In this issue’s featured essay, “‘Is there a basement in this poem?’ On Making Story of Verse,” Susannah Mintzpulls on her experiences as an instructor of undergraduate poetry courses. Mintz’s observations on the tentativeness her students exhibit toward poetry say a lot about the ways poetry is sometimes unfairly regarded and the impact these regards have on interpretation. More importantly, her essay reminds us not only to consider traditional interpretations but to also “remain open to what else a poem can mean, when we resist the temptation of using a text to retell a story we already know.” Mintz’s essay serves as an excellent framework for approaching this issue.
Mintz recognizes that poetry is often regarded unfairly, citing claims that “Poetry is arcane, esoteric, impenetrable by ordinary folk. It is beautiful, but of a beauty that has no impact or particular meaning since it cannot be understood; it is modern art, or a landscape by which one feels simultaneously awed and cowed.” Many claims are made about poetry, and these assumptions can cause apprehension when students sit down to analyze poems. Mintz recognizes some validity in the worries amateur poetry-readers express, admitting, “Because poetry operates on allusion and symbol, it is frighteningly open-ended.” But Mintz readily portrays how open-endedness can also be one of poetry’s great strengths. Calling on her experiences teaching Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” she describes two opposing interpretations that often polarize her students, then comments on her delight when a student bravely pulled forth a third and different meaning. Regardless of which interpretation is “right,” Mintz’s essay reminds us to read poetry less literally and develop our own interpretations along the way.
William Wright allows us to put Mintz’s advice into rare practice with his poem “Three Notes on Drowning.” The poem, a contrapuntal, invites readers to drop their expectations about how the poem should be read, and instead open their minds to several possibilities. The poem is formatted into two stanzas placed side-by-side on the page, and can be read both across and down. The poem’s depiction (or several depictions!) of drowning is striking no matter how it’s read. The following lines depict the poem’s seamless flow:
water I saw all the many creatures, diatoms, paramecia,
faces of God in the egg- forced through this skeleton-
clogged country of fish turtle, snake, gar
dens and water grasses, wavering with the thermal,
Each time the lines are read differently, new images appear. Where once there were “fish / dens” now appear “gar / dens.” Wright’s expert execution of this form reminds readers to look for new ways to read and enjoy poetry.
Just preceding the contributor bios is a collection of reviews of several poetry collections. Their placement near the end of the issue serves as a great resource to encourage further reading. Stephen Kampa’s review of two collections by Able Muse Press, Sailing to Babylon by James Pollock and Virtue, Big as Sin by Frank Osen, is particularly enjoyable. Kampa’s review comments briefly on technological advancements in music and literature before diving into an intelligent review of the two selections. Kampa exhibits a mastery of poetic terminology and comments on the good and bad of each selection seamlessly. After praising Osen’s poetry, Kampa admits:
It contains one—or was it two, or three?—too many poems about poetry, a subgenre I’d like to see outlawed for the next fifty years, and although Osen is almost uniformly an excellent craftsman, I resist the rhyme of “surface” with “purpose,” and I believe no elf should appear in a poem that also contains “myself,” or any of the other selves which so unerringly attract improbably convenient elves (Keats notwithstanding).Kampa reviews with an entertaining level of humor and undeniable skill so that even his criticisms have their way of appealing to readers.
The Spring 2015 issue of the Birmingham Poetry Review is brimming with resources. Turn to the essays and interview for research, to the poetry for enjoyment, and to the reviews for inspiration on what to read next.