The Poetry of "First Things"
Also: The problem with cute dogs, conquering Normans, the first horseback riders, and more.
About two years ago, while I was cycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I got a call from Mark Bauerlein and Rusty Reno at First Things asking me to join the magazine as poetry editor. First Things has a long tradition of publishing excellent verse. You can see this in Grace Notes: Poetry from the Pages of First Things, which was edited by one of the magazine’s former poetry editors, the late and immensely talented Paul Lake, and Losana Boyd. The volume republishes the work of 75 poets from the magazine’s first 20 years—a best of the best—and includes poems by R. S. Gwynn, Timothy Steele, Catharine Savage Brosman, David Middleton, A. M. Juster, A. E. Stallings, Richard Wilbur, Dana Gioia, and others. It’s a feast.
The magazine only publishes about 30 poems a year (out of thousands of submissions), so it’s a select body of work already. It’s hard to reject good work because of limited space, but it is better for the magazine—and for readers—to be in a situation where only the best work (at least I hope!) makes it into print.
When I started as editor (after the accomplished tenures of A. M. Juster and Garrick Davis), the magazine had about 20 poems in the docket—so enough for five to nine issues, depending on the number of poems per issue. (We usually publish between 2 and 4.) Poems can stay in the docket for over a year. Space and theme determine when accepted poems are published—a decision made by the other editors—so it is interesting to open each issue to see which poems were selected. I sometimes only have a slight memory of a poem if it appears a year after I accepted it, and so it can be like reading it again for the first time. I am happy to say that the experience is usually a pleasant one—a confirmation of the work’s quality or, at least, that my tastes have not changed in the intervening 12 months!
Some of the poems that I have enjoyed on these second first readings have a line or phrase that is particularly striking. Catharine Savage Brosman’s concluding sentence to “Dust Bowl”—“She bears it all, arms crossed”—seems ordinary on its own, but the simplicity and doubleness of “bear” and the restraint (suppression even!) of “arms crossed” so perfectly summarizes the nobility and tragedy of the woman depicted in the poem as to make the line strike like a bolt of lightning:
—After photographs by Dorothea Lange taken in the Texas Panhandle
Alone, a woman stands in black and white
surveying a discolored sky above
and nothing on the earth around her, save
a windmill, with its blades congealed on film,
vain, futile. Pride has not deserted her,
her stance proclaims; but she has nothing else—
no hope, and no defiance possible.
Despair inhabits her; a hand may start
to sketch a gesture, loosely, but it falls
in uselessness. Her eyes, whatever hue
in fact, are dark; her face is drained of all
futurity, as arid as the soil.
To act is meaningless; the land resists
whatever project that she might conceive.
Her husband, children—absent from the scene
of tragedy. She bears it all, arms crossed.
Another line that surprises is Karen D’Anselmi’s “We sacrificed for You more than he did” in her “A Prayer to Jonah’s God”:
A Prayer to Jonah’s God
Forgive us, O Lord God of the Hebrews,
for feeding Jonah to a large-mouthed whale.
We sacrificed for You more than he did.
He hid in the hull, snoozing like a babe.
We prayed to Hercules of ancient days,
whose double pillars, emerald and gold,
always guide us off the coast near Cadiz.
But our gods will not chase after a fool.
Please let us not drown for throwing Jonah
into the open gullet of this beast,
and may it vomit him obediently
near Nineveh or wherever You wish.
The final line of the poem proper is “But our gods will not chase after a fool,” which is also striking and the best summary of how the Christian God is different from other gods that I have ever read. The final stanza is a kind of a coda.
John Poch’s “Mary” starts off with the simile “The kingdom of heaven is like / a hummingbird nest, the luckiest / cup of air to hold a breast [. . .] a thousand grasses / of kisses.” The finches at her feeders show Jane Greer in “God of the Gold and Purple Finches” that there is no end to “petulance and hunger.”
Other poems use structural contrast or extended metaphor to open reality up or make an idea seem new again. In Steven Knepper’s “Ash Wednesday” a vulture lands on his head “Its talons tight, its wings still spread” in imitation of an ashen cross. Joseph Mirra wonders what Jesus would have said if Martha and Mary’s roles had been inverted in that famous passage where Martha complains about Mary in his poem “Bethany”:
In Bethany, what might the Lord have said
Had Martha never questioned Mary’s ways;
If Mary were the one to speak instead?
A very different question she might raise:
“Lord, don’t you care that Martha will not sit
And be attentive to your tender voice”?
“O Mary, Mary, this I will admit:
It’s true that you have made the better choice.
But just for now let’s let your sister be.
She’s used to working hard for every guest;
Her nature’s one of hospitality;
In time in me alone she’ll find her rest.”
For sins of men he came not to condemn;
But silently to bear the weight of them.
And Daniel Brown’s “Mystery” uses enjambment to create an ambiguity that mirrors the doubleness of mystery itself:
You could, for mental exercise, do worse
Than work the puzzle of a universe
That kindly took the trouble to exist:
Of mysteries, it’s said, the mightiest.
Which isn’t to suggest you aren’t one
This mystery can be borne in upon
By hints that speak as little to the mind
As whispers from a field in a wind.
Of course, no one can be serious all of the time, and poetry can offer a break from time to time from the gloom and doom of our short lives. Here’s Paul Willis’s “The Way It Goes”:
The Way It Goes
That’s the way it goes
for amateurs and pros—
the ball goes out of bounds.
That’s the way it goes.
That’s the way it goes,
marching all in rows—
That’s the way it goes.
That’s the way it goes,
the lily and the rose—
their bloom begins to fade.
That’s the way it goes.
An undiscerning nose
can smell the stink that grows—
that’s the way it goes.
I suppose there is a bit of doom and gloom in this poem, too, and a fair amount of wisdom in that final stanza, but at least it makes us smile! And if you enjoyed these poems, why not subscribe to First Things? They publish articles, too!
In other news, Tom Shippey reviews two new books on the Normans: “The Viking Age is generally agreed to have ended, as far as England was concerned, on 25 September 1066, when Harald Harðráði, or ‘Hardline Harald’, was killed and his army all but annihilated at Stamford Bridge. This put an end to the steady progress of the Vikings from raiders to settlers to would-be conquerors: an attempted invasion by King Sweyn of Denmark three years later was abortive, and though Norwegians continued for many years to control the Scottish islands in the far North, their effect on the British mainland was negligible. But if you take a more romantic view, the First Viking Age was succeeded within three weeks by the start of a Second Age, with the victory of William of Normandy at Hastings. By 1100, Norman princes ruled not only England and most of Wales, with much of Scotland and Ireland soon to follow, but also Apulia and Calabria in southern Italy, and Sicily. They had started the process of picking off parts of the Byzantine Empire, and a Norman prince was ruler of Antioch in the Levant. They were to play a significant part in the reconquest of Spain and Portugal from the Muslims, and had ambitions even in North Africa. Who were the Normans, after all, but the men of the North, descended from pagan pirates?”
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