We don’t identify a constellation by a single star.
Let me begin by referencing a pair of useful essays, a nice one-two. The first by Reginald Shepherd, “On Difficulty in Poetry.” Surprisingly, this can be found on AWP’s website.
The second, also titled “On Difficulty in Poetry,” by Dennis Phillips.
Lest I be accused of relying on generality, let me give an example, provided by a contemporary poet. Here’s the insult: a poem by Dan Albergotti, compliments of Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, with commentary. (Note: for whatever reason, WordPress couldn’t retain stanza breaks. Not that it makes much difference. I’ve indicated stanza breaks by the standard double //.)
Chapter One, Verse One
In the beginning was the word,
and the word was no.
And the word trembled out
over sand and snow. //
Over seas and mountains
the word was spread.
Over clay and ash,
remains of the dead. //
In the beginning was the word,
and the word was a lie,
and that lie lay hard
under a darkening sky. //
Through wind and rain
the word echoed still.
Through wet summer air,
and dry winter chill. //
In the beginning was the world,
and it called for a word
with each great crashing wave,
each still, stiffened bird. //
Where still bodies lay
and time would defile,
the world needed a word
to help nurture denial. //
In the end the word
was only a sound,
a sound no one hears
beneath grass or mound. //
You can still hear it now,
endless echoes of no.
And still blows the sand,
still falls the snow.
* * *
Where to begin? Not Genesis, but the Gospel according to John. How about that? But let’s, for a second, consider Genesis, since the title points in that direction. Why would we jump to the fourth gospel upon reading “Chapter One, Verse One”? Either way, the word would not be no, but let there be. Creative, revelatory, redemptive. Ex nihilo. Out of nothing, something—
Confusing? Especially since this poem rewrites nothing—and likewise contributes absolutely nothing. Nothing new. More fitting to reflect on Ecclesiastes. It takes more than whimsical jottings to disturb and dislodge creation myths that have been upheld for millennia.
Caution: this poem begs not to be questioned, to forego any interrogation. A sprinkling of light verse and cheap rime. Vacuous, wholly unoriginal, sporting a rather antiquated notion. The meaning and significance of death—biological, philosophical, existential—obviously eludes this armchair poet. Need a formula for instant gratification? Take a sample of scripture, give it a nudge, discourteously, and let it fly.
Ah, but what a Poet can do…see, for instance, Geoffrey Hill: “Annunciations.” For bitter urgency, recite “The Lie” by Sir Walter Ralegh. See also Paul Celan—“Tenebrae”—for the twist that sticks sharply. For essence, see Bertolt Brecht’s “Motto.” And if we want to examine a similar form and length with double the rime scheme, handled expertly, then Robert Frost: “To Earthward.” No comparison.
Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review seeks “original poetry”…“chief criterion is quality.” Not quite.
To call “Chapter One, Verse One” banal, trivial, trite, an exercise in frivolity—cliché-ridden language inspires a clichéd response. What did Eliot warn about those who can’t write? Oh, right. Albergotti just happens to be the editor of some other small-time literary magazine. Obscene. Merit, challenge—don’t bother.
The opening sentence of the Gospel of John contains more poetry than these thirty-two lines, combined, could ever achieve: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
When confronting present-day drivel, there’s no point in asking, what difficulty? Instead, we might ask for an estimate, an approximation of just how much effort went into the making of this poem. What led a (supposedly) reputable literary magazine not only to publish this poem, but to promote it on its website—to present it as exemplary writing—so that no subscription is required in order to read it? (I don’t see any other compelling reason for exhibiting online select pieces from a printed, subscription-based magazine. I’m not inclined to believe that it is customary to encourage substandard writing. But when cataracts completely obstruct vision…)
Ultimately, impoverished writing subsists only through the kindness and extreme generosity of readers.
There’s really no way to defend this poem. Clearly there’s nothing in it worth resuscitating. Never was. I hope that the poet had no ambition…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a poem so replete with clichés, smugly oversimplified, even in attempts made by the nonpoetic. Death to formal poetry, if this is in any way intended to relate to that approach (tradition). I’d like to think this poet knows better.
Then again, this may be the extent of Albergotti’s abilities. The decision to endorse him, though, is hardly justifiable.
I’ll admit that occasionally an otherwise unskilled practitioner will demonstrate some level of proficiency in recognizing excellent writing. But why take that chance?
Shame on the poet. Shame on the publisher. No excuse, rewarding inferiority. “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector” (Hemingway). Yes, the worst possible trait for any writer: the inability to accurately assess (even in the slightest) your own work, to know what (and when) to scrap.