The March 2021 issue of Poetry magazine arrived. I sat right down with it, on the principle that onerous duties should be tended to right away.
If you’re following the field you have to read Poetry, of course. With its handsome packaging, lavish endowment, and century’s worth of accumulated prestige, it enjoys an unequaled authority. Its associated Poetry Foundation website, open to all, is a wonderful resource. An ongoing collaboration with the PBS NewsHour connects prominent voices in the field to millions of viewers.
What’s not to like? Well, for me, the lion’s share of the verse that is being printed.
I read each issue carefully. I read many poems twice and some out loud. I read in the hope of pleasure, which of course sometimes I get. I read as an editor—would I print this? I read as a student of the scene—what do these poems and essays tell me about trends and preoccupations in the poetry world today? I guard against rejecting something just because it is unfamiliar.
That’s just the problem with March 2021 Poetry: far too much of the language in it is absolutely familiar. Predictable. Lazy. Sentimental. Off the shelf in some poetic dollar store.
The first piece, Jennifer Woodson’s “Weight,” sets the tone. “When I was a kid,” it begins, “there was this song that played on the radio all the time.” The song ( “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” as sung by The Hollies) mentions “a long and winding road.” Musing on recent political and cultural troubles, the poet picks up the theme. “And still—ahead of us, the road keeps winding into a place we cannot yet see.”
A poem, or an editorial? I had to check twice to see that it was in fact billed as a poem.
And so it goes through 80 more pages, the linguistic level often dropping to that of a Hallmark card. A red-crowned crane is “wondrous white.” Nathalie Handal tells us: “I’d like to be a poem, to reach your heart and stay.” Michael Simms, teaching a daughter to swim, says: “Watching you I grew stronger—/your courage washed away my fear.” In the issue’s final piece, Margarita Engle instructs us: “Children and poetry were born to love each other”—and yes, this too is part of something published as a poem.
There is a certain amount of labored wit. Chen Chen writes, “One day you will create an online personality quiz that also freshens the breath.” Linda Sue Park has a stanza: “Walk./Bike./Walk some more./Recycle.” And then: “(See what I did there, bike—recycle?)” Even this tiny foray into play with words, it seems, requires a self-deprecating elbow-nudge.
Reviews are supposed to be balanced. I did nod at a very few lines by Chen, by Kara Jackson, by Mahogany L. Browne. Elizabeth Acevedo is at least doing something different from most of the rest. But this reader can bend over backwards no farther than that.
As I worked my way through the issue, a complaint made by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl in an exhibit critique looped around in my brain: “It seems that we’ll never be permitted to graduate from the university of the obvious.”
Certainly not in Poetry magazine, March 2021.