Monday, August 14, 2006


In Northern Kentucky, my wife is sitting on a runway, having gone through the more stringent security measures just enacted by the TSA. In contrast, I'm sitting in my wrought-iron chair of choice as our two dogs wander through the tall grass of our backyard, small butterflies weave about the neighbor's yard, and cardinals twitter from the highest branches of the rose of Sharon that obscures our fenceline from passersby.

In mere moments, the airliner where she sits reading a recent literary novel will lift into the sky and veer east, out over the chopping waves of the Atlantic, before banking toward South Carolina. She'll land at the tiny airport in Charleston, search out colleagues, before taking a shuttle to an exclusive resort on the Barrier Islands where two days worth of business meetings await her.

Now, with solitude, broken only intermittently by the puppies, I can focus on crafting one or another works is into my own facsimile of a masterpiece. I can devote hours to the marketing of the online journal we're building together. Or, I could lounge about, unaccustomed to her absence, flicking through empty channels, until a meaningless football game finally begins.


A cool wind fills the morning air, rustling the sweet gum tree overhead. The mottled sky blocks out the sun, threatening rain. I slept diagonally in our bed last night, nestled between the two puppies, and surrounded by a wealth of pillows.

I chose to watch the football game. Yet, despite the comforting sounds of the crowd and the thudding hits from on the field (just a few miles away, perched on the banks of the Ohio), I recall little about the game. Instead, it was background as I surfed aimlessly around the Internet, searching for something, and waiting, I suppose, for a voice—mediated by technology—to filter through and, somehow, remain with me.

Eventually, I turned to a manuscript of my poems. I read through the work, looking for lines that could be improved and trying to discern which poems were the weakest and to correct them. The book was better than I thought it would be, despite myriad flaws.


The canines are cavorting about the yard, savoring the coolness of the summer morning mist. Archie is sniffing the dirt around the sweet gum tree that was once covered with hosta. Dixie is peering out at the yards behind our house, where a rabbit earlier dashed across the thick green grass. We are waiting.

I, personally, am anticipating a full day's worth of contract work. The puppies, I suppose, are awaiting the arrival of squirrels that they can attempt to corner.

As I think about that collection, I suspect that I could gather up the poems and send them all off to be read. If I chose the markets carefully, I imagine the majority of poems would be taken to be posted on the Internet or for a tiny print run in this or that literary journal.

Given, this may be an example of that necessary self-delusion a poet needs to keep writing through difficult years, but let's assume for a moment that I'm correct. Imagine that all 45 poems could be published in one venue or another by the end of the year. Sounds great, right?

So why am I so hesitant to send out a batch? I could argue that prestige is a factor or that I'd prefer to make the few thousand dollars that would be vaguely possible if the highest-paying markets would take those poems. More, I could admit, simply, that it's fear of rejection masquerading behind nobler ideas.

While I will admit that these factors are likely spicing the stew of my contemplation, they do not constitute the broth of this decision. Instead, I think the quality of the poems is my foremost concern. You see, poetry, to my mind, is a bit of a collaborative process. Each time I read a poem, regardless of who penned the initial incarnation, I must filter those combinations of phrases through my own experience, my own psyche, my own relationship with the world. Misreading—at least compared to the author's likely original intent—is a marvelous part of the process—two minds, straddling space and time with the sound of a few syllables. As a reader, I appreciate those poems, like Robert Frost's "Birches," that allow the reader's intellect to participate deeply in the formation of meaning, but don't necessarily require it. If you look at Birches (and much of Frost's work), you can easily read the poem as a folksy anecdote—and nothing more—but still enjoy the poem. If you care to, however, there are layers of meaning to traverse.

By contrast, a number of my poems seem to lack that invitation for further study. How does one make a poem that can offer a simple interpretation without the poem becoming so trite that it isn't worth more than one read? How does one make such a poem with enough clarity that an editor, with a cursory read, will move your poem out of the slush pile?

I don't think there are any easy answers for those questions. If I tried, I'd be offering formulaic nonsense—like someone selling a real estate course through an infomercial. Instead, each of those questions must be answered separately with each poem. And, if I answer each of those questions for each of the poems in my collection, perhaps they will be slightly easier to place, but more importantly, perhaps they will be read more widely and enjoyed by more people. And that, frankly, is all one can ask of their poems.


Anonymous Karen said...

I don't mean to inundate your blog with comments all of a sudden but oh gosh, yes, I really identify.

A poem being 'accessible' on first reading, 'prose-clear' enough for a reader to feel drawn in rather than feel a sensation of a jumble of words and so leave the poem half-read without trying to decipher it, I think about that. You've thought it thru more deeply.

I remember my bro, when he was editor of a parenting mag that went under, would accept only poems that were accessible to the average parent on first reading. That eliminated a lot of submissions.

You seem to be saying that writing for a certain level of accessibility and giving at least one level of clear meaning on the surface, is not mutually exclusive with... with what?, with writing the poem the way you might otherwise write it if not writing for that accessibility and clarity?

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

I reread your post and now think you're also saying the opposite?, that you want to write some poems with one layer of meaning and not be criticized that they "should" invite deeper interpretations of meaning(?), and you weren't putting accessibility of meaning into the mix at all in that case? sorry, I'm fuzzy headed this morning! :)

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

May I take one more stab at this? I was so interested in your post yet I'm bungling posting about it.

But just for my own thinking-out, before you bite my head off here with my leaving yet a third interpretation of your post, probably a third misinterpration, are you saying that you write poems with layers of meaning like Frost, but that you don't think you are as skilled as Frost in knowing how to hint at other layers while writing that one clear layer?

That your surface level meaning is not sufficiently hinting of the other layers, and that you worry about coming across in one of two ways -- either as your poem only working on one level, or as your poem hinting TOO much of other levels to the point it loses the clarity of the surace level?

5:45 PM  
Blogger Les said...

Karen: I think you just illustrated the notion of a reader's role in actively participating in making meaning from a piece of writing.

So, I don't mind the multiple interpretations.

I think your last post most closely resembles what I was thinking. In my work, I have poems that are drowning in John Ashbery's influence and are, I suspect, difficult for readers to "enter". Likewise, I have some poems that seem too simplistic to me, that seem like little more than surface. And, ironically, there's no space for the reader to "enter".

I guess, when you think about it, such questions come down to why you write poems, or rather, what you think a poem should be.

I think, honestly, I have a tendency to offer such prescriptions, but are they valid? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the poet.

I think, however, I can say with relative certainty that you have to provide that space to the reader to "enter" the poem, or even dwell there if they'd like. And that, essentially, is where I think a number of my poems are failing.

9:28 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

This may not be a good example, but you made me think of a writing class my freshman year, and a poem about a leaf's one falling.

The last two lines were "one yellow leaf loosed itself from old gray branches/ and let go".

People gave disparaging comments about there being nothing to the poem, including one guy saying the poem was a bad makeover of the trite song "Autumn leaves".

The prof pointed out the possible metaphor in old gray branches -- perhaps old gray parents etc.; and I remember one guy's quick intake of breath that he had suddenly seen more.

I don't know how much more participation he did beyond that one recognition.

"Birches" I just clicked on the link and read quickly once; I cannot help but see there are deeper meanings, but I didn't get yet what the meanings are, in an initial reading. My mind formed vague possibilities of Frost's metaphors: Cruelty and kindness? Tearing down versus building up? Nature's destructiveness versus man's?

I saw that I will have to think.

To get it, I will have to work for it.

A bad analogy, I saw forms beneath the surface of the pond but I don't know if they are fish and what kind of fish they are.

I'm torn between entering and putting in the thinking and the time, knowing there would be reward, or being lazy and not doing so; haven't decided whether to RSVP to Frost.

Are you kind of asking in effect, to use this example, what differentiates Frost being so cleat that there's more under the surface to enter, and the leaf poem apparently impressing most readers that no more of their participation was required?

I almost found Frost's invitation to participate and think and dive into the murky fishing pond, TOO obvious and clear on the surface; is that blasphemy to suggest of a great poet?!

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Just wanted to thank you 'heartfelt-ly' after rereading (and then rereading and rereading) Birches. I may never have read that poem except for your comment on it and link to it.

And - oh was it worth it.

It started to be worth it in the second reading actually. Shows the danger of first readings...

Being at a point in my life where I long to 'swing upward' and not come back down for a while (but agreeing with Frost that earth is the best place for love, and I too want the option to swing back down after a break so to speak!), I got into that poem yesterday after all. Thank you thank you.

I don't want to be a bull in a poetry shop and go more into my thoughts of the poem and perhaps ruin someone else's discovery of it or feeling of it --

-- that's what I used to hate about lit classes when the prof jumped into covering all the so-called experts' criticisms and interpretations, not giving enough time for us to take in and ruminate on the poems ourselves. The only way to avoid that was to do the reading before the semester I guess, which I was never organized enough to do! I 'studied behind', not ahead :)

Although conversely, I loved creative writing classes where we all discovered each others' poems together, and commented with room for everyone's individul reactions and a synergy of reactions, I'm sure you know what I mean.

thanks for the gift

I sound sappy, I realize I could use some Frost subtlety to permeate my gushiness about his poem but it was almost a sacred experience as poems usually end up rewarding me... but this one was a surprise, I hadn't gotten much into Frost before. He had offput me somehow, before...


7:41 AM  
Blogger Les said...

Karen: I'm glad you accepted Frost's RSVP. "Birches" is my favorite poem by him.

Now a couple of thoughts based on your comments.

Great poets are subject to critique. Consider, who were the "great poets" when Frost was publishing his poems about the harsh New England life? How, do you suppose, did Frost think of those poets?

Personally, I adore much of Frost, but I also find a fair amount of his work tedious and boring. For example, the poem "Fire and Ice" seems to be widely anthologized, but I hate that poem.

I think one should feel free to make judgements on any poet they read--Eliot, Apollinaire, Swineburne, Shaekespeare--whoever. But for me, it's important to know why I like or dislike a poem.

Such knowledge is invaluabe to my own craft.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Oh gosh, I've missed having people to discuss poetry with! It's so nice.

Good point about critizing great poets. I did criticize Shakespeare once, saying he was too wordy for me, to the horror of everyone in the room. But you're right, right on.

Funnily, Fire and Ice is one of the few Frost poems I'd liked! :) I had just included it in a notebook I'd made for a friend of thirty of my favorite poems!

I like the last couple lines about ice, the way they're shortened and sound cold and abrupt, as if a sarcastic hateful tone replaces the previous lilting lines.

But bad me, I'm trying to get you to like the poem, after you were so kind to give me room to RSVP or not to Frost on one of your favorite poems, without proselytizing.

I was thinking about little techniques to draw a reader in, to cause a reader to enter or at least want to. Maybe we could share those, although you've said you don't want to be formulaic.

But it seems that little techniques don't have to be formulaic, just sneaky?! :) Not really sneaky, just an acknowledgement that using them could result in a win win for writer/reader perhaps... I don't know.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

p.s. Your poem Blue Memento leaves a strong feeling of love -- I don't know if I perceive all the levels of meaning, but I perceive strong feeling.

It seems in my mind in the same genre with Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden, in classes used as an example of showing love without saying love. Hayden's does have lines that say it, or broadly hint, yours actually doesn't.

But love, his for you, yours for him, his for his life, it's not stated, it's there. Scene, detail, unembellished description.

My dad was an economist and collected stats! How to make a poem about him, is my self-assignment, and now that he's 90...hoping for the love to come thru unawares.

Why do you hate Fire and Ice, can you define it?

7:13 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Gosh I'm becoming the '3 comments in row' poster but I was just lying there in bed trying to get to sleep thinking of random things and suddenly more levels of meaning to your poem started just entering my brain...

... levels or universalities -- like the contradiction, yet somehow logic, of pride in the flawed pieces of one's work; like flawed parts representing the soundness of the whole of one's work; or giving to one's son what one has done and the value of that gesture versus what is given flawed or not...

If I get back in bed, more may come to me...

I do need to join a poetry group, I've missed this for so long, thinking about poems and communicating thoughts about poems. thanks Les. I started out here asking about the poetry scene in Cincinnati; now I've got to find part of one in D.C.!

11:12 PM  
Blogger Les said...


Thanks for your comments on my poem "Blue Memnto". I'm impressed that it stayed with you so well (I must've done a pretty good job).

Personally, I like that poem (which is odd) & am fascinated that a lot of the original impulses (class-based anger) are deeply submerged in the poem. It's about 9 years old, though, so it's not horribly reflective of the work I'm doing now.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Les said...


A note on "Fire & Ice" ( It's formally well done. Well crafted. Personally, I find the subject matter banal. To me, I'd rather see the detail--perhaps a scene of "icy hatred" or "singing desire".

Certainly, everything Frost says is true, but do we, as readers, see anything we didn't already know?

Perhaps I'd feel differently if I'd read it in Harpers when it was first published (the times etc), but I can't helped but imagine a darker brand of hallmark verse just waiting for someone to cash in each time I read that poem.

Again, just my opinion....

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

I tried to post on class anger which I looked for and saw in the poem after you mentioned it, but it didn't publish, maybe it will or maybe I forgot the 'word verification' thing or x'ed too quickly out of Firefox perhaps.

Just as well though, I was conflicted how my left-brained pedantic commenting worked in opposition to how your poem achieved its emotion! The dilemma in analyzing poetry.

10:26 AM  

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