A recent On the Square essay entitled “A Poet Haunted by Brokenness” occasioned a small disagreement among some First Things readers. In the essay, Losana Boyd, the Director of Creative & Marketing Services at First Things, and a poet, favorably reviewed The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber, praising the poet’s fluent syntax, arresting imagery, and elegant, well-crafted lines.
Some readers in the comments section responded by charging that the poetry was instead “slovenly” and “shapeless,” and little more than prose affecting poetic lineation. As the poetry editor of First Things, I thought I’d step in and open a wider discussion of poetry, particularly as it pertains to First Things.
Ms. Boyd is right about some aspects of Graber’s poetry: It does have fluent syntax and effective imagery, and her poems encompass a wide array of themes and subjects. Ms. Boyd has also correctly adduced the poet’s mentors and self-professed influences. Further evidence that Graber’s volume was worthy of notice might be found in the fact that her book was the first selection in the re-launched Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and—as one reader reminded us—a nominee for a National Book Award.
On the evidence of a small sample of her work, however, my view is that the style of Graber’s poems appears to put her squarely in the murky middle of the American poetic mainstream. Her book’s success results partly from emulating some of today’s most popular poets, who tend to imitate each other and employ the same baggy style. The problem with her verse is that it not only comments on modern brokenness, it embodies it.
In the past, poets had a much wider array of devices to shape their poems and delight attentive readers: argument, narrative, allegory, extended metaphor, metaphysical conceit, to name a few. They also had a wide range of genres to choose from: epic, drama, pastoral, satire, dramatic monologue, epistle, lyric—along with a wide range of poetic forms, meters, and stanzas to shape their music. Today, the poetic mainstream is dominated by a more or less shapeless free verse, often written like Graber’s in long, rectangular verse paragraphs.
Yes, Graber’s lines do possess fluent syntax, which she skillfully plays against her line-endings and internal pauses; but what happens within her lines rarely exceeds the level of good prose. Unlike traditional verse, Graber’s poems have no baseline rhythm to heighten a reader’s attention and carry the thing along—although some lines parasitically allude to iambic pentameter. With a few exceptions, one of which Ms. Boyd noted in her essay—Graber’s employment of internal rhyme of the words “coo,” “soothe,” “vacuum,” and “womb” to interesting effect in her poem “Dead Man”—Graber pays scant attention to such sonic devices, another reason why her lines tend to lack the music of well-honed verse.
In today’s mainstream style, genres often merge unhappily, pitting one mode against another. The once-lowly lyric has eclipsed the larger poetic genres—while being stripped of the things that made it lyrical. In its loose organization and use of “associational slips,” it further imitates the meditative lyrics of Coleridge in “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey.” Such poetry is a throwback to early Romanticism—but without the shapely forms of its lyrics or stately measure of its blank verse meditations..
Which brings me around to the poetry of First Things. In contrast to most journals, we favor an epigrammatic style. As one would expect from a magazine devoted to religion, politics, history, and literature—and whose board members and editors are distinguished scholars and writers—we favor tradition. Stylistically, the journal’s last three poetry editors have been formal poets, though on occasion—and sometimes out of necessity—the journal publishes a wider range of styles. Ms. Boyd’s review of Graber’s poetry collection gave us one such occasion to stretch our poetic sympathies.
For readers and potential writers, here are some of the qualities we tend to look for in selecting verse:
First, some indication that the poet has read more deeply than R. S. Gwynn’s Narcissus in The Narcissiad, who “knows his poets, too, for he has read / The works of many, three of whom are dead.” To entertain this journal’s highly literate readership, a poet should exhibit some knowledge of the literary tradition and command of poetic techniques.
Pleasure. As with athletic and musical performances, poetry should evoke some oohs and aahs with its virtuosity, as well as its fresh insights.
Logical coherence. A poem should make sense—on one or many levels. But at least on one.
A fitting length. Verbal compression. A cube of beef bouillon, not a gallon of broth.
Fresh language and metaphors, in a style not far removed from living speech.
Engaging subjects: childhood, faith, love, death, aging, failure—the small and large occasions of human life. And, given the mission of First Things, poems that deal with religion, politics, and their intersection—the hardest to find and write.
Finally, wit and humor. Shakespeare included some laughs even in Hamlet. Remember, though, the advice of Polonius—ironically, the play’s most loquacious character—about the “soul of wit.” Keep both Shakespeare’s example and Polonius’ remark in mind when writing, and things will be fine.
Of course, it’s hard to consistently attain an ideal standard, but we do appreciate your thoughts on the poetry we publish. When reading poems in First Things that delight or disappoint you, feel free to comment. When submitting, don’t send poems that sound like national award winners, and if it reads like a “self-important audio essay on NPR,” send it to American Poetry Review instead.
Paul Lake is the poetry editor of First Things. His latest book is the satirical novel Cry Wolf: A Political Fable.