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Is there a Bar in Publishing?
– originally posted to the PDC Feb. 13, 2013
– edited on blog Dec. 10, 2013

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"Conversion Figure" by Mary Szybist — Poetry Daily, 2/13/13M


from Incarnadine (Graywolf Press)
poem found here

first lines:
I spent a long time falling
toward your slender, tremulous face—


is there a bar in poetry publishing?

– reformatted, with some editing 12/10/2013

If you were paying attention, you should have felt a jolt at "I fell toward the pulse in your thighs." That jolt would have been brought about by an abrupt change in the situation of the poem. Specifically, the line contradicts the opening stanza: "falling / toward your [. . .] face." It is made even more jarring because the structure of the opening of the poem reinforces that fixed point: the first stanza establishes the target of a descent and, with its dash, cues the purpose of what follows: three stanzas describing approach, assumedly to the already named target of the face.

Can it be argued that the target has changed? You can try, but there is nothing in the ideation of the poem that gives support to that. So, you might as well be arguing that "the target would have continued to be her face except before the falling reached its target the girl's head fell off and rolled down the hill." Which is, actually, a somewhat loaded joke, there. After all, that is rather what has happened: the face and all its importance (after all, the faller spends "a long time falling toward her face") have disappeared from the poem. "Forget the face," the speaker essentially implies, "I'm gettin' me some."

Crude, but not an unwarranted reading. The contradiction was an obvious error – and there is no other word for it – I caught it in my first reading. Now, such a thing would not be tolerated in prose: especially conventional, narrative prose, where what is said is wholly expected to be what is, unless overtly corrected. Why should it be tolerated then in poetry? (especially poetry of like modality?) What justification is there for accepting in poetry – a form of language that is almost universally characterized as being controlled language (in whatever form) – something that any competent prose editor would catch and mark?

I am not asking this facetiously or sardonically, but honestly, toward an honest debate on what could stand as an acceptable bar for any linguistic endeavor. I would like to hear the author give defense as to why this quite apparent contradiction within the flow of ideas is acceptable within the domain of this poem (as is defined, of course, by this poem). I would expect that there is no workable justification; but, I would also expect that comparing the poem as presented to the intended result would create an interesting discussion as to how to write such an idea that begins in the face but moves to the sex, without using a jump cut. If I was teaching a poetry writing class, it would be a weekend assignment, and probably create a wonderful class discussion as to what methods were attempted and their degrees of success.

Which is to one of the purposes of aesthetic endeavor: to enter into the discussion of the aesthetic.

In fact, I would also like to hear Ms. Szybist's defense on why she did not break in half the line in the seventh stanza ("Girl on the lawn . . ."). I actually do have a reason to keep it as such: because the two clauses are a descriptive list that lead into the primary though beginning with the next line. Though, I also think that that justification then points to there being a problem in the stanza as a whole, for that line desperately wants to be broken in two. (Is there another line like it – in combination of length and construction – elsewhere in the poem?

Probably another worthwhile discussion from that, though briefer.

Am I coming down hard on Ms. Szybist? Only in submitting such a poem for publication (not in writing it). In fact, if I knew she was listening and would answer, I would be very interested in her defense of the poem – which includes defense of publication of the poem – and would hope a public discussion could rise from it. And, my disagreement with the poem in no way is near my questioning of whatever editor from Greywolf Press oversaw publishing of Incarnadine, if one did. Or, in between the two, whoever from Poetry Daily chose the poem for their site. Again: would such a contradiction pass merit with, say, the editor of a short story mag?

But let's close this, and by expanding the indictment to include its source: today's culture of poetry that would permit and accept such a thing – ironically, contradictorily so – in the name of poetry" (or "poetic expression," or some other crap like that).