Conducted by Jonathan Hobratsch and Agon Haroldson
Welcome to Round 1, Game 1 of Poetry April Madness: The sport of poets! A literary gauntlet! If you are unsure about what this is, then check out this link, which explains the rules and gives you a full list of the 30 rosters of poets.
Check out the results of Round 1, Game 1 below:
The Enjambments (Robert Hayden, Vachel Lindsay, Donald Justice, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Reznikoff, Archibald MacLeish, Jack Gilbert, Alfred Corn, Terrance Hayes)
The Spondees (John Ashbery, John Hollander, Carl Phillips, TR Hummer, Michael Dickman, Alice Walker, BP Kelly, Brenda Shaughnessy, Amy Lowell)
The poem matchups:
Archibald MacLeish “The Young Dead Soldiers”
BP Kelly “The Leaving”
JH: MacLeish’s poem is a lovely anti-war poem. The choice line for me is, “They say, Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them.” The poem reads like a protest from the dead. It’s powerful.
AH: No doubt, the line “we were young” recalls the song “We are Young” by Fun. Which implies that the members of the band will certainly be sent to their death in Syria, Libya or elsewhere.
JH: Kelly’s poem is, in my opinion, vastly superior. It has a complexity that seemed impossible to balance; yet, she balances it. Our reader’s microscope must consistently constrict and expand as we take in the entirety of this poem. The subject is picking peaches one-by-one in a single orchard, but the poem consistently reflects on the action by presenting us larger things–the sky, the stars, the “twisting of fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors.” She is like an atom aware that she is playing a part in a larger entity. Overall, the poem is successful in its meditation. I’ll end this with the last lines, “The light came over the orchard./ The canals were silver and then were not./ and the pond was–I could see as I laid/ the last peach in the water–full of fish and eyes.”
Result: Kelly def. MacLeish
Current Score: Spondees 1 Enjambments 0
Terrance Hayes “The Golden Shovel”
John Ashbery “Some Trees”
JH: Hayes’s poem is a worthy successor to Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” Hayes acknowledges the poem’s genetic ancestor in the two parts of this poem. The first sections brings in most of the imagery from the older poem, while the second part, with its shorter lines, seem to shrink itself closer to the even shorter lines of “We Real Cool.” The parts of the poem are set a decade a part. I assume the child of the first part has matured in the second, and has become a young man who speaks in certainties, “What we/ know is what we know” and “light can be straight-/ened by its shadow. What we/ break is what we hold” and “we/ sing until our blood is jazz,/ we swing from June to June.” Personally, I think this poem bests Brooks’s poem, but that might be because I had read the older poem dozens of times before.
AH: Yet, the powerful Hayes must face a Goliath of a poet in Ashbery. Can Hayes’s poem impress you more than “Some Trees,”
JH: Hayes may have the advantage of novelty for me, since I’ve read “Some Trees” a few times before. Let’s see. [reads] Having just reread the poem, I am more struck on how vastly different the poems of Ashbery and Hayes are in this matchup. Ashbery’s poem is strengthened by its silences, while Hayes’s poem is very much a poem of the city and of humans, who are very much the opposite of silence, on the whole. I like Ashbery’s lines, “you and I/ Are suddenly what the trees try/ To tell us we are:” I end up finding myself liking this introduction to the following response, better than the response. And while I like this lovely poem, I’m going to have to shock the poetry world and award Hayes an upset victory. I think Ashbery has many more poems that could have been a stronger poem in facing “The Golden Shovel,” but I don’t think “Some Trees” was one of them. Personally, Ashbery is one of my favorite poets, and while I rarely read Hayes, I think Hayes wins here. If Ashbery’s team wins this game, then Ashbery will certainly be a force in the future of Poetry April Madness.
Result: Hayes def. Ashbery
Current Score: Spondees 1 Enjambments 1
Muriel Rukeyser “Poem”
Michael Dickman “Where We Live”
JH: This isn’t Rukeyser’s best poem. As a “war poem,” I feel it falls below MacLeish’s poem, which I read earlier. It somehow seems detached from human emotions, as if told by an object trying to write as a human. It talks of pen, paper, newspapers, devices and men and women, without giving any specifics. I am reading the skeleton of a poem, which needs skin, veins, meat. Lastly, I cannot think of a single line worthy of quoting.
AH: Easy victory for Michael Dickman.
JH: It should be. A one word poem could win this round. Let me see. [reads] Definitely. This poem makes me feel the way I feel if I wear yellow-tinted glasses in a white room.
AH: Ah, it’s like listening to Polyphonic Spree.
JH: Exactly. I have a slight bias to surreal or surreal-similar (some poets don’t like their work to be considered surreal, such as James Tate) imagery. The downside is that I don’t always know what is going on, but for me, this isn’t a problem. Sometimes I prefer the endless mystery, so long as I’m enjoying the ride. This happens often for me with Ashbery’s poems. This is also why I can enjoy Pound’s Cantos. Dickman’s poem is dedicated to the Irish playwright John Guare, who I have never read, but will now have to read. Dickman’s poem is one of the most pleasantly blinding poems I’ve ever read. Light penetrates to the core of poem and reader. Even the crows, like windows, are left open to let the white clouds in. The ultra-positive nature of this poem ends with the mention of the selling of slaves, a rather dark image to the rest of this idealistic poem. The title, “Where We Live,” in combination with this ending, might make it a kind of satire, but I’d have to study it longer. It also seems Whitmanesque, there may be a slight homage to his Leaves of Grass with, “The light of the world/ beads up in one perfect/ green leaf/ It scribbles its name on every living thing then erases it so what’s left of it is more of a/ whisper than a mother.” Notice the quote extends in a long Whitman line at one point, too. I’ll close with an image I like, “He waves his arms in front of him and endless migrations of birds disappear into his/ coat”
Result: Dickman def. Rukeyser
Current Score: Spondees 2 Enjambments 1
Robert Hayden “The Whipping”
Brenda Shaughnessy “Artless”
JH: Wow, Hayden’s poem is very good–profound and horrifying. In lyric splendor, he characterizes the abusive relationship between a boy and, presumably, his grandmother. The hypocrisy of the whipping is shown clearly for all to see. As Hayden writes, the holier than thou grandmother is, “whipping the boy again/ and shouting to the neighborhood/ her goodness and his wrongs.” The grandmother seems all-too-similar to God of the New Testament, who often over-punishes for all to see, while maintaining to be the only true and perfect god. The poem closes with the woman feeling “purged” of some of the abuse that she has had to bear in the past. This implies that she may have been treated, much like this boy. Depending on when the grandmother was born, and where she lived, the story of any whippings in her youth could have occurred in the pre-Civil War South. This isn’t specified so I’ll assume that her whippings came from family, and she is just carrying on an abusive family tradition. This leaves us wondering if the boy parental habits will be likewise abusive in the future. Overall, it’s a very well-crafted and clear poem.
AH: What did you think of “Artless” by Shaughnessy
JH: I always feel like it is next to impossible for a younger contemporary poet to beat a proven master, but we did see Hayes take down the generally unconquerable Ashbery earlier. “Artless” is a poem in tercets that is far from artless. It is rather artful, and aware of this. The title is well-chosen, since the enunciation of “artless” isn’t too far off from “heartless”, which seems like a word that is struggling to become the title. Each tercet can stand as its own poem: “for the pressing question./ Heart, what are you? War, star, part? Or less:” A final tercet ends the poem, playing on “a part” and “apart,” which is clever, but I find myself wanting the poem to end on the next to last tercet, which I think is the most powerful of them all.
AH: What’s your judgement?
JH: Both poems are very good. So it’s close. I think Hayden’s poem is so well-controlled, better than most poems. It’s just solid, through and through, in a way that makes it appear both archaic and written just yesterday. I’ll have to give it to Hayden; although, Shaughnessy’s poem was a worthy competitor.
Result: Hayden def. Shaughnessy
Current Score: Spondees 2 Enjambments 2
Alfred Corn “Wonderbread”
John Hollander “An Old-Fashioned Song”
JH: I’ve read Corn’s “Wonderbread” before. I love the anticipation, and then the frustration following the consumption of the bread, “Nothing! Nothing but air, thin air…” and “seductive/ visually, but you could starve./ Get rid of it, throw it in the river–“
AH: Wonderbread is the ambrosia of the gods.
JH: I think the rhymed stanzas were used because they evoke Wonderbread, which is pre-sliced. The history of civilization goes hand and hand with the history of grain and bread. Wonderbread turns this part of our history into a joyless carnival with both its ironic name and the emptiness of each bite. The Ancient Romans, who prided themselves in the grain they produced, would throw criminals into the Tiber River. Likewise, Wonderbread meets this fate in “Wonderbread”.
AH: You know Alfred Corn rather well. Do you think the person in the poem accurately reflects how Alfred Corn would treat the uneaten slice of Wonderbread?
JH: Yes. I am certain he penned the poem, before the last piece of bread left his mouth.
AH: Now on to John Hollander.
JH: This is a tough matchup. Both poets are highly favored by literary critic Harold Bloom. Hollander’s poem is rather beautiful. It’s hard to judge two poems that are so different. One is humorous/serious and the other is serious/somber. The poem recalls a wood, which housed some sort of important memory. The wood has been cut down. This poem reminds me of Progressive Era conservationism. My great-great grandfather, the naturalist Charles Johnson Maynard, wrote about the de-naturefication of Newton, Massachusetts. Woods, plants, birds, being displaced by golf courses and more houses in c. 1900. With this displacement, the shrines to certain memories are wiped out, leaving only the ghosts of what was there in place. Hollander’s poem also reflects on love and mortality. It’s a very thorough poem, and lyrically profound: “Where we made our own weather/ When branches touches the sky. Now they are gone for good,/ and you, for ill, and I/ Am only a passer-by.” The last line hearkens to youth of both the trees and the voice and its lover, before reflecting on demise, “We and the trees and the way/ Back from the fields of play/ Lasted as long as we could./ No more walks in the wood.”
AH: It sounds like you’re leaning towards Hollander’s poem.
JH: I’m afraid so. I think my friend, Alfred Corn, would concede in this match up as well. As great as his “Wonderbread” poem is, Corn has other poems that can certainly best Hollander’s poem. It’s hard to beat a poem of loss with a poem about Wonderbread. Can laughter ever trump tragedy?
Result: Hollander def. Corn
Current Score: Spondees 3 Enjambments 2
Charles Reznikoff “Beggar Woman”
Carl Phillips “Steeple”
JH: Reznikoff’s poem is a five line poem from the point of view of a child. I’ve never been a huge fan of Objectivist poetry, because the poems sometimes seem rather distant and, yet, somehow lack mysteriousness. In this poem, the child sees and old beggar woman, who appears to be straight out of one of his fairy tales. She seems like a witch to him, but she is, in fact, gathering moldy food from the gutter. There is not much reflection on this, which leaves a lot of demand on the reader to decide whether reflection is necessary or not. I think the child goes back to the fairy tales realizing that the witches from his story act the way that they do, because life is cruel to them. That is, if he thinks the beggar woman and the witch are somehow actually similar.
AH: You generally enjoy poems about eccentric characters that live on the streets, since you’ve written a few poems about them yourself.
JH: That’s true, but we don’t get enough of the beggar woman to establish any personality outside of her want for home and food. I think it’s interesting that she’s called beggar woman, but she never begs. She’s personally laboring through a gutter to grab what she needs.
AH: On to Carl Phillips.
JH: Phillips should probably win this round, since I’m the judge. Let’s see. [Reads] Not to sound too picky, but I think I’d enjoy Phillip’s poem better if the lyric wasn’t interrupted by so many punctuation. It starts out strong with, “Maybe love really does mean the submission of power–.” It then follows this up brilliantly, except for the stop-and-go traffic caused by the all-too-frequent punctuation. The moments of punctuation grace lead to the best lines, since they are allowed to unfold, “the folded black and copper wings of history begin their deep unfolding.” At this point in the poem, I would have thought that the previous over-punctuation was done specifically for this line, so that the line does unfold on the page. However, the following lines return to their traffic prison. The ending of the poem is nice, regardless of the structure, “soon desire will resemble most that smaller thing, late affection, then the memory of it; and then nothing at all.” At this point, the punctuation does help the language, but it seemed to get in the way through parts of the poem, which is so good, that I almost want to rewrite it into my own version.
AH: Who wins then?
JH: Phillips, easily. He probably could have won in another match up as well, but there are poets who lost this rounds that could have beaten this Phillips poem, in my opinion.
Result: Phillips def. Reznikoff
Current Score: Spondees 4 Enjambments 2
Jack Gilbert “Tear it Down”
Amy Lowell “In a Garden”
AH: Spondees need only one more win to clinch victory.
JH: Yeah, it doesn’t look good for the Enjambments. Their best poems haven’t been put forth.
AH: Jack Gilbert must slay the Hippopoetess here. Otherwise, Amy Lowell takes her team to round 2.
JH: It’s highly possible Gilbert wins since Amy Lowell’s poems can feel very dated sometimes. [Reads] Gilbert’s poem comes off as a merge of Taoist philosophy and Whitmanian wisdom, which sounds great, except I don’t feel the poem says anything profound. The subject is profound, but the language fails in that I don’t feel like I’m given wisdom by a true sage, but only a copy of one. Many of his lines seem like rewritten (some improved) phrases I’ve read somewhere before. Such as, “By redefining morning ,/ we find a morning that comes just after darkness.” The cyclical nature of light and dark, whether symbolic or not, has been addressed at least since Zoroaster. Gilbert’s poem, while a copy of a wisdom poem, doesn’t seem like an original wisdom poem. As such, the poem is good, but not great, in my opinion.
AH: So Amy Lowell might be able to seal the deal?
JH: She could if she doesn’t blunder her chance. Let’s see.[Reads] Here we have true Eros in poetry. It begins with a nice, cooling image of a garden and water. It then moves from observation to human thoughts, “And I wished for night and you./ I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool,/White and shining in the silver-flecked water.” I now have a dilemma.
AH: What is that?
JH: I think Lowell’s poem is better written. I think Gilbert’s poem is more interesting. Although, not by much. I think for what they are trying to do, Lowell succeeds better than Gilbert. As much as I want this to be a close contest, Lowell will send the Spondees to round 2. We will continue with this game, however.
Result: Lowell def. Gilbert
Current Score: Spondees 5 Enjambments 2
Donald Justice “Poem [This Poem is not addressed to you]”
TR Hummer “Glass Ceiling”
AH: Let’s see if Justice can make the defeat respectable.
JH: For a poem about a poetry, this one is rather good. The poem has a clear attitude and its own past. The poem is not for us; yet, we can spend some time with it. However, as reader, we are not expected to see our expectations fulfilled or considered, since this poem is not addressed to us. The poem cares less for us, than we care for it. This cannot be otherwise, since a poem makes its own reality, and we are forced to live in ours that we cannot control.
AH: Sounds like a winner.
JH: Let’s see what my friend TR Hummer has to say about that. [Reads]. Hummer has the advantage of my general dislike of poems about writing poetry, which would include anthropomorphized poems. Hummer’s poem is about his grandmother (or is it actually his mother?), who happens to be a Daniel Boone type character, dressed in buckskin, doing tricks in the saddle and shooting animals at impossible angles. The closing image is of the narrator pulling rabbits towards him in the underbrush where they “tremble together in the riptide of her passing.” Rabbits have fast heart beats. They’d tremble at the sight of the grandmother (or mother), which makes “the passing” seem like she’s sailing along on horseback. The passing, seems like it could be about loss, when the line is considered only with the narrator. Riptide gives the sense of rushing. And tremble seems more attached to fear than mourning. Perhaps, with a trigger-happy family member, the narrator feels as vulnerable as the rabbit. I’m hoping I’m not misreading the poem. It’s a good poem.
AH: Time for a verdict.
JH: I’d really like more time to consider this.
AH: Too bad.
JH: If I can’t coin flip it. I’ll side with Phillips this time. Although, on another day, or after more contemplation, Hummer could win this match up.
Result: Justice def. Hummer
Current Score: Spondees 5 Enjambments 3
Vachel Lindsay “Lincoln”
Alice Walker “A Woman is Not a Potted Plant”
AH: How can a poem about Lincoln lose?
JH: Like this. Lindsay’s poem is a praise poem and a sort of epitaph. It’s nice, but it is not reflective, enlightening or strange enough to leave an impression. It’s made for a tomb. It’s a pronouncement of his esteem for Lincoln. It is nice in that, but hardly a poem. In a collection of poetry about Lincoln, it would rank below “O Captain! My Captain!” by Whitman, which is the most overrated poem in US history, along with non-Lincoln poem “Raven” by Poe. Lincoln doesn’t always inspire poetry worthy of him.
AH: Ready to make the verdict.
JH: I have to at least give Alice Walker her victory reading. She can’t lose this unless the page is blank.
AH: Is it blank?
JH: There appear to be words. [Reads] Walker wins. The poem, while telling the reader what a woman is not, compares women to plants. A woman is not rooted to her house. She is not trimmed into her figure. She is not obligated to follow the dispenser of her water or her sun rays. A woman is unbounded wilderness, free and with her own future. The poem, as I have it, has stanzas in the shape of vases. This might not be the original design. Regardless, the poem is a power poem on the true independent, and self-reliant nature of women and is far superior to Lindsay’s poem. Lincoln would approve.
Result: Walker def. Lindsay
Final Score: Spondees 6 Enjambments 3
Spondees get a rather sound victory over a team of strong poets. It will be odd not to see some of the poets from the Enjambments, especially the brilliant Hayden, Corn and Hayes, in later rounds.
The Spondees (John Ashbery, John Hollander, Carl Phillips, TR Hummer, Michael Dickman, Alice Walker, BP Kelly, Brenda Shaughnessy, Amy Lowell) move on to round 2.