I don’t trust awards, and usually just roll my eyes when someone mentions they’re a Pushcart nominee. Every poet, it seems, has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. And if they haven’t, it’s probably just because they don’t kiss enough ass, or have a poetry zine of their own to return the favor. It has almost nothing to do with the quality of the work. Merit doesn’t get you very far in the poetry world of 2019. Look in the most prestigious zines. They all have one thing in common. The poems they publish, almost without exception, are sloppy, amateurish, pure dung if I’m totally honest. What were the editors thinking, you ask. The answer? Often, it’s the poet’s name or reputation that gets him or her published. Often the editors have their own self-interest in mind. And just as often it’s that the editors, being perhaps highly intelligent, perhaps masterful essayists, or journalists, or documenters of hard and concrete fact, flail as poets and as editors of poetry because the je ne sais quoi that’s required for that most unique of arts is just not in them. And most times they don’t even know it.
In a word, they’re in the wrong field.
They were supposed to be software engineers, or doctors, or historians, or math teachers. Instead they’re fumbling with dactyls and sestinas. It’s like if I were suddenly called upon to be judge of a synchronized swimming competition and imagined myself an expert, despite never having done it myself, or knowing what to look for, let alone the rules. Poetry is different from all other forms of writing in that it requires an inborn talent that can’t be taught.
“In every endeavor but poetry, people with no natural gift can still succeed by diligent study of an art; but in poetry, no one who lacks the natural gift can possibly succeed through art.” ~ Vico
And yet it takes the eye of an artist to be a good judge of it, and most editors, not having that eye, can only look at grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, the broadness of vocabulary, or what they themselves are capable of to distinguish the good from the bad. So what follows is mediocrity publishing mediocrity, and the stuff that bucks the trend or goes beyond the bounds of common understanding (and not just for the sake of wackiness) being overlooked or ignored altogether.
Vico makes another wise and thought-provoking observation when he says,
The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects.
Borne out of this thought, I have to believe – given Vico’s huge influence on James Joyce – was Joyce’s famous line,
Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.
Which is not so different from W.C. Williams’ famous and much debated line, “No ideas but in things,” or what he was getting at with his red wheelbarrow poem.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
In other words, so much depends on the use of objects to enforce ideas and call up vivid images in the reader’s mind. Ezra Pound invented a word for this. He called it phanopoeia, and you would think the word would be somewhere in the minds of our most esteemed and highly-paid editors, but I have my doubts, so many of the images called up in the poems published in their mags being a fuzzy and confusing jumble of pabulum.
But back to what I was saying about the Pushcart Award.
There are so many 1000s of poetry journals out there, and so many 1000s of Pushcart nominations doled out every year, usually (I imagine) to friends of the editors or people the editors hope will return the favor, that it’s hard to take too much pride in being nominated. But since I am a writer and not an editor, have no clout, and nothing to give, and am not particularly popular in social media, it feels just a little better that the editors at Red Fez – one of my favorite lit zines by the way, and a long-lasting one too – saw fit to nominate an inconsequential scrub like me for my poem about Key West. I do not expect to win the award. In fact, I know I won’t. But sometimes, I take a break from my novel and write a little poem and send it in, and it’s good to know people appreciate it.
Bone Island Elegy
The first time I visited Key West
was over thirty years ago, and I’ve been back
almost once a year ever since.
There’s something about the place
that keeps sucking me in. Something in the glow
of the bright, emerald-green
something in the salt
winds, and bleached conch
shells washed up in the sands;
and in the shadows of the coconut palms
and the dreams of the derelicts sleeping under them.
It’s a kind of mysticism,
but not without a touch of deep,
raw, almost palpable melancholy,
which is always there.
But you feel it most late at night,
after all the bars have closed,
after the music’s gone out to sea.
A faint, almost imperceptible trembling
in the silence of the island.
something alive but in great pain.
Something that never sleeps because it can’t.
Its breath cuts into you.
The ocean bounds you on all sides.
The nerve opens.
Maybe it’s all those Indian bones
under the island
or a warning signal of some ancient prophesy.
Or maybe it’s just the curse of beauty.
That soft curse
that lets you know
you’ve found it,
you are someplace precarious and holy.