A good poetry journal is like one of those good coffee-table photography and art books. You can open them to any page and find something so thought-provoking that you are carried away and forever changed (NOTE: This is one great challenge of a paperless world). The editors of the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review have certainly accomplished this. HSPR has been around for more than thirty years and has had just two editors. Since 2008, the review’s second editor, Nathaniel Perry, has done an excellent job of picking up where Tom O’Grady, the founding editor, left things when he retired. In the past, The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review has published the work of a Nobel Laureate, several Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, and two U.S. Poet Laureates.
Perry and his team of editors did a masterful job of pulling together an impressive collection of poetry from an equally impressive group of poets that includes Billy Collins, Tomasz Ró?ycki of Poland, Gabriel Spera, and Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll. What is particularly interesting about The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review is what the editors have done with the last twenty-five pages, making this a journal that is as much about poetry as it is a showcase for poetry.
In the “4 x 4” section of the journal, four of the journal’s contributors are each asked the same four questions about literary influences, their musical proclivities, their conception of the “poetic line,” and the need for solitude. The answers from the four poets—Lavinia Greenlaw, Reginald Flood, Connie Wanek, and O’Driscoll—are almost as entertaining as the poetry and left me wondering why more journals aren’t doing the same thing. For instance, on the topic of music, Minnesota poet Wanek says, “. . . mostly what I feel toward music is that it has to be very good to be superior to silence.” In her answer to the question of solitude, English poet Greenlaw’s answer is illuminating and maybe a little reassuring:
I am suspicious of the contrivance of solitude and have found it hard to write when spending a month alone on an Alp or a North Sea island. I talked to cows or clouds, swam and drank beer. . . . What I want is to be left alone in my head. I could be writing on a train or in a concert hall. It doesn’t matter. To write a poem, you do have to go somewhere where no one can follow and this becomes a habit of the mind.
When it comes to the issue of how lines are formatted in a poem, O’Driscoll points out that his own lines “expand or contract” depending on the rhythm of each poem, as well as the “verbal considerations.” When it comes to the “hyperactive lineation” of contemporary poetry, he is nothing shy of being blunt, saying that the lineation is, with few exceptions, “a kind of visual rhetoric: novelty in the service of triviality; eye-catching distraction from mind-numbing content.” Ouch!
Maxine Scates of Portland, OR contributes three beautifully crafted and deeply moving poems. Though her style is much freer than Theodore Roethke’s, her attention to the smallest of details and the intermingled relationships between life and death and nature is reminiscent of the father of the Pacific Northwest poetry movement. All three of her poems concern themselves with images of dying, specifically her mother’s. Scates’s poetry reveals a sense of certainty that can only come from wisdom and years of observation. However, in the last few lines in the third poem, “Old Garden,” Scates allows us to see clearly that taking care of her mother and her mother’s garden consumed a good portion of her days and left her unsettled and wondering about herself and her place:
It’s here we try to forget
what we can never forget, my rake, my hoe
out in the wed forsaken roses, my mother
who loves roses. I tended her garden,
now what will I do?
Much of the poetry in this issue is personal and reflective, even when it borders on being meta-physical. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, in his poem, “Whoever You Are,” creates a visual arc that begins with orange and yellow flower and continues on to connect to his shoes and the stone wall that he is sitting on. As with so much of his poetry, there is an underlying sadness or regret that he never overtly identifies but we know exists. And, it is in this knowing of its existence that doorways of introspection are opened for the reader. As is often the case with Collins, we often wonder if he believes that what he’s writing is ever worth thinking about beyond the moment, as in these lines about the flowers:
Too bad they don’t remind me of anything,
and it’s a shame I am not seeing them
as parts of larger system or realm,
pretty iotas in the greater animate cosmos.
Then we might have something here.
Who am I to tell him they are part of something larger? Who is he to suggest, just because he has the blues, that they aren’t?
Any journal that can bring a reader to asking such questions has done its job. This issue is now on my coffee table.