Because the Poetry Foundation’s website is such a fixture of my online reading, buying an issue of Poetry always make me feel like I’m donating to public radio. Lifting an issue from the bookstore shelf and leafing through it, I can almost hear the faintly accusatory voice of a pledge drive broadcaster playing the guilt card, asking, “How often do you find yourself enjoying the vast resource that is the Poetry Foundation website, or sending the articles and poems you find there to friends? Isn’t that worth $3.75 a month to you? Don’t you want to ensure that future generations will be able to find out which new books William Logan has insightfully disliked? Where else can you get such an affordable yet consequential snapshot of contemporary poetry and poetics?”
I whole-heartedly recommend paying the pittance for Poetry’s expanded summer edition to find out what William Logan thinks of the work of August Kleinzahler and William Stafford, what Dorothea Lasky has to say about the use of color in poetry, and to read new poems by Dean Young, D.A. Powell, Traci Brimhall, and Timothy Donnelly, among others.
Though he’s often as brusque in his praise as he is in his criticism, William Logan’s reviews nearly always illuminate those qualities that make a poet’s writing worth reading before detailing the heaps of faulty craft he finds those qualities buried under. As shown in his review of August Kleinzahler’s latest book The Hotel Oneira, Logan relishes the role of critic-as-sparring-partner, able to compare the poet’s work to Melville even while voicing a litany of qualms:
The reader has to put up with a lot of sketchy thought, hipper-than-thou gestures, and gushing romanticism (Hotel Oneira? Give me a break) to get to the deeply rendered meditations of place, full of Melvillean glamour and sadness. It’s no use asking Kleinzahler to leave out the gruesome sentiment, it’s so mired in his manner, his conception of what it is to be a poet (he’s always ordering a handkerchief with sniffles to go).
In contrast, Logan begins his review of Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, the new selected edition of work from the late poet William Stafford, with an uncomfortably clinical yet accurate appraisal of Stafford’s diminished status in American letters before offering specific praise for Stafford’s war poems and his unpretentious style, which eschewed the tendencies of postwar poets like Nemerov and Eberhart who “chose a literary language dripping with artifice or a vernacular dull as boiled cod.” Though these reviews drip with Logan’s special blend of snark, erudition, and honest engagement, they would be less consequential if they didn’t also show a deep respect for those improbable moments when a poet manages to put it all together.
Dorothea Lasky’s essay “What is Color in Poetry, or Is it the Wild Wind in the Space of the Word” may have been the part of the issue I was most looking forward to reading. While the essay does provide a wealth of sources for further exploration of the use of color in poetry and contains engaging readings of poems by H.D., Rimbaud, Plath, Sappho, Celan, Stevens, etc., Lasky’s own ideas about the use of color in the crafting of poetry felt anemic. The wheels really seemed to come off near the essay’s end when she attempts to “give gentle suggestions for where future poetry can go in using color in new ways.” In doing so, she quotes a 1930s article from The Scientific Monthly about the use of color in the poetry of Amy Lowell and Chaucer, discusses how a poet from the 1970s saw auras and essences while on a twenty-one day fast, describes the synesthesia of individuals on the autism spectrum, and lists the many compound hues made possible by new, multichromatic nail polishes and car paints. Those suggestions contained in this section which were specific enough to have some actual bearing on the crafting of poetry either felt like ideas that have already been put into use or simple reminders that language evolves in conjunction with the research and evolution of other disciplines. Minor reservations aside, Lasky’s enthusiastic and in-depth discussion of an intriguing subject which usually receives only cursory treatment does make for an engrossing read.
Poetry and color are combined in this expanded summer edition in a more literal sense by New Yorker Elaine Equi in her “Local Colors” portfolio, which pairs vibrant photographs from daily life in the city with poetic captions. Whether photographing a street vendor’s makeshift shrine, nostalgic bits of signage, or the last two blueberries staring up from the breakfast bowl, Equi’s sense for composition and color is impeccable. This is particularly true of Equi’s Diebenkorn-esque composition of the photograph for “Sixth Ave. Green with Blue Corner,” which is accompanied by the evocative lines: “How much greener / is paint than grass, / especially in winter.” Also included in the issue is Tony Fitzpatrick’s “The Day Lou Reed Set Me Free,” which pays tribute to the liberating power of the late patron-saint of NYC cool in a series of collage as well as a short reflection.
Though I gravitated toward the issue’s prose and artwork, new poems from D.A. Powell and Dean Young stood out among Poetry’s poetry. My single favorite from the issue was Young’s “Romanticism 101,” in which Young underscores grand apprehensions with more ordinary and humorous ones, his speaker’s realization that only continuous experience puts one in touch with the feeling of transcendence is more than a little terrifying:
Then I realized even when you catch the mechanism,
the trick still works.
Then I came to in Texas
and realized rockabilly would never go away.
Then I realized I’d been drugged.
We were all chasing nothing
which left no choice but to intensify the chase.
Offering on-point criticism, a provocative essay, crisp art reproduction, and poetry of considerable stylistic range, Poetry’s colorful new issue is sure to make anyone’s summer a little brighter.