October 2011 Discussion Guide

The Long and Short of It

Macrocosms and miniatures in the October issue of Poetry.

The Long and Short of It

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[Editor’s note: The Poetry magazine discussion guides are written by freelance writers and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the magazine staff.]

The October 2011 issue of Poetry captures the long and short of verse: petite poems by Kay Ryan and others squeeze between ampler efforts by Ange Mlinko and Spencer Reece. The contrast made us wonder.

Mlinko begins her poem, “Cantata for Lynette Roberts,” with this address to the other poet:

Lynette, the stars are kerned so far apart—
Through a herniated zodiac I almost see your waled skylanes,
   your shocked Capricorn and Cancer.

In the hundred and two years since you were born, and the sixteen since
     your heart failed, and the nearly sixty since you gave up poetry, it
     seems we can’t navigate by the same star chart.

Instantly the poem hints at its own expansiveness. Mlinko, a contemporary American, speaks to Lynette Roberts, a dead Welshwoman, across space and time. They are as “far apart” as the stars, and even Mlinko’s lines enact distance, extending past their margins and pooling into the white space beneath. The poem’s initial iambic pentameter shatters in consequence, as though the star chart for this poem has changed, too. By the time we hit the rhyme word “chart,” we’ve nearly forgotten about “apart”—which probably reflects Mlinko’s design.

The poem will go on to mention Wales and Minsk and Hanover and Buenos Aires and Florida, and will encompass the speaker’s experience as well as Roberts’. Mlinko will sound political (“A fireman from the Midlands NFS said the raids on Swansea were worse than on Birmingham”) as well as personal (“And it’s true I found it hard to think of you with the hardness I thought of myself”). She will allude to high culture (Caedmon, the Anglo-Saxon poet) and to low (Johnny Depp—no offense, Johnny Depp).

The length of “Cantata” complements its content: the poem is about lots of things, so it takes up lots of space. What’s the effect of this correspondence? Does the sheer quantity of places, times, pages, and lines cause you to lose your bearings—much as the speaker has, lacking a consistent star chart? If so, is that a problem, or the natural result of a confrontation with grandeur?

The other giant poem in this issue, Spencer Reece’s “The Road to Emmaus,” functions quite differently from Mlinko’s. The engine driving its speaker’s volubility is his uncertainty about what to say:

I did not know how to end sentences about Durell.
He had taught me—what? To live? Not to wince in the mirror?
What? There were so many ways to end my sentence. . . .

Accordingly, Reece—like Mlinko—permits his sentences to unspool at length:

I paused, then spoke urgently, not wanting to forget some fact,
But much I knew I would forget or remember in a way my own,
which would not exactly be correct, no, not exactly.

At its most halting and repetitive, “The Road to Emmaus” enacts unsure speech—a nod to the many difficult exchanges it records. The speaker discusses personal matters with his mentor, the mysterious Durell, as well as with a kindly nun, Sister Ann; AA participants confide in one another; Durell’s sister shares news the speaker does not want to hear. While Mlinko’s loquacity reflects the heft of her subject matter, Reece’s imitates a habit of conversation—how we hem and haw as we hunt for the right words. When the speaker describes his language, he could be diagnosing the poem itself: “Many of my words were not exactly right, the syntax awkward.”

Do Reece’s intentional infelicities feel appropriate, or do you mourn the poem’s lack of concision? Are you moved by the speaker’s persistence in the face of his inarticulateness? He mentions a mystery of his relationship with Durell that

I could not fully explain to Sister Ann,
indeed, I can never seem to properly explain it to anyone.
But I have tried, and I will probably always keep trying.

In a way, those lines could sum up the business of poetry.

And now for something completely different: let’s squint at Kay Ryan’s tiny “Pinhole.”

A pin hole
of light. We
can’t imagine
how bright
more of it
could be,
the way
this much
defeats night.
It almost
isn’t fair,
whoever
poked this,
with such
a small act
to vanquish
blackness.

Narrow as a needle, this poem points to the enlargement of the small. Ryan casts her minor drama—a beam of light countering darkness—in mighty, militaristic terms: the light “defeats” night and “vanquish[es]” blackness. By calling the poem “Pinhole,” Ryan suggests that the poem itself serves as a pinhole, elucidating vast ideas despite its tiny size. Do you think it does? Or is that task better left to big poems—in the style of Mlinko, Reece, or someone else entirely?

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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