue of Poetry, Clive James stated, “Any poem that does not just slide past us like all those thousands of others usually has an ignition point for our attention.” He was writing of what a poem needs in order to “project you into a reality so drastically rearranged that it makes your hair frizz.” I don’t dispute his argument. In order to capture a reader’s attention, a poem must have a spark that catches our attention—in our current environment, though, of online submission managers, perhaps poems now must have an immediate spark or they risk never being seen by anyone other than their authors.
I don’t talk to many practicing poets who assume that, when they submit for publication, their poems receive more than a cursory glance. An editor friend admitted that, when reading short story submissions through a submission manager, he reads only the first paragraph, sometimes not even all of it, a few sentences perhaps. I hope this strategy of reading submissions isn’t widespread, but I don’t feel too safe in assuming that it isn’t. At this rate, what are writers left with in order to hook an editor? Only the first line? The first few words? Wildly inventive and preposterous titles? An already recognizable name? As a reader who craves that next important poem, I have to say that I don’t trust editors are catching the best poems. They’re too busy, too overwhelmed. I try my best to keep up with every journal and collection, but editors can’t keep up with the steady and persistent onslaught of submissions. Meanwhile, there must be brilliant poem after brilliant poem “slid[ing] past us,” as Clive James says, destined for “the pit of oblivion.”
William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” was rejected by numerous journals before the Hudson Review accepted it for the Winter 1960 issue. The poem has a kind of fame in the twentieth century, at least among readers and teachers of poetry, but its string of rejections makes me wonder about all the other poems that never find the right editor or the prominent journal, all those poems that never find their way into a book upon a shelf. Perhaps Stafford’s poem will fall into “the pit of oblivion” after another decade or so, but if such a poem can be missed initially, one has to assume that there are poems just as worthy or even more so that will never be seen by more than a handful of readers.
In fact, I have a copy of a poem Stafford wrote that has never appeared in print. In April 1990, he visited my undergraduate college and began his reading that night with a poem written that morning. For years I remembered his enchanting opening line, but I never saw the poem, not in a journal or a book. Almost two decades later, I quoted this opening line to a friend who, without my knowledge, contacted Kim Stafford, who contacted Paul Merchant, who found the poem in Stafford’s daily writings. Merchant mailed to me not only a photocopy of the handwritten original but also the typed version of the poem. Unbelievable! How can this poem have never appeared in print? Could there be other readers out there who might treasure this poem as I do?
Imagine never having heard of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” because the band, early on, never caught the right person’s attention. Imagine Patty Griffin playing only in a local coffee shop, strumming the beginning of “Rain,” which only a few people in the history of the world will ever hear. Imagine Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefield” never being recorded. Is it possible there’s another Chris Martin or Jill Phillips with a host of brilliant songs, yet I will never hear them? If I had somehow missed any of these songs or songwriters, I think I would just prefer that the universe implode, sucking everything up into a still fine point from which nothing could ever emerge.
The ignition point for the poems we don’t miss is often someone pointing us to read the poem in the first place, in essence telling us that the poem is worthy of our time. Today, depending on who points the finger, we either look or don’t look. Readers this past year might have caught Kay Ryan’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Best of It, but I sure hope they didn’t miss Bobby Rogers’s Paper Anniversary, a book that represents some of the best poetry I’ve seen in twenty years—oddly almost the same length of time it took Rogers to get this “first book” published. Thank you, Ed Ochester, for pointing your finger in the direction of these poems.
In recent years, a few poems have caught my attention and, with whatever risk is involved, I’d like to point in their direction, if only because I can’t imagine my life without their presence. I have taught these poems in my classes, and for students who claim not to like poetry, these poems sure seem to catch their attention.
1. Marilyn Nelson’s “Worth” (Poetry, September 2005).
2. Bob Hicok’s “So I Know” (APR, Sept/Oct 2007)
3. Amit Majmudar’s “The Elevator Operator,” (Measure, 2009)
4. Morri Creech’s “Song and Complaint” (The Southern Review, Summer 2010)
5. Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Cow Tipping” (The Black Warrior Review, Summer 2007)
6. Kevin McFadden’s “Tone Deficit” (Poetry, September 2006)
7. Donald Platt’s “Joy” (My Father Says Grace, 2007)
If anyone wants to look back farther, then I’d suggest the following:
1. Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “If I Were in Beijing” (Zone 3, Fall 1989).
2. Greg Williamson’s “Nervous Systems” (Southwest Review 1998)
3. Vicki Graham’s “Inflections” (Water-Stone, Fall 1999)
4. Charles Martin’s “To the Blackboard” (Southwest Review, 1998)
5. Jeffrey Skinner’s “Living Poets” (Poetry, September 1989)
6. Wil Mills’ “Stanzas for Kathryn” (The Hudson Review, Autumn 2002)
7. Albert Goldbarth’s “The Quest for the Source of the Nile” (Poetry, January 1988)
8. Ruth Ellen Kocher’s “Ode to the Woman Who, on the Day I Earned a Doctorate, Mistook Me for a Shoe Clerk” (One Girl Babylon, 2003)
I could mention many others. I think the reality is that each of us creates his or her own anthology that departs from the “official” list. Not that the “official” list isn’t filled with great poems, but in the same way that everyone has favorite songs that never made the “top 40,” I think readers and teachers alike have favorites they believe are just as worthy as the ones that made the list. Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” or Bill Brown’s “My Father Made Love”? Robinson’s “Richard Cory” or Michael Burkard’s “Clothes Which Are Moonlit”? Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” or Mary Jo Salter’s “Doubles”? Sometimes I depart from the syllabus (or the textbook) and teach poems that I might have easily overlooked.
I know there are thousands of poems sliding past and that no single reader can keep up. How incomplete I feel just thinking about the stunners I’m missing. Thank you, Czeslaw Milosz, that you translated your own poem “A Task.” Thank you, David Hinton, for clearing an easy path between all those Chinese poets and this small, now larger, world of mine. Thank you, Bobby Rogers, for continuing to send your book out year after year. When I want to know what wisdom sounds like, I slide Paper Anniversary from the shelf and read “Arkansas Stone” or “My Father’s Whiskey” or “Newground” or—well, heck, I just start all over again from the beginning, just like the last time, and I read again all those words you studied so intently for two decades until each one ignited.
Jeff Hardin is a professor of English at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN. He is the author of two chapbooks, Deep in the Shallows (GreenTower Press) and The Slow Hill Out (Pudding House), as well as one collection, Fall Sanctuary, recipient of the Nicholas Roerich Prize. His poems have appeared in The North American Review, Hudson Review, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Southwest Review, The Florida Review, Poetry Northwest, Ploughshares, Poem, Zone 3, and elsewhere.