Reddy’s Poetry.

Poetry, the magazine, is an American institution, founded by Harriet Monroe in 1912 and still going strong. I confess my interest in it peaks with the Ezra Pound years (I treasure my copy of the March 1915 issue, which includes some of his greatest poems); it was hit-and-miss during my college years (1968-72), and I pretty much stopped reading it after that. When I’ve looked at copies in recent years, my invariable reaction is “not my thing.” But the last three issues, edited by Srikanth Reddy (personal website; Poetry Foundation page), have made me snap to attention. His Editor’s Note to the March issue begins by describing the difficult life and career of Margaret Esse Danner (1915–1984), “the first Black woman on Poetry’s editorial staff,” and ends:

This issue of Poetry seeks to address an overlooked poet—and to bring Margaret Danner’s artful manner of looking at things to a wider readership. […]

My own guest editorship will turn, next month, to the diverse communities of language-users from a transnational perspective, with a special issue on “Exophonic Poetry”—featuring work by migrant, refugee, and other poets who write in a “non-native” language. And I’ll conclude my guest editorship at the magazine with a May issue on pre-modern poetries of the world in translation, titled “Make It Old.” A Black Chicago author who worked in Poetry’s offices; an immigrant chorus of exophonic voices; and the ancient poetries of our world in translation—addressing poetry from past to present, from the individual to the community, and from the neighborhood to the planet might, I hope, open new dimensions in our experience of art, language, and society.

Along with our folio on Margaret Danner, I’m grateful for the opportunity to introduce an extraordinary group of contemporary poets, hailing from Nigeria, Turkey, Bolivia, Japan, Chicago, and beyond, who have contributed their work to this issue of Poetry. Let’s turn now to their “blazing forms.”

In that issue I was struck by the substantial number of poems with the originals and en face translations, e.g. Rüştü Onur’s Hülâsa and the English version In Sum; I also very much liked Simone White’s From “or, on being the other woman”, which begins “I am an ignorant fucker. difficult to be close to in that i am unsentimental and intimate with everyone. This is connected to the problems I am working through regarding metaphor” and later includes this satisfying passage:

Profanity’s nonce forms engage linguistically in what sound people call muddiness, profanity’s imbrication with epithet is a richer form of meaning making that taps into sign at a zero level, incredibly powerful, elementally so.

“fuck that mumbling shit” : “you are an ignorant fucker”
what has to be said beyond off/on : good/bad; what happens when a linguistic field is generated by high-energy-signs across a flat plane of signification—there’s no need for logical progression or … “narrative.” Each word or phrase can function as foregone, forethought, already known; that’s a black ontological truism that trap music knows deeply. That’s its language game.

Well, it’s satisfying to me, anyway; you may not like it, and you may not consider it poetry. Is it “poetry”? I don’t much care. It’s one of the things that makes me want to keep the issue.

The Editor’s Note to the April issue goes into more detail on the “Exophonic Poetry” thing:

English literature has always been shaped by linguistic outsiders […] Most of us find it hard enough to ask directions in another language; to write a poem in an adopted tongue seems almost miraculous. Yet contemporary American poetry boasts a chorus of exophonic voices, including Don Mee Choi, Ilya Kaminsky, Dunya Mikhail, and Javier Zamora, to name only a few. They hail from diverse backgrounds, but they can all claim membership in a global community of exophonic writers. Their work asks us to think deeply about language and identity, assimilation and acculturation, and the histories of collective violence, trauma, and displacement that have shaped our modern world.

Through a glass darkly, exophonic poetry might also be viewed as the renunciation of a writer’s linguistic heritage. Every poet in this issue sings their own answer to this open question. As English is increasingly entangled with issues of globalization, the erasure of cultural difference, and economic inequality around the world, exophonic poets writing in English must reckon with a language that isn’t only part of the problem; for many of these literary double agents, English is the problem. Exophonic poets project their own cultural histories into a new language, as writers always have done, and always will do. They are translators of themselves. We might even read their work as a collective experiment in self-translation.

When I first drafted an open call for submissions to this special issue of Poetry, I’d hoped to hear a new story, told by immigrants and refugee writers, about “American” literature. But literary exophony speaks many languages, across numerous countries and regions, expressive of countless lifeworlds; a Persian speaker may write in Swedish, and an American poet may contribute to the story of Japanese literature, as you’ll find in the pages that follow.

Among the poems, I especially like those by Sarah Ghazal Ali and Khaty Xiong, but there’s lots that holds my interest as I flip the pages.

And the new May issue is perhaps the best — I’m currently immersed in From “The Suspended Ode” by Imru al-Qays, translated by Robyn Creswell with convincing verve (“But tears are my medicine/ so where in these ruins is a place I can cry// Weeping is what I do”), but if you click around at random in the table of contents I doubt you’ll go away unrewarded. Today’s Poetry, it turns out, isn’t in fact a vast wasteland.


  1. John Emerson says

    The early history of Monroe’s “Poetry” and Margaret Anderson’s “Little Review” was a wild time on American literature. Chicago was trying with some success to be non-Ivy League non-Eastern center of American literature: Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, E. L. Masters, Vachel Lindsay, et al. Monroe and Anderson also published international figures like Eliot and Yeats. (Eliot of course was a Midwestern writer too, though you didn’t tell him that to his face).

    I’m saying this to lead up to the following factoid: at one point Yeats was recorded as saying something nice about Vachel Lindsay. I find this revelation earth-shaking. I suppose he was just being polite, but the possibilty that maybe he wasn’t is hilarious.

  2. That is indeed surprising and potentially hilarious!

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    When John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln the good,
    He hid himself in a deep Potomac wood,
    But the Devil came and and got him and dragged him down below,
    And took him to the gate—and the rest you know,
    Twenty thousand pigs on their hind legs playing
    “The Beale Street Blues” and swaying and saying:

    “John Wilkes Booth, you are welcome to Hell,”
    And they played it on the saxophone and played it well.
    And he picked up a saxophone, grunting and rasping,
    The red-hot horn in his hot hands clasping,
    And he played a typical radio jazz;
    He started an earthquake, he knew what for,
    And at last he started the late World War.
    Our nerves all razzed, and our thoughts all jazzed,
    Booth and his saxophone started the war!
    It has a broad brush immediate appeal and would look good excerpted in an edition with colour photographs. Possibly the author went out of fashion by not writing sufficiently obscurely or taking the “rasping” a bit further.

  4. Oh, Lindsay was good at what he did, and can still be read with pleasure (if one isn’t frightened by his “problematic” material):

        To be read or sung in a rolling bass,
    with some deliberation.

    Ho for the tear-horn, scare-horn, dare-horn,
    Ho for the gay-horn, bark-horn, bay-horn.
    Ho for Kansas, land that restores us
    When houses choke us, and great books bore us!
    Sunrise Kansas, harvester’s Kansas,
    A million men have found you before us.

    II. In which Many Autos pass Westward

        In an even, deliberate, narrative manner.

    I want live things in their pride to remain.
    I will not kill one grasshopper vain
    Though he eats a hole in my shirt like a door.
    I let him out, give him one chance more.
    Perhaps, while he gnaws my hat in his whim,
    Grasshopper lyrics occur to him.

    It’s just that it’s hard to picture Yeats being a fan.

  5. Rodger C says

    Yeats ironically contrasting his early style with his late style:

    With boys and girls about him.
    With any sort of clothes,
    With a hat out of fashion,
    With old patched shoes,
    With a ragged bandit cloak,
    With an eye like a hawk,
    With a stiff straight back,
    With a strutting turkey walk.
    With a bag full of pennies,
    With a monkey on a chain,
    With a great cock’s feather,
    With an old foul tune.
    Tall dames go walking in grass-green Avalon.

  6. Thanks for sharing this – I’ve never seen the actual magazine but used their main site for years as a resource for famous poems, but I’m usually left nonplussed or even kind of annoyed by what they present of current poetry. I’ll give it another look!

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Poetry, the film.

    Has anyone here seen it ?

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    The combination of Reddy’s rather academic-jargonish touting of “exophonic poetry” and Lindsay’s deprecation of the saxophone quoted by PlasticPaddy makes me think that the Anglophone world desperately needs someone guided by the Muse to create some sarrusophonic poetry for it.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, Yeats may have written some poems about his political enthusiasms that are a challenge for readers from other times and places to completely grok, but perhaps none of them have the over-the-top enthusiasm/despair of Lindsay’s elegy for his own youthful political hero who lost the election of 1896 (I imagine the majority of living American readers would need the historical references herein annotated as heavily as those of a Shakespeare history play):

  10. Who else would come up with lines like these?

    The fawn, prodactyl, and thing-a-ma-jig,
    The rackaboor, the hellangone,
    The whangdoodle, batfowl and pig […]

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, those particular lines seem rather like a foreshadowing of Dr. Seuss, don’t you think?

  12. The thing-a-ma-jig and whangdoodle, maybe.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    I will have to rethink the Lindsay lines, I was taking the use of the sax as a riff on jazz being the devil’s music, as well as the sax being capable of producing a moaning or wailing tone, suitable for tortured souls.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Vachel Lindsay is underrated. Moreover

    Defeat of the young by the old and the silly

    is a clear prophecy of Brexit. The man was inspired.

    Incidentally, the mention of Mark Hanna (of whom I had never heard) gave me a lightbulb moment (as DM says): it explains the odd name of this chap

    of whom I had heard (for fairly obvious reasons. His Chichewa grammar is pretty good.)

  15. Only the last section (which mentions Marcus Hanna,* among others**) of that poem about William Jennings Bryan alludes to the fact that it was not written until 1911. And even there, it glides over the fact that had received the Democratic Party’s nomination for president two more times in the intervening years.

    * Hanna was extremely rich and, in his time, the most important political boss in Ohio. A frequent attack on President William McKinley was that he was just a stooge for Mark Hanna.

    ** Hanna was a major political figure at the end of the nineteenth century, but I don’t remember ever having heard of John Peter Altgeld.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Hanna was a major political figure at the end of the nineteenth century

    Kʋsaas ye:

    Buligin ziiŋ zi’ kɔligin yɛlaa.
    “The fish in the pool knows nothing about the river.”

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Re: Mark Hanna Watkins, if you were a black family in the Deep South during Jim Crow (including the piney-woods part of East Texas where he came from) and wanted to symbolically thumb your nose at the local power structure in naming a son, naming the boy after a Republican president or other nationally prominent statesman (in an area where the whites at the time overwhelmingly voted against Republican candidates and the blacks were kept from the polls) was a fairly safe approach because gosh-darn-it you were just being patriotic and all-American and who could object to that? Thus, e.g., the prominent musician McKinley Morganfield, born 1913 or perhaps 1915 in Mississippi, named after Hanna’s Bryan-beating protege but later known professionally as Muddy Waters.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, I am pleased to be alerted by Lindsay to the now-archaic slang lexeme (of uncertain and debated etymology)

    There’s one bit of the poem that seems to hit a somewhat Blakean vibe (“The demons in the bricks, the demons in the grass / The demons in the bank-vaults” through “And the sidewalk was our chariot, and the flowers bloomed higher”) but then it’s back to Lindsay’s more usual vaudeville-barker voice, which I guess was just Whitman updated by a half-century or thereabouts.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    I was just thinking that there is something a bit Blakean about Lindsay. The same well-over-the-top loopiness that nevertheless works (sometimes, anyhow.) I wasn’t altogether joking when I described Lindsay as “inspired”; there’s a sort of automatic-writing vibe about him at times (as with Blake, indeed.) Muses …

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    And of course Yeats was (to the embarrassment of much of his subsequent fanbase) a pretty literal automatic-writing enthusiast, so …

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    True …

    Mind you, great poet though he was, he never gives you that message-from-a-parallel-universe feeling that Blake can (and Lindsay, too, on a good day.) Everything is reassuringly under control in Yeats (to brilliant effect, very often.)

  22. That’s an excellent point that had never occurred to me.

  23. John Cowan says

    I memorized this a long time ago (or rather I could hardly prevent myself from memorizing it):

    Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
    Hard as they were able,
    Boom, boom, BOOM,
    With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
    Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

    THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
    I could not turn from their revel in derision.

    Then I saw the KONGO
    Creeping through the black,
    Cutting through the jungle
    With a golden track.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    The Congo is indeed “perversely memorable” (as somebody actually said of Tennyson’s Maud.)

    Quite a lot of Lindsay’s poetry is. He had an ear for … something.

  25. Mark Hanna was Karl Rove’s political hero. A kingmaker and master politician and pure freemarketer. To Roive America started going down hill with Teddy R, not Franklin R.

    Of course, to the majority of our Supreme Court, the world started going downhill with Martin Luther, or maybe Joachim ofi Fiore.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    to the majority of our Supreme Court, the world started going downhill with Martin Luther

    With that Radical Socialist menace, Jesus. Fortunately, they have succeeded in constructing a new Jesusoid figure for worshipping purposes, more in line with their own ideology (a temptation for better people than they, to be fair.)

  27. John Emerson says

    Vachel Lindsay, E A Robinson, E L Masters, Sandburg, and Jeffers were a sharp dividing line in my life. In my small town Midwestern HS (1964) they were all promoted and read, and in my up to the minute Est Coast college (also 1964) they were uinmentioned and tacitly forbidden.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    John E: Clearly you had fallen into the clutches of the wicked old East-Coast plutocrats who had successfully resisted Bryan’s uppity insurgency back at the close of the prior century. Although I was once talking to a fellow a bit younger and more easterly than you (finished high school 1973 in the suburbs of Rochester) who claimed that he had been taught in high school to think of Sandburg as a poet of the first rank. This was his riposte to my claim (having finished high school another 10 years after that in Delaware) that I had been in the last cohort of high school students taught to think of Vonnegut as a novelist of the first rank (but Sandburg already seemed obsolete/quaint even if he was included in some anthologies).

  29. Actually my “Est” was a mistype for “West”, not :East”. I will try to make my mistypes less confusing in the future.

    But the New York Intellectuals (East Coast), who favored a more sophisticated radicalism (preferably involving Trotsky and Heidegger) were indeed to blame.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    Obvious conspiracy theory is that all of that more outre and foreign-sounding radicalism was covertly funded/promoted by the anti-Bryan Plymouth-Rock plutocrats to prevent an anti-plutocratic coalition that normal midwesterners would be willing to take part in from ever forming.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, now that you’ve pointed it out …
    (How like them …)

  32. Midwesterners only stopped being populist / progressive with WWII. But the East was never radical..

  33. John Emerson says

    There was a pretty general anti-radical move in the US after WWII. The populists and progressives had pretty much disappeared, the Trotskyists had been crushed, the Communists (good guys until 1945) can under serious attack, the militant unions had been tamed, and indeed, the Rockefellers, Kennedys, et al played a role.

    It took a lot of finesse for the Democrats to survive rebellions from both right and left in 1948, but they did, and they still had enough oomph left to keep the Republicans from nominating a hardliner in 1952. The New York Intellectuals (as they called themselves) fit pretty well into this with their finessed post-radical non-rightwing existentialism. There was a cost though, since the Democrats committment to moderation and cutting deals and renunciation of popular movements became fossilized and gave us the crippled center-right party we have today.

    In literature Nelson Algren and William Saroyan particularly came under attack and Saroyan mostly disappeared. I was taught at one point that writing with any political content at all was propaganda and sub-literature.

    Don’t know what you mean with the conspiracy theory gibe but in human life people actually do coordinate their activities quite a bit, and sometimes things do happen behind the scenes.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    I’ve never read Nelson Algren. My take on him (perhaps unfair) was that certain people got excited about him once upon a time because he wrote about junkies in some bygone era when writing about junkies was thought per se daring, but by the time I’d even heard of him I’d already read junkie lit by the likes of Wm S. Burroughs and Jim Carroll so I was just not impressed by the per se idea. Also I am strongly committed to the notion left over from my involuntary high school exposure to Theodore Dreiser that just writing about X when most people won’t write about X doesn’t mean you’re a good or interesting writer, because you can easily turn out to be writing about X in a horribly clunky prose style. That is of course the art-for-art’s-sake perspective, which the CIA was covertly funding back in the Fifties using shills like Stephen Spender and, um, maybe Jackson Pollock?

  35. Algren didn’t just write about junkies, he wrote about the tough underworld in general. He wrote well, but the writing style matches the milieu, and depending on your tastes, that can seem hokey. The same sentence could apply to Jane Austen.

  36. John Emerson says

    The accusation against Algren was that he was a “Depression writer”, (from Podhoretz), which was passe, and that he was a Communist (from the FBI, but never proven, and they tried). People like Pynchon and Vonnegut admired him.

    There’s quite a lot of scholarship about actual political interference in literature, criticism, and academia (beyond just McCarthy and HUAC), but I doubt that you’d be interested in reading it. It wasn’t necessarily all bad. People like Kenneth Rexroth and Charles Mingus were sent abroad as part of the effort to prove that America isn’t entirely barbarous and crass. But there was a definite pressure not to do certain kinds of things.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    But Podhoretz disdaining Algren is not from my POV a backhanded recommendation but rather just a reminder that this is all caught up in the petty squabbling of a world (of the Noo York capital-I Intellectuals) that’s dead and gone. Who is Partisan Review publishing this month? Who did or didn’t sit at whose table in the City College cafeteria in 1949? Who was or wasn’t a Schachtmanite? Who cares if it’s not relevant to a doctoral dissertation they’re stuck on? It’s all so boring and provincial, in the way (cue famous New Yorker cartoon) than only Manhattanites can be provincial.

    Maybe if you were Pynchon’s age some of these writers struck you at a formative age in a positive way so you’re never going to be hard on them, but I by contrast hold no brief to advocate for most of the then-current novelists I thought were great when I was in high school (e.g. John Irving and Tom Robbins), other than quite intentionally declining to re-read them in middle age in order to avoid the significant risk of being depressed by how poorly their work has likely aged.

  38. Algren is actually quite a good writer, but if you don’t like him you don’t like him. Everyone to his own gout.

  39. John Emerson says

    Yeah, Algren, Tom Robbins, John Irving, people like that.

    My first introduction to this politically suppressed world was through the political timidity of the faculty at the school I went to, which was almost destroyed my HUAC et al and thus had a Red reputation, but for that same reason enforced extreme caution on its faculty. Individual teachers would tell about this to their favorlte students, but not to underclassmen.

  40. Stu Clayton says

    @JW: the petty squabbling of a world (of the Noo York capital-I Intellectuals) that’s dead and gone.

    You have my vote on that one, Senator !

    I came in at the tail end of that dog – in the 70s reading back issues of Commentary, smirking over Susan’s magisterial treatment of camp, trying to find out how cute Nelson really was after I read that he did a stint as Simone’s boyfriend …

    Even after all these years of deliberate neglect, it didn’t take me long to figure out who JE was referring to with “rightwing existentialism”.

    <* shrugs *>

  41. John Cowan says

    Midwesterners only stopped being populist / progressive with WWII

    Well. There is still Minneapolis-St. Paul, and indeed Minnesota generally, plus all those college towns, some of which are fairly substantial cities now. And Chicago, though it’s more “populist” than “progressive”.

    the Trotskyists had been crushed

    Eh, my dad and his friends never looked crushed to me (now, of course, they are just dead).

    With that Radical Socialist menace, Jesus

    The vision of Christ that thou dost see
    Is my vision’s greatest Enemy
    Thine is the Friend of All Mankind
    Mine speaks in parables to the blind.

    just writing about X when most people won’t write about X doesn’t mean you’re a good or interesting writer

    I discovered this from a book called The Battle of Leyte Gulf.

    junkie lit by the likes of Wm S. Burroughs and Jim Carroll

    What, no mention of James Salant (pbuh)?

    I was taught at one point that writing with any political content at all was propaganda and sub-literature.

    Did that extend to Tolstoy?

    who JE was referring to with “rightwing existentialism”

    Eh? Calling something “non-rightwing existentialism” hardly commits you to the existence of its negation.

  42. Eh, my dad and his friends never looked crushed to me (now, of course, they are just dead).

    I doubt “crushed” was used in a psychological sense. Did your dad and his friends have any influence whatever over the politics of this country?

  43. Of course, the Trotskyists who preferred not to be crushed became neoconservatives (Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook, and their ilk).

  44. Stu Clayton says

    Calling something “non-rightwing existentialism” hardly commits you to the existence of its negation.

    I don’t see any existences being negated or affirmed. Only tokens of discourse (“words”) are on the table.

    I started from the not-overly-bold premise that “existentialism” (Sartre’s baby) is not generally treated as “rightwing”. It it were, “non-rightwing” would be superfluous as a qualification of “existentialism”. But JE is not given to superfluousness. It’s not Barbara, but it will do.

    Reasoning right along in this manner, I parsed what he wrote as “non-(rightwing existentialism)” and played it from there. Perhaps you are more familiar with the authoress than I am, and thus more liable to hypostasize.

    Here is an article comparing and contrasting the thoughts of the authoress to and with those of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. You will never need to a word written by these gentlemen themselves, it’s all summarized in the article.

  45. Stu Clayton says

    “… never need to read a word …”

  46. Er, that website promotes “Objectivism: the philosophy of reason, achievement, individualism, and freedom” and the worship of Ayn Rand. Read it if you must, but I certainly wouldn’t take it as a worthwhile approach to literature or philosophy.

  47. Stu Clayton says

    Exactly. But it must be a real time-saver for poseurs.

  48. Depends what you mean by saving time, I guess. It strikes me more as wasting time.

  49. Stu Clayton says

    “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”

  50. Here I am, stuck in the middle with Stu.

  51. Stu Clayton says

    @Brett: good one! I missed a move there.

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    Elsewhere on the internet I find a 2015 blog post by someone using the name “John Emerson” with the following striking sentences: “This accounts for Remy de Gourmont’s influence in early 20th c. America, and the European interest in blonde beasts like Sherwood Anderson and Nelson Algren. To say nothing of Louis-Ferdinand Celine.” I had never thought of Algren as falling into the “blond beast” category or being Celine-adjacent, so perhaps my avoidance of actually reading him to date has been based on a serious misunderstanding?

    Sidenote to J. Cowan: I was speaking chronologically and had certainly heard of Algren long before I had heard of Salant (indeed before Salant had published anything) so “eh, probably not as good as Salant” was not a factor in my lack of attraction to Algren.

Speak Your Mind