John Tranter Reviews The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine

8 July 2013

That old war-horse of American poetry Robinson Jeffers turns up with a poem (in 1928, when he was 41), a wild strange apostrophic rant in long lines addressed to, of all things, ‘Grass on the Cliff’. His poem imagines that though feet and wheels have trampled the common grass, ‘your seed shall enjoy wonderful vengeances and suck / The arteries and walk in triumph on the faces.’ You can keep your vampires – this humble grass outdoes them in patience, stealth and viciousness.

Then there is W. H. Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ (1952). I browsed through it here for maybe the twentieth time, and though it is undeniably powerful, it does seem now to be mulishly formulaic and obvious in its form, with a clumsy shift in attention for each stanza.

Another highlight is Jack Spicer’s ‘Any fool can get into an ocean…’ (2008). Spicer died in 1965; this poem is probably from his posthumous collection (and what a brilliant resurrection) My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, published in 2009, though this anthology – oddly – doesn’t tell us this. A review of that book in the New York Times by Dwight Garner says ‘Mr. Spicer’s love poems curdle around the edges. He was one of America’s great, complicated, noisy and unjustly forgotten poets of heartbreak and abject loneliness.’

Albert Goldbarth’s poem ‘He Has’ delighted me with the knockout lines ‘When you’re twelve you dream of “going to war”, / and not of it coming to you.’

Basil Bunting’s well-liked sequence ‘From Briggflats’ appeared in 1966. It shows a knack for onomatopoeia, but carries one awful line: ‘Fierce blood throbs in his tongue’.

Charles Bukowski surprised me. He’s not usually a poet whose work I have that much time for, but his dry, comic and perfectly-timed ‘A Not So Good Night in the San Pedro of the World’ is beautifully done.

And it was a pleasant surprise to come across W.C. Williams’s famous poem ‘Of asphodel, that greeny flower’. It was published in Poetry in 1952, when Williams was nearly seventy.

And a real delight: James Wright’s poem ‘The Blessing’ (1961) with its picture of two Indian ponies, which ends with the lines ‘Suddenly I realise / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.’

And sadly there are turkeys, some from unknowns, and – just to remind us how fickle the muse can be – some from otherwise noted poets: LeRoi Jones’s ‘Valéry as Dictator’, Edward Arlington Robinson’s ‘Eros Turannos’, Ruth Stone’s ‘Forecast’, Robert Hayden’s ‘O Daedalus, Fly Away Home’, and Lisel Mueller’s poem with its clumsy metaphors and its dull repetition of adjective and matching noun (‘the vast hurt / of your deaf ear and mute tongue / with doves hatched in her young throat.’). Cough them up, honey.

Frederick Seidel bored me with his long, silly poem ‘Mu’allaqa’. E.E. Cummings, here stripped of his fussy lower-case initials, irritated me with his faux kindergarten fumbling with the English tongue: ‘Blow soon to never and never to twice / (blow life to isn’t: blow death to was)’

And sadly a clunker from Langston Hughes in 1961, when he was nearly sixty, ‘Blues in Stereo’, all in capital letters, which ends ‘Down the long hard row that I been hoeing / I thought I heard the horn of plenty blowing / But I got to get a new antenna Lord – / my TV keeps on snowing.’

Unlike an anthology where a relatively dispassionate mind selects and arranges each poem, in The Open Door the poets themselves have chosen initially which poem to send in to this particular magazine, and which not to send, quite yet, with possibly a few poems held back to send to a more prestigious if less widely-respected journal. (At a ‘secret location’?)

It takes a stab at poetic philosophy from Clive James on page 158 (where he tells us that it is the poet’s privileged duty ‘to be concerned about everything’) to point to a symptom of what’s wrong. James is a gifted and outrageous television comic, a richly funny journalist, and a dull and obvious philosopher and poet.

Last of all, a recent prose comment from Michael Hoffman (a German-born British poet) which should put gushy poetry lovers in their place:

‘I, too, dislike it,’ are the immortal beginning words to Marianne Moore’s poem ‘Poetry’, and they seem to me to be the only possible credentials for a poet and a reader of poetry. I sometimes wonder if there are any poets who ‘like’ it, and whether I would like them.

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About John Tranter

John Tranter has published over twenty collections of verse. His collection Urban Myths: 210 Poems won a number of major prizes. His latest book is Heart Starter (Puncher and Wattmann, Sydney, and BlazeVox, Buffalo, 2015). He is the founding editor of Jacket and of JPR.


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