Cate Marvin and Michael Dumanis recently edited an anthology together. This week, they’re trading journal entries about the process.

Cate here. Thought I'd finish what I started, then hand things back over to Michael.

Back in 2001 when my co-editor, Michael Dumanis, and I began the process of creating our anthology of younger American poets, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande, 2006), we shared a desire to provide a wide audience of readers with a guide to some of our favorite poems of our own generation. We decided to work with one another because we share a belief that powerful poems work out of a fierce engagement with language. The process of selection would require both of us to reevaluate our aesthetic preferences. More than a few arguments would take place. We also knew we were bound to learn a great deal from one another as we challenged each other’s notions of what makes a good poem.

When I teach poetry, my students are sometimes initially intimidated by the texts I assign. They have been taught that if they are intelligent readers they should make immediate “sense” out of the text at hand. But there are many different ways to make sense of a text, the way there are many ways to make sense of a piece of music or a painting. Literature is not like math. Different readers plug into different texts in personal and various ways. Perhaps we can blame the simplistic way high school students are trained to recognize symbolism. Symbols are not strict equations! Figurative language is as fluid, layered, and complicated as the lives we live. Example: the moon does not automatically “equal” loneliness or sorrow. It depends entirely on the context of the poem, as well as the kind of moon it is (the moon gives us many faces, depending on its cycle, the time of year, the weather at hand). What does a reader do when confronted with poems as various and complex as William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Marianne Moore’s “Marriage”? First, I tell my students, take a deep breath and be patient. If they navigate a poem by exploring it, slowly and thoroughly, they will be truly rewarded.

Poems are structures. I ask my students to think of each new poem as a house they are about to enter. Then I ask them to take a look around. Line 16 is confusing? Go back to Line 8, then, and study it more closely. In other words, walk around the house. What is it made of: wood or brick? Formal or plain diction? How is the house structured? Is it more like a shotgun shack or a decorous Victorian with its many stories and intricately carved banisters and mantels? To dismiss a poem because its logic is complex or because its language performs with an ambition that expects careful attention from its reader is to dismiss the intellectual potential of the American readership. People don’t read poems to learn how to successfully navigate the corporate world, or how to find a date. Literature teaches us how to better understand the complexities of our own lives, as it helps to give our own experiences meaning.

To insist that poems be accessible in a particular or standard way is to negate the complexity of human experience. Such a stance also suggests that people do not develop their tastes as they engage in the process of reading—or that one cannot learn to appreciate that which is different or difficult.

I grew up in many different houses in the Washington, D.C. area, mostly rowhouses. They were beautiful structures, and by the time my family eventually settled into a one-story ranch house in Potomac, Maryland, I feared that my parents had lost their minds as well as their taste for good architecture. I was, in short, appalled. Years later, I’d move to Houston, Texas. Talk about being appalled! The first time I drove toward the city—my little car packed with my entire life’s belongings—the flashy, metallic skyscrapers that rose in the distance struck me as garish. I thought I’d never seen a city so hideous. Yet, a year and half later, I came to love the way the mirrored sides of Houston’s skyscrapers reflected the sky and turned the sun’s light around in ways that gave weather an altogether new beauty. These buildings, the way they conducted the motion of the sky by day and night, entered into my poems and became emblematic of the terrible and inexplicable visual power of the urban landscape.

To say all poems should be straightforward and accessible is to suggest that we should all reside in 1950’s tract housing.

The poems in Legitimate Dangers are complex and various. They represent a number of rhetorical models and architectural designs, some of which I had never before encountered. This is why they are important, challenging, fascinating, and true to the very complex and unpredictable world we live in.


Originally Published: January 25th, 2006

Cate Marvin was raised in Washington, DC and earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston, an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in English and comparative literature from the University of Cincinnati. Her poetry collections include World’s Tallest Disaster (2001), which won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize...