In Dana Gioia’s essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” published in May 1991 in The Atlantic Monthly, Gioia offers a prescription for poetry that includes writing prose about poetry more often. He observed that poetry as an art form had been partitioned within the wider culture. I quote his essay’s final paragraph here:
It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let’s build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.
I read this issue of Field in Gioia’s spirit of electricity, dog-earing page after page of poetry that spoke to me in a specific way. I also read the prose reviews of recent books of poetry, underlining the most powerful lines, sketching commentary on the commentary in the margins. I found that the achievement of the poetry was only equaled by the eloquence of the reviews, and I was thankful to read the criticism, the ilk of which Gioia lists as an important part of the poetic ecosystem.
Take David Young’s “The Bye-and-Bye Log,” in which he examines Charles Wright’s Bye and Bye: Selected Late Poems, published last year. Young writes, “the reader realizes that he or she has joined a giant circulatory system that involves the seasons, other poems and poets and questions or meaning and purpose that preoccupy the speaker.” I think that joining “circulatory system” and “the seasons, other poems” is one of the most fantastic achievements of my modern reading life. Young notes that Wright is concerned with whether “paradise is located here or elsewhere,” and it is this kind of incisive criticism that allows Young to guide the literary traveler to Wright’s poetry.
Pamela Alexander provides a similar miracle, guiding me through Richard Grossman’s The Animals, also published in 2011. We learn the skeletal organization of the work—that the poem involves 200 articulate animals, “a group with a shepherd on subjects all over the epistemological and emotional map: astrology, shyness, civilization, time, sex, literature, light.” Alexander walks us through transcendent maps herself; we learn that the book pursues “the individual’s place in the universe, which he now sees as a network of beings connected in divinity.”
I approach the poems of the volume in the language that they speak to me. Amy Newlove Schroeder ends her poem “The Magician’s Assistant” with the haunting, “In some dreams I even keep my own name.” It is a poem where surrealism and truths chase the lead. When I say surrealism, it is not to reference a specific artistic movement; I mean that, like so many of the poems, the stories border on the real without being confessional, that narrate without the obligation to index references, that fight the good epistemological fight without being limited to a poetic school or philosophical camp.
Take the opening of Franz Wright’s poem “Four in the Morning”: “Wind form the stars / The world is uneasily happy— / everything will be forgotten.” The poem unfurls like fireworks, and you agree to it by the force of language. The work evokes “language poetry” but reaches wider constellations. You feel moved, shaken; you feel as though you are in the sanctuary of the not–yet-named.
I liked Elton Glaser’s “After the Evening News” in the raucous meditation on nature and the work that Dolan Morgan’s poems on the HBO television series Mad Men did with the titles, approach, and captioning.
An intense hypothetical workshop member might ask as to the material intent of a poem—demand a degree of identification in the work—suggest that language alone will not suffice. With Field, readers might want the kind of orientation that Morgan provides in the title and subtitle of the work, but Field does not typically require an explicit statement of subject and intent. It is lovely and elusive in its entirety, but, despite groundings, nothing in the journal is obvious. You can trace a kind of explicitness that is beholden to the mystery of the art in Vijay Seshadri’s “Trailing Clouds of Glory,” but the poem also weaves out of identity specifically, reaching for the effervescent.
For a look at austere craft, check out Meredith Martin’s “Apology” and Chris Santiago’s “A Year in the Snow Country.” For wild tour-de-force, peruse “Testimony (after Daniel Heyman),” a poem by Philip Metres that might have come out of the post-modern playbook but, despite its obligation to recent incantations of the form, is precisely unique.
Field is not a literary stereotype; it welcomes a variety of voices. If you turn to the final poem, Nancy Willard’s “The Path Not Taken,” you see this spirit. One would, as the poet writes, feel one's way through the dark waters of, perhaps, tremendous literary exposure—with diverse poetic traditions to guide the traveler:
Stranger, if you sailed a ship you would turn
At the clink of the buoys, chained to the water,
Singing of cliffs hidden in the fog’s fist.
You would listen for its horn, for its path
As you feel your way through dark waters.