Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mary Kinzie makes me feel stupid. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I often appreciate it, coming from her. I don't appreciate it coming from the poems in the new issue of Poetry.

I'm reading Kinzie's book A Poet's Guide to Poetry. She actually explains everything quite well, and she chooses wonderful poems to scan and unpack. However, her sentences often have one or two more terms in them than I find helpful all at once (I find this on reading science, especially physics), and I have to reread and then mentally paraphrase. This is pretty much how I approached the study of German in college (a woefully unsuccessful venture, but Northwestern made students in the College of Arts and Sciences take a foreign language).

I had Kinzie as a teacher at NU; she was brilliant. Some students feared her. I vividly recall a young woman saying something utterly uninsightful in a class on women poets and having her severed head handed to her without ceremony. I didn't take Mary's poetry writing classes—I was in the fiction seminars—but I did take her women poet's class (Moore, Bogan, Bishop, Gl├╝ck and . . . hmm . . . Dickinson?). Great class. She was, in addition, my advisor for three years.

As for the latest issue of the journal Poetry, I can't figure out why the first writer was given space for four poems, two of them quite short (as the journal won't print more than one poem on a page, and the print seems smaller than it used to a few years ago, this is particularly galling). The first poem, I couldn't judge. I have no clue about it. Two of the others seem simply bad.

I do reread poems; I don't simply give something one look and judge it. However, if there's no way in to the poem on first reading—either narratively or imagistically or through beauty of the language—then it's likely I'm not finding anything the second time. Wallace Stevens is a poem who often befuddles me, but he does so in good ways, hitting at least one if not two of the conditions above at first blush. This lets me return to him in hopes of more. If you're not offering any of those three, I have no idea what you're doing, because I can't respond.

Just sold a piece of fiction, though I won't say anything more about that here, yet. But I'm trying to return to poetry as well, and when I find poetry that simply stymies me—and yet was deemed publishable—I'm left feeling stupid, as we do in a dream when we find ourselves in a game with unknown rules.

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