“A lot of manuscripts that come in, you wonder by what outrageous fantasy the author believes that this should be pressed into print.”
First, a necessary timeline and some relevant details. On 7/22/13 I submitted a short essay to Red Branch Journal.
Here’s their take on response time: Due to the number of submissions received, please know a response may take several weeks, but respond we will.
It’s possible, of course, that the editors of Red Branch Journal have some obscure idea or oddly private notion of what several means. I indicated, as I always do, that my essay was also currently under consideration at other literary magazines. Not that they’re opposed to simultaneous submissions. At least, nothing in their guidelines prohibits such.
On 8/1/13 I got this absurd request:
Thank you for your submission to Red Branch. We look forward to reading your work—please note that it may be several weeks before you hear from us, as reading each submission takes some time. In the meantime, please inform us immediately if you are seeking publication of your work elsewhere or if it has already been accepted.
I replied minutes later that yes indeed my essay was under consideration elsewhere.
Several months go by.
On 11/12/13 I inquired about the status of my essay, although I was fairly certain they didn’t want it.
I got a reply on 11/18/13:
Thank you for the note, and sorry for the delay in response. We’re wrapping up the last of our submissions, and will have a decision to you as soon as we can. Thanks again for checking in. We’ll let you know shortly.
Ok. Enough nonsense. Pretty obvious to me that my work wasn’t being seriously considered. So on 12/12/13 I withdrew my essay.
On 1/21/14 I got a canned rejection:
We apologize for the length of time it has taken for us to respond. Due to the volume of submissions we received, giving each piece the care it deserves and in turn replying to all queries took much longer than expected. While we are grateful for your submission to Red Branch, we will not be including it in our forthcoming winter issue. Nonetheless, we wish you the best of luck with your writing and hope you consider our pages for any future work.
Sorry for the inconvenience. This cheap, effortless response shows profound disrespect—galling disdain—for words, for the potency and perils of composition. What many of these editors (dreadfully inaccurate title) fail to realize is that yes, contributors also include those whose work is turned down (for whatever reason). There are simple, effective ways to limit the number of submissions received other than by exhibiting outright indifference and petty condescension toward authors whose offering doesn’t make the cut. I’m willing to make things a little easier for the staff at Red Branch Journal. They don’t have to worry about ever reading anything more from me, that’s definite.
This poet (and she’s certainly not alone) frequents the shallows, staying within sight and earshot of the shore—swimming only where lifeguards stand ready.
I haven’t read all of Dog Songs—I’ve read enough. Not everyone is blessed with an excess of disposable income. Based on the samples I’ve uncovered (roughly 20% of the total contents), I would wager my sight, along with any savings and future earnings, against the likelihood that the remaining poems will approach some exalted level, even by accident.
She’s no Gertrude Stein. I doubt many (if any at all) of her gushing adherents, finding the opening line in Dog Songs neat and quotable, would catch the cheap allusion.
How It Begins*
A puppy is a puppy is a puppy.
He’s probably in a basket with a bunch
of other puppies.
Then he’s a little older and he’s nothing
but a bundle of longing.
He doesn’t even understand it.
Then someone picks him up and says,
“I want this one.”
“What we want in a poem is not some half-baked comment that any momentarily inspired ass might make, but a piece of work—let’s call it art—which embodies in a memorable way, through its sound, the images it presents, its rhythmical solidity and intensity, a part of our lives, recognizable and hidden; and which at the same time offers us in its contained beauty, its grace of structure and expression, an alternative to the ugliness and stupidity, the emptiness and triviality of which our life is too often made.” (John Haines)
Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night*
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.
If this qualifies as poetry, then anything—any word, syllable, grunt uttered in any manner, at any time (and subsequently jotted down in uneven lines)—equals poetry. No need to worry about extensive training, study, effort, stamina, perseverance. The uninformed, noting all the lavish endorsements for Mary Oliver, and delighting in Dog Songs, could safely conclude “that one’s individual experience in the world is sufficient material to make poetry out of.” What a shame. There’s little talk of extinction: aesthetic distance, craftsmanship, profundity.
She very much loves to see “dogs without leashes.” Riding on the local bike path near home, I greatly appreciate unleashed dogs—the disruption and threat they pose. Leash law: unenforced (despite signs posted along the path for anyone in doubt).
Where do we stand? “Eventually, the market takes over, and from being the special gift of a chosen few, talent becomes an ability of many to produce some sort of saleable verse.” (John Haines) We’re in desperately short supply of muzzles, both for this decrepit poet and those predatory publishers hell-bent on profit.
For those needing a boost, donate the amount otherwise spent on this book to a local charity.
*WordPress, perhaps sensing the gross inferiority of these poems, omitted all stanza breaks. No harm done.
“It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator.” This assertion, for all its good intentions, presents a false dichotomy.
When dealing with the current glut of unremarkable and unrelated poetry, a bristling skepticism provides sound fortification. Today’s celebration comes quickly and too easily, without commitment. Remote, cheap approval in the form of instant, fingertip voting: Like, Thumbs Up.
“Criticism and creation are one, a total experience, and are not antagonistic at all. It is the condition of thought that is important. Gossip and classification, the two extremes of most literary discussion, do not create understanding, which is surely a major function of intelligent criticism.” (John Haines)
“Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.” (Bertrand Russell)
First up: George Orwell
“Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless,’ while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’”
We could easily substitute poem for book. (Poems via literary magazines.) The cause? Inadequate reading is certainly one factor. (I’m referring to self-serving historical perspective that contentedly champs on its own shortcomings.) Student readers, default editors, resemble deaf persons, unable to read lips, talking out loud to other deaf persons. It’s as though, even if one takes a course on poetry, gaining exposure to the mechanics and devices, the attributes of celebrated writing remain non-transferable: isolated from whatever writing the student produces.
Look where students look. Why, for example, would the Paterson Literary Review publish a poem beginning
After my grandparents moved into my
parents’ dining room in Omaha;
after they wound up in South Dakota
one evening after getting the oil
changed in their car;
after the police came and tried to reason
and ask questions about their whereabouts;
we packed their belongings again
and moved them into an assisted living home.
(Jim Reese, “His Secret Stash”) which is the farthest thing from poetry? It’d be more enlightening masturbating with a jagged beer bottle. How could this outshine all other submissions? What’s the catch? Quid pro quo. Trace the career. I recently received a rejection in which the editor had the audacity to claim that pedigree (his word) mattered not a bit in the selection process. Only a matter of taste (his taste). Yet almost every poet he publishes has a solid pedigree: one or more full-length collections, multiple awards and nominations, prestigious appointments (laureateship). Coincidence? Why bother accepting unsolicited submissions?
Business never personal. That rejection contained numerous typos. It goes beyond indifference, edging closer and closer to outright contempt. Reminds me of junk mail where the font is purposefully designed to resemble personal handwriting—so caring. Again, my point is that if someone truly enjoyed my work—couldn’t they at the very least take a minute or two to write a comment, speak directly to my work (even if that’s in addition to the form rejection)? Or this one, arriving recently: “Unfortunately this particular piece was not the right fit for —————, but we were very impressed by your writing. We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.” Good for them. It’s no loss to me. Writing is the most difficult work I know. Selection for a magazine…I suppose that entails some degree of difficulty, when no standards apply.
What motive? Let’s skip heroics. We have a rampant poetic bloom smothering, choking, suffocating. Consider this: a dinky, non-ranking “national” literary magazine (published by a small college, featuring its own students along with outsiders) received 2,000+ submissions for its 2013 issue. Amazing. Or this: the form rejection in which a literary magazine refers to itself as a market.
Next up: Flannery O’Connor
“I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.…They are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.”
Why submit? Out of boredom.
“Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing is only meant to be taken in casually. If it holds your eye and focuses your wits for even a minute, it justifies itself and there’s an end of it.…What I am bringing up for scrutiny, that if modern man’s most sophisticated relation to art is to be casual and humorous, is to resemble the attitude of the vacationer at the fair grounds, then the conception of Art as an all-important institution, as a supreme activity of man, is quite destroyed. One cannot have it both ways—art as a sense-tickler and a joke is not the same art that geniuses and critics have asked us to cherish and support. Nor is it the same art that revolutionists call for in aid of the Revolution.”
I’m thankful for opposition.
Quit the patronizing form rejection: We thoroughly enjoyed reading your work, but won’t commit to publishing it. (And won’t deign to explain why…not that we’re capable.) Please send more, though.
I’d rather a simple, precise No or No, thanks.
Apparently I’m lacking luck. I’m lacking the glutton’s tough stomach lining.
These editors (how that unearned designation has been stretched, utterly disfigured) assume wrong—that placement (i.e., publication) is primary motive, primary need. No, thanks.
It’s taxing, these attempts to figure out how everything’s gone so wrong.
I’ll start with Scott Cairns: “A poem must not be about an event; it must occasion an event of its own,” which nicely echoes Wallace Stevens: “The poem is the cry of its occasion…”
As a reader I’m just lucky enough to be struck occasionally by a skillfully delivered poem (as those coveted “dozen or two dozen times” that Randall Jarrell ascribes to great poets standing patiently outside during thunderstorms). Here’s one from Julio Martinez Mesanza, translated by Don Bogen:
Horses Die in Battle Too
Horses die in battle too. They do it
slowly as the wounds they accumulate
come from arrows that have missed their marks.
They bleed to death, their suffering noble
and calm. A look of superiority
and distance claims their motionless eyes,
while their ears must undergo the raging,
disproportionate agony of men.
I’m at a slight loss, relying on Bogen for a fair amount of accuracy, since I lack the original version in Spanish. I’m going to sidestep explication. Save that for the classroom. All that’s required, ultimately, is a voice—a speaking voice. Slow down. Get it out loud.
Here’s another example of exquisitely rendered imagery, from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
I see before me the Gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him: he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hailed the wretch who won.
In both examples we have forceful engagement. We can’t ignore what’s been said, for how it’s been crafted. We must reflect (dreadful apprehension—most likely few have witnessed horses shot multiple times with arrows, yet we can hear the terrified whinnying); we must recall (vivid dash—the increasing rapidity of swollen raindrops ushering a downpour). These things are made present. Palpable, palpitant. Lines advance, kinetic, then cut back, drastic, with torque and tension compelling, teasing out the image. They repay our persistence. Such accommodating delight. I rejoice.
Back to Scott Cairns:
“Most of the mediocrity is the result of too many poets and editors mistaking poetry for a species of denotative art. Most of the mediocrity is the result of too many poets thinking that poetry is an expressive art. My sense of poetry is that it must be recognized as a means of concurrently constructing and discerning reality; it is not a means by which we communicate matter or narrative events we think we already understand. I may have experienced an interesting event, but if I were to understand my poem as simply a document of that event the result would not be an interesting poem.”
Very little surprises me, given the current deterioration of the arts. It’s prudent to ask Cui bono? when unsophisticated, unadorned prose captures first place and secures a publication deal in a poetry contest. Simply put, there’s no relation to poetry in the next example beyond the blasphemous allusion to Andrew Marvell in the title.
Michelle Brooks, from her winning book, Make Yourself Small:
To His Coy Mistress in Detroit
Some guy in line at CVS starts
babbling about the end times, rapture
yelling, Do you watch the news?
Do you see how everything is going
to hell? The checker says, Fool, look
around you. The end times already
come and gone in Detroit and we still
here. I hand her the vodka that I’ve
been clutching as if it might save me,
if from myself if nothing else. End
times, the checker says, I heard that
one before. Men always saying some
shit to get you into bed, and I shake
my head and say, Don’t I know it.
If you can’t see the difference, quit now.
Mark Anthony Signorelli, in “The Continuing Tyranny of Modernism”:
“Thus we see the hopeless, deplorable condition of poetry in our time: a hermetic refuge for scores upon scores of untalented poseurs, all ridiculously unaware that whatever they are doing does not bear the slightest resemblance to the practice which formerly went under the name of poetry. They are various in their approaches, to be sure, but perfectly uniform in their dreadfulness. Some present their trivial reflections about table condiments, while others offer vulgar rants about their favorite body parts; some combine meter and rhyme with the most un-poetic, quotidian idiom, while others employ the un-poetic idiom without the rhyme and meter; some retreat into the last extremes of esotericism, while others write stuff so simple and sappy it would be rejected by the editors at Hallmark. But what none of these people do – what none of them can do, what none of them has the slightest idea how to do – is raise language to that pitch of intensity which carries us out of the quotidian and stuns us into the contemplation of important truths; that is to say, to do the sort of thing that poets did for centuries, and which for centuries they regarded as the essential end of their craft.”
The goal for today is brand recognition. Why else would a start-up literary magazine in its inaugural issue, wishing to distinguish itself, feature another diarrhetic discharge from Lyn Lifshin? Or the senseless, indecipherable ramblings of Simon Perchik? What possible credibility could these poets provide? It may be advisable to skip the contents of most literary magazines, as readers—and particularly so-called emerging writers—are mainly interested in perusing the list of contributors and pedigreed bios. Their aim is true. They know that’s the ticket.
“But how will the artist avoid the corruption of his time which encloses him on all hands?”
It’s too easy these days to speak prophetically. Abundant writing, much stunted. My typical reaction subscribes to an alarming uniformity: I don’t think I want to read any more.
I can picture Andrea Cohen (and many others) routinely encouraged in her blooming youth, repeatedly assured that everything she perceives and utters can only be simply precious. Gifted: another term generously applied. But the outcome has been stifling. Uninspired, inadequate. Her Midas touch, neither benefit nor curse. She’s assumed the correct pose, quite accurately, in which a little learning is quickly twisted—enhancing the poet’s ego.
I know this much: she ranks as an exceptional player. It wouldn’t be so offensive except that Cohen’s insipid musing lands in prestigious magazines, where the uninitiated graze for fashionable models. For every poem of hers that gets published, that’s one more poem we don’t get to read—a poem that actually could make a difference, exposed.
After a swift turnaround time (less than one week—fair reading?) and yet another form rejection announcing, unequivocally, that my work doesn’t fit—always suspect when a reading period has just recently opened—I return to Salamander’s website to see what, presumably, these “esteemed umpires” endorse as fine writing. They do not disappoint.
A poem from Andrea Cohen:
On Blueberry Picking
Mostly it consists of pretending
not to pick them, since the wild bush—
more a tree really, thrives in plain
view among scrub pines, along the road
that leads to the Truro sea. So when cars
near, we turn from the bush, busying
our hands in air, as if plucking a thread
of conversation started ages back—
which, between my mother and me,
must be the case. When a car gets far
enough away, we resume our harvest:
hands and lips stained with what
the season tenders: the fat or compact
berries that will never be sweeter than
this moment. I say this in the present
tense, as if the harvesting goes on.
I recall my mother doubled over
in laughter, midsummer, by that bush,
and a man in a blue truck stopping.
I’m a doctor, he said. Are you ill?
Physicians are trained to see what’s
amiss, what they might fix. Bliss,
from a distance, can look like pain.
But it was bliss, I’m thinking now, speeding
past our ghosts, past all that flowering.
This mild endeavor quickly sucks all the oxygen out of the room. Risk-free, cozy, flaccid, typical, irrelevant. Unrewarding. Forced to read it more than once (an unfortunate prerequisite of proper evaluation), I do so mostly out of sheer astonishment at the lack of anything substantial (and that goes for all aspects: form, content, craft, syntax, hard-hitting rhetorical devices, etc.) and the persistently nagging question of why, given hundreds and thousands of submissions, such tame writing takes the prize—writing ultimately unworthy of mimicry or glance.
The opening hook, which has potential, immediately dulls as we find ourselves trapped in yet another child/parent recollection/reflection poem. In an attempt to intensify—or at least spice up—the uneventful outing, the poet initiated a number of odd line breaks. But why exactly split up “plain / view”? And “cars / near”? And “what’s / amiss”? The best thing about the line breaks…how consistently ineffective, upon scrutiny—frequently, surprisingly amateurish.
What a tease. The poet dangles a provocative idea in the first two lines and then promptly yanks it away. Why the need to pretend not to be picking blueberries? Were mother and daughter trespassing? Was blueberry picking illegal, forbidden? Were they embarrassed? But that’s not what happened that afternoon. A reader need not accommodate many generous, open-ended possibilities simply because the writer has refused to grant clear passage. It doesn’t work that way.
I’m not sure what kind of inflated, egocentric doctor Cohen has decided to feature. Maybe a deaf one. Incapacitating laughter (the full-bodied guffaw) normally steers clear of bliss, which tends toward spiritual satisfaction. Not with this poem.
I doubt the poet had any trouble at all in the making. Word choice—obviously not a pressing issue. Rest assured: Cohen knows the voice well, knows the mother just as well, and our ensuing irritation oscillates between who to blame—the poet residing in ease, or the magazine and small press banking on predictable, insignificant poetry.
But let’s go back to the doctor and the poet’s priorities. He has limited use. The impending epiphany hinges on that solicitous figure. Improbable dialogue. But those were his exact words. The doctor proclaiming his profession, directly quoted (even if only imagined), and that’s almost all we get—bears little relation to the poem overall. His bald assertion, I’d venture, instead more closely parallels (however unintentionally) the tireless self-promotion that nowadays prominently marks the literary scene. Were we to meet Cohen on the street, one of the first things we’d be bound to learn is her choice occupation: I’m a poet. Many people casually put a claim on that “high and ancient art.” Poetry, though, has nothing to do with them.
We favor contrast, or at least find some bearing in comparison, so I’ll point out two poems that do bother with one thing required of serious writers (serious—since Cohen’s on the verge of releasing a fourth book of poetry): attempt something difficult, something perhaps uncomfortable and uncomforting. Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying” and Irving Layton’s “Berry Picking” quickly stand out. Despite minor flaws or inconsistencies in either poem, they, unlike “On Blueberry Picking,” insist on tackling. Their imagery: sharp, striking, disruptive.
This, from “Blackberrying”:
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices.
And a bit from “Berry Picking”:
So I envy the berries she puts in her mouth,
The red and succulent juice that stains her lips;
I shall never taste that good to her, nor will they
Displease her with a thousand barbarous jests.
Our days are darkening. We don’t need new building permits, more of the same. We need bite and sting.