In this series we will examine recently published poems as they might be received in a geek-infested critical forum. Each post will feature the best work of a different publication. If you have encountered a piece you'd like to see analyzed and rated (see scale below) please enter the text and author's name or, better yet, a URL below (your post won't be made visible to anyone) or send us, "Earl Gray", a message on Facebook.
Rattle Editor-In-Chief Alan Fox's "The River" is a crude outline, one step removed from scatterbrainstorming. Most of it is fat; the entire poem could be captured in, at most, these 19 words:
I heard you missed the eddy
and the stream¹ embraced you.
I skip a stone
and watch it sink.
"The River" was chosen from all others in "Rattle #44, Summer 2014" because it isn't until the second line that we are struck by the lack of craft. In a generous mood I'd rate it 3 out of 10 (i.e. "Rejected, pending significant revisions").
For context, we need to check out the competition, direct and indirect. Compare this flab to Hank Beukema's recitation of John Stewart's "Strange Rivers" (ignoring the repetitive last half minute for now):
Which experience is more enjoyable? Reading Fox's prose or hearing Beukema's rendition of Stewart's verses? (The switch in media from print to audiovisual is part of the point here.)
It gets worse if we contrast this flat text with John Stewart's song, as covered by Joan Baez:
We know that poetry was replaced by song on the radio in the 1920s. Here we see why. In essence, poetry doesn't understand what it's up against. How can today's print editors compete with an entrancing voice, let alone masterful music? By producing shaggy dog stories with linebreaks?
We were col|lege best friends | for three years,
The inclusion of "best" causes a voice/mood problem, blending a chatspeak tone² with a stark theme, but serves to sustain the anapestic rhythm. Note, too, the sonics: alliteration of "We were" and "friends for", then the assonance of short and long "e" sounds in "We...three years". This creates an expectation of more to come. Instead, we get unremarkable reportage. Note that "kayaking" is the only relevant word in this entire strophe...and might work better as a title.
kayaking the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
A tip: Avoid plurals and groupings. They detract from the immediacy and our ability to visualize a specific setting.
I cherish our week in Glacier Bay,
Instead of telling us what the speaker cherishes, try showing us why. Better yet, try showing us why we should cherish these words.
Nothing in the second strophe before "I heard today" contributes anything but confusion to the narrative.
The third paragraph includes more distractions. Who cares that it is his new wife? That he is hiking the hills of England?
Here we see one of the key differences between institutional and independent poems:
into the sparkling waters of memory.
Incoherence is a facet of academic poetry. Indies tend to have the opposite problem: a lack of subtlety. This last line has no purpose other than to club the reader (tinr) over the head and scream: "THIS IS SAD! SEE HOW THE STONE SINKING IN THE RIVER HARKENS BACK TO HIS FRIEND SINKING IN THE RIVER?"
You know, in case we missed it.
¹ - "River" changed to "stream" for sonic and rhythmic purposes.
² - It may sound too much like "BFF" ("Best Friend Forever") for some. Is "best" really necessary? Or is it an attempt to make the account even more mawkish than it is?
## Action Taken Frequency
10 = Anthologized Once every 10 years?
#9 = Accepted and discussed Twice a year?
#8 = Accepted and featured Once per issue?
#7 = Accepted ~1% of submissions
#6 = Held for consideration ~2% of submissions
#5 = Recommended for publication elsewhere ~1% of submissions
#4 = Rejected, pending suggested changes ~1% of submissions
#3 = Rejected, pending significant revisions ~1% of submissions
#2 = Rejected with encouraging remarks ~6% of submissions
#1 = Rejected without comment ~80% of submissions
#0 = "You were joking, right?" ~8% of submissions