I cannot speak for the other editors, but I’m often blind, mostly numb, mostly selfish, mostly dim-witted and smug, mostly deaf, mostly distracted, often indifferent, mostly hiding, mostly lonely and afraid, mostly anxious, often phony, often lying, often lazy. I look for poems to break through all that, to speak to me so forcefully—through stillness, or humor, or dazzling linguistic invention, or oddball charm, or lacerating insight, or polyrhythmic drive—that somehow, through mere alchemy of letters and space arranged on a page, I am for a moment brought more awake, made more alive.
I think of the judgment rendered by the escaped criminal in Flannery O’Connor’s story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, after murdering an elderly woman: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Savage words, yes—perhaps inapt in this regard—but that is finally what I want from a poem: to help reveal the world anew, sliced open, stranger and less certain, to make living in this moment more desperate, more delicate, more heart-breaking, more beautiful…and to hope I can stand it.
Sure, a poem’s just a literary enterprise, an instance of artifice, a verbal sleight of hand that pieces the world together or tears it apart. And a poet should use any trick, any trope, any form, any subject, and every silence, every sound, every piece of paper (or screen) needed to achieve the poem’s end. Poetry is big enough to accommodate many things called poems, written in different ways, with different combinations of tools, written for different purposes. There’s room for the glib and the profound, the coarse and the finely spun, for delight and revulsion, for the serene and the manic, for the earnest and the coy, and most of all (in Frank Bidart’s and Keat’s words) for “necessary thought,” for “the true voice of feeling.”
With so great an ambition, of course every poem will fail—condemned to be less than what it attempts or (in my case) heard by a reader sometimes unequal to its art. A friend and good poet often reminds me, “Ralph, it’s only a poem!” Yet reading a good poem, experiencing its struggle to grasp a small fragment of life, to voice something compelling—watching words torque and contract and flex on a page, reach for the real (or through the real), attempt to grasp something on the far edge of speech—entering a poem’s illusion made of nothing but sound and symbol, as it becomes almost animate and as contradictory as life itself, and holding us there, even for one trembling moment, “in the blue voice of air” (Neruda)—enacts my own struggle to make life richer, more acute, “to glorify things just because they are.” (Milosz)
With poems, as with any unknown, untamed thing we try to capture and cage (maybe housebreak,…even love), the questions remain: “Was its bowl or bed empty in the morning?”, “Do we care?”, “How hard will we search to find what we’ve lost?”
~Ralph Hamilton, Editor