Versify #1 by Pamela Burger
Before I start writing any poetry reviews for this blog, I think I should come clean about something. I don’t really believe in the idea of reviewing books of poetry. Perhaps more than with any other genre, an individual’s assessment of poetry depends on the idiosyncrasies of taste. Because I dedicated the first 30 years of my life to the study and writing of poetry, I think I’m well qualified to give my opinion on the matter, and you shouldn’t feel bad about reading it, but still, what I deem “good” or “great” is as much a factor of my personality as it is a reflection of my scholarly and practical training. Because, in the American tradition at least, poetry is highly dependent on innovation, on original expressions of old ideas or familiar feelings, it is difficult to assess what stands out as good, better, or best. Rather, there’s just a whole lot of different.
True, there are heaps of bad poetry out there. Private journals, personal blogs, intro-level workshops are all filled with poetry that the general reading public might find tedious, cliché, or fatuous. Of course, the point of these forums is not necessarily to produce masterpieces, so it doesn’t really matter what the reading public thinks. However, when we look at the realm of “professionalized” poetry—that is, poetry published by third parties and that might advance career-orientedpoets—the differentiation between authors is more a matter of style than quality. At a certain point, poets who have spent years honing their craft, reading and writing and working out what they want their verse to do, can’t be assessed as good, better, best. They are all good; you might just like some more than others.
And yet, the poetry world is filled with assessment. As we leave 2013 behind we are bombarded with all sorts of rankings. “Best of” lists abound in publications like Publishers Weekly, Slate, and The Boston Globe. Scribner’s Best American Poetry series annually tells us what poets we should like most.
The Best NewPoets anthology solicits nominations from literary journals, but ultimately a guest editor decides who is “best.” In addition to the distinctions that propel the publishing industry, we also get streams of contests and awards. Nearly every literary journal holds poetry contests as a way to raise money and generate publicity. I have never understood these contests. How does a judge determine a “best” poem from an enormous pile of slush? It seems a bit like asking an adult what her favorite color is.
I understand the impulse to have arbiters of taste, people or institutions to point us towards quality work. There is too much literature to sift through on our own. But we can only put so much faith in other people’s opinions of what makes one poet better than another. I have my own predilections, but I couldn’t possibly expect you to share them. My tastes aren’t even necessarily logical. For example, I hate poetry about nature. Mention a crocus or a hydrangea and I immediately begin to nod off. That said, when H.D. talks about flowers, I am riveted. These statements seem contradictory, but I have my elaborate reasons why I think the way I do. So rather than try to convince you of what’s good, bad, or indifferent, all I really want to do here is give you the elaborate reasons why. So welcome to my reasons why.
Pamela Burger has a very short attention span, which is why she loves poetry. Her poems have appeared in several small magazines you might never have read. She lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing and literature, and is an instructional technologist for the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.