“Symposium: Poems Disliked, Poems Loved” is advertised on the cover, so it’s hard to pay attention to much else before turning immediately to the back of the magazine, where the special feature is located, to find out who is willing declare their dislike of certain poems or types of poetry in a public forum. The journal asked poets Wayne Miller, Helen Nelson, and David Rivard to present for discussion a “bad poem” (“weak or shallow or disappointing”) and a “good poem” (not defined!). The poets then “conversed” about these six poems via e-mail.
If you want to find out whose or which poems these poets did and didn’t “like” or “love,” you’ll have to read the issue for yourself, I’m not going to embarrass any further the poets (not all novices) chosen in either category. But, I will say that the discussion is serious, worthwhile, and intelligent, with “bad” poems being those found to be predictable, formal poems that seem “over-engineered” and story poems that are over-narrated, and poems judged unsophisticated, clichéd, inflated, lacking in energy, and ineffective in certain unconventional uses of punctuation. Poems were deemed “good” as a result of surprising resolutions, layered images and multiple perspectives, casual tones that give way to eloquent revelations, delicacy, clever elusiveness, and incongruity that ends up making extraordinary sense, among other attributes.
Miller, Nelson, and Rivard do not always agree, and it’s their points of disagreement and departure that are, of course, the most interesting. I do find the “like” and “dislike” categories distinct from “good” and “bad,” and though this distinction is not addressed in the discussion explicitly, the poet-critics are honest about certain personal preferences and predilections (a reader may or may not like narrative poems, but that is separate from understanding a poem’s effectiveness, no matter one’s personal preferences).
In addition to the Symposium on bad and good poems, NOR features the work of 24 poets, many well known for their good poems (Tony Hoagland, Ellen Bass, Billy Collins, Carl Dennis), six short stories, and three essays. Good and bad, being the subjective and slippery categorizations we know them to be, I will refrain here from passing judgment and mention a few highlights of the issue for me, which include Melanie Unruh’s clever story about the experience of therapy, “Luna de Miel,” “Forever,” a poem by Carl Dennis about heaven and hell (as they exist on earth and beyond), and a “flash” nonfiction contribution by Maya Sonenberg, “Solstice”:
Yes, darlings, you’re right: while light still fills the sky and the first star appears, and then the others, and while your parents sit on the porch steps with their glasses of wine, trading stories, it’s impossible to think that this vast middle—life—will ever end…
I didn’t have a parents-on-the-porch kind of childhood, but Sonenberg certainly makes me wish I did. Highlights also include, among many others, a lovely sonnet by Todd Hearon, “Palimpsest”:
What was the tongue we spoke when the lotus first
unfolded from the navel of the god, the one who dreams
the universe, and in whose ear we must have whispered
our hunger to hold each other? What were the words
must now be reflex, shudder, blood, be impulse, pulse
a palimpsest of longing written over
eons, eons ago…
What is the word for provocative reading? Oh, yes…NOR