As a reader, I am not easy to please.
After reading a poem on the page, my reaction may be a bit tepid: “Doesn’t really do anything for me.” Instead of hooking me, taking me along, inviting me to an adventure, it’s more like the poem opened the back door and went back to washing the dishes.
The next reaction is, “That’s okay” (“nice”).
Or the obsessive editor in me might wonder, “Why in the heck end the line with ‘the’? Isn’t there a better word for that place of power?” or “It doesn’t have momentum, it doesn’t have music.” I do like music in the poems I read.
It might be a powerful story, but the language doesn’t seem to be chosen. Or I can’t find a metaphor anywhere. Not even a simile.
Or I might really like the poem. As picky as I am, I really like a lot of poems.
Then, there’s “Wow, I wish I’d written that.”
A delirious duality—I feel a little saddened by the realization that I did not write that poem and it’s been written by someone else, and I feel a glorious exhilaration that someone did write that poem. Thank you! One example is “Upon Witnessing My Mother Impossibly Blossom Above My Father’s Deathbed,” by Kevin Stein.
But imagine it: In the new issue of The Missouri Review, I found seven of these poems! Seven!
Reading the elegies by Frannie Lindsay, I felt that they held and carried and invited me into everything I’ve looked for in a poem.
They are elegies, and they come from deep loss. After my own brush with grief-born poems, I felt I’d rather never write a poem again than lose someone I loved so much. Maybe Ms. Lindsay feels the same way. But what she’s done with that absence and mourning is such a gift—immediate and poignant and detailed, exactly.
Take these lines from “Enough”:
I can almost be happy
remembering my sister’s cello
filling our dread-laden house
those November school nights
I’m there instantly, and nervously.
Or in “The Music Is Going Great in Both Directions”:
…her ravaged voice
pleased as a housewife
pulling her first rhubarb pie from the oven
A delicious image, a wry wound.
And then these lines from “The Good Day”:
…your sparse streamers of hair
fly behind you, your shadow
ravels, your legs rise and float like hawk wings
over the pedals, your fists slacken and lift
from the gears and brakes.
Legs rising and floating like hawk wings? What an image–visual, kinetic, unexpected. Really, the whole poem… read it!
Every once in a while the debate over whether to read or not read (not read?) other people’s work rears its snake-laden head. For me, reading teaches me about writing—and reading poems that make me sit up or jump up nourishes me and inspires me to work harder, open more fully, listen more closely, and write.
What do you look for in the poems you read? What makes you sit up and listen, or sit up and write?