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Stepping Up to the Plate, Part 2

Go here to see what I'm doing and why. All readers are invited, encouraged, and begged to respond. The purpose of this experiment is to engage in discussion.

"The Future" by Billy Collins:

In typical Billy Collins fashion, he manages to spend 24 lines discussing absolutely nothing. Part of what bothers me is the fact that, were anyone else to attempt this trope ("I go to the future and people think I'm odd or different and I have to explain things to them") they'd be called cliche. Collins doesn't really add anything new to it. Some of the ambiguity might work for some; for example, we're not sure how far in the future he is, only "many days," nor how he got there, so this could be a profound discussion on aging or something similar. The definition of "history" might be seen as some as political. For me, this whole piece just seems lazy on many levels. There doesn't seem to be a theme here, the idea of the narrative is cliche, the imagery seems loose and disconnected, the language seems tired, etc. I can understand how one would be intrigued to nominate this piece, seeing as it is ex-poet laureate Billy Collins, but he has so many other speculative poems that were worth nominating way back when that to offer this up as a sampling of "the best" speculative poetry in 2008 seems off, for me. He's got better poems, and I've read better poems. This just doesn't work for me.

"Song for an Ancient City" by Amal El-Mohtar:

I hope this is the poem which was nominated, and the nominator didn't check the title. If not, I'm very embarrassed. Anyway, I like the imagery of this poem, that the dust of a city is perfume and makeup which exudes the city, the personification of a city, and the comparing of that personification to a sound...the layers and layers of imagery and synaesthesia run deep in this piece. I also love the line breaks of this piece, the way it forces certain thoughts on the reader or a certain rhythm on the tongue. Line three creates a great dual use of "I need," as does line sixteen with "I would wear". I also like the creation of an interrogativein lines nineteen and twenty with "there" preceding the line break.There I times I wish El-Mohtar would've done more of this--Lines 7 & 8, for example--but she does it so often and so well that minor blemishes become beauty marks. This is a keeper.

"Songs were washing up" by Francesca Forrest:

First off, I don't like poems where the title is the first line, or part of the first line. That seems too easy to me. It's a personal thing, I realize, and a sin I'm more than guilty of committing at times, but it bugs me.

This is a quick piece, and one that reads as a very immediate piece trying hard to slow itself down. I think, to a point, it works. Most of the lines have a long, slow, smoother rhythm--4-5 accented beats--which slows the reader down. The bump of "up on" in the first line catches me, as does the shortness of line four. I'm not sure that image is even necessary, or that the simile is presented as strongly as possible. In a poem this short--seven lines!--everything needs to be tight, and each word has to be right on. Any wavering from that, and the piece is in trouble, and for me, that's what happens in those two sticking spots. The rest of the piece rolls, though, and at times (line 6, I think is the best example) catches the rhythm of the sea and surf. Any poet able to do that certainly should be appreciated as a contender.

"A Mother Speaks" by Joshua Gage:

The caesura in line one is exciting, and calls the reader's attention to the piece, as does the one in line three. I like the sound of the piece. Line eleven is particularly pleasing to my ear. I also like the way the meter is maintained until the end, when things begin to fall apart. It happens slowly, so the reader isn't shocked by it, or jerked around, but it's there. I also like the way the narrative isn't specifically told, but implied by the juxtaposition of images and what isn't said. I think that adds to the horror of the piece. What bothers me are some of the line breaks. Line six works out loud, but not on paper. Line thirteen seems slavish to the meter of the piece. I also think the image in lines four and five is a cliche, but I like the image in the verb "to slip." There are some things that are technically working here, but I'm just not sure this is as strong as it could be.

"The Illuminator" by Joshua Gage:

This is a very intellectual poem, and one that for me, is too heady. The medieval imagery works, and is fun to play with, but the combination of obscure imagery, references to medieval legend and bestiaries, as well as the use of Latin is a bit too academic, if not arrogant.  The story is there, on the surface, and the images might be interesting and fresh for some, but for me, this might be one that takes too much time to wrestle with. On top of that, the Biblical line doesn't correlate with what's happening in the rest of the poem, so there are issues with the narrative. There are things that work, but too much that's over the top with this piece, that it's not completely successful.

"Green Willow Wife" by Jeannine Hall Gailey:

This is an interesting piece, but I think it might retell too much of the original tale for the reader. I realize many Western readers will not be familiar with the tale (I wasn't) but the first twelve lines are retelling, and the poem starts with "When you went back to my village, grieving," That is the point at which I begin to connect to the speaker. I see how the piece is working, and the retelling is certainly rhythmic with echoes of Pound's Cathay in the opening lines, so that's working. But it doesn't seem to add anything but background information to the real poem. There is something to be said for starting the narrative of a poem at the beginning, but I read this more as a dramatic poem with a narrative introduction. It is in the dramatic part, the  last 10 lines, that I find something which resonates with me.  The last two lines are really carefully chosen, and drive the tone of the piece home. That part is working, and working well, so I understand how this piece was nominated, but the twelve lines of retelling just seem to take something away from the impact of the piece over all.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 3rd, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your comments, Josh! And yes, that is indeed the poem that was nominated. I've pointed out the error to Drew, so hopefully it'll be sorted in the anthology proper.
Apr. 4th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
Illuminating the Future
A few comments on a couple poems that you were a little too hard on:

"The Future" by Billy Collins
I understand your comments about the piece being "lazy on many levels" (using "a famous naval battle" rather than choosing a specific battle, etc.). However, given that the poem focuses on that which the future has lost, the final stanza is excellent and adds a great deal of depth to the poem. I once attempted a piece about a gray, silent future but could never get the main character to work (someone from the past would have been perfect). I also could not come up with a strong ending (and again, Collins' ending here would have worked perfectly). I'm not saying this is one of the best poems of the year. But, it certainly has its moments.


"The Illuminator" by Joshua Gage

This is an incredible poem on many levels.

First, there is the effective and original use of language, right from the beginning "Candles perch like angels / beating back the night" and continuing throughout the piece.

Second, there are all the juxtapositions and interrelationships and the skillful way they are intertwined. I also like the way these interrelationships tie into the power of words (especially appropriate in a science fiction/fantasy/mythology context). To give a few examples:
1. The creatures coming into existence intermingled with passages from Genesis (in Latin, no less).
2. The candles/angels allowing the "illumination" to happen by "beating back the night."
3. The inclusion of both real-life animals and mythical (i.e. fictional, man-made) creatures.
4. The inclusion of both plant and animal life. Gage even throws in the "plant/animal hybrid" bernacae dropping from the margins of the page, like the Barnacle Geese of legend birthed from wood.
5. And, of course, the scribe/catalyst which serves to tie the diverse elements of the piece together into a coherent whole.

Third, the piece is not "too academic, if not arrogant." The natural flow of the poem (the music, if you will) manages to draw the reader along effortlessly. Yes, I did look up a couple things, including the Latin in order to learn that it came from Genesis (I had two years of Latin in high school, but that was almost four decades ago). But, I looked those two things up only because, and after, I'd already realized that this poem was something special. The poem works even without that knowledge.

Fourth, and possibly most important, this is a very strong piece visually. The reader cannot help but see it happening in his/her mind as it happens on the page.

Again, an amazing piece.

Plus, a couple observations on the Rhysling nominations:

I view, correctly or not, SFPA members as being careful and demanding readers. As such, I reject the notion that a “Best of” chosen by an editor, a group of editors or, god forbid, a committee would necessarily be better than a "Best of" chosen by members. The word "best" is inherently subjective. Some poems will mean much more to certain individuals than to others.

More unfortunate (as is true of any "best of" anthology), sometimes the best poems will be missed (from Joe Haldeman's "DX" first published in 1987 through Catherynne M. Valente's "Glass, Blood and Ash" first published in 2007). Even this year, Steve Cooper's "Big Bang Blues" (Dreams and Nightmares), Geoff Landis' "Landscapes" (Asimov's) and Mary Turzillo's "What Do Women Want" (Dragon Soup), essential components of a true "Best of," are missing. Just an observation. No suggested solutions. I think this is an unavoidable problem and holds true for any "best of" collection out there.
Apr. 4th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Illuminating the Future
My issue with the Collins is, of course, the laziness leading up to the last stanza. Everything is vague and non-descript, or, alternately, very specific but doesn't add anything to the piece (stanza two). I may be a bit hard on Collins because he is who he is, and that would be a more than fair finger point at me. I just think that he's written better poems, and that there are better poems published. I keep wondering how this poem would be received if it WASN'T Collins writing it, and I don't think it would have the clout that it does.

As for "The Illuminator," I might have been a bit harsh on myself. Sometimes we're our own worst critics. Still, I know I have better poems published, and I know there are better poems out there that explore these themes. There's a point at which, if a reader has to look too much up, the piece is too academic and doesn't work on a certain level.
Apr. 4th, 2009 06:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Illuminating the Future
:hee: The defense of your attack on your poem is ... beautiful. :) It's not only easier to be harsh to your own piece, but you can be more blunt about it and let slip comments that might bleed into personal attacks if you were leaving them on someone else's (arrogant?). :)

I very strongly see the Billy Collins piece as non-spec except in its hints--especially, perhaps, given its place of publication, I wonder if non-spec people would dream of it being literal time-travel versus very slight metaphor.

And I dislike that it doesn't tell us anything about this future except in broad (and to me, disjoint) brushstrokes. Perhaps I'm missing something (and these are the Eloi, and that's the context for this future-travel that fills in gaps--but then I haven't been told enough new). What future has lost geography? The rest (specific differences in commerce, and a back-handed reference to history) are easy enough, but again, I don't feel anything has been added to the discussion by way of the poem.
Apr. 7th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
It was only when I saw dkolodji's link to your blog (this makes the second time that I've visited since you started your Rhysling discussions) that I realized who you are!

I do love your tanka and haiku! Just wanted to say. Have noticed and looked for your name since first reading your "Tales for Children" in Goblin Fruit.

I was terrified to see what you might say about my poem ("Songs Were Washing Up"), but in fact found your criticisms fair and your overall remarks encouraging. Thank you.
Apr. 7th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)

Glad this is working for you. So far, most if not all of the comments have been encouraging and positive. I just hope more people are able to respond and post their views, furthering the discussion. I'm sure I'm missing things that others are seeing, or that I'm taking one approach that others disagree with. I would love to hear what others have to say about this anthology.
Apr. 7th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)
It's hard to know at what *level* to make a comment. Does this make sense?

Someone on my friends list asked if his readers could turn off their internal editor/writer when they read fiction (he was asking as a fiction writer)--and I realized I no longer really could, with fiction. I can still enjoy it, definitely!--but I'm also always noticing how they achieve the effect they achieve.

With poetry, I do notice those things sometimes, but I still also read purely for pleasure. So when I think about commenting, I wonder if I should comment about the things that gave me pleasure (or didn't)--usually a combination of sounds and images, but sometimes extending to the structure, etc.--or whether I should try to get more technical.

I suppose it's all good, though, at whatever level.
Apr. 7th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)
Well, imagine you and I and a half dozen members of the SFPA are on a pub quiz team, and it's about the fourth or fifth round, so we're all feeling no pain, but still sensible enough to not do anything too stupid. While we're waiting for the numbers to be tallied and the next round begun, you notice across the way is another group of six SFPAers and another, until you realize that pub is full of the SFPA, and the quiz is focused on the craft elements of the Rhyslings, and you're buzzed enough to tell the truth. ;-)

Yes, there is something to be said for reading for pleasure, but what is it in each piece that give you pleasure (or doesn't, if it doesn't)? What resonates with you in the pieces? If you don't want to get technical, that's fine. For me, sometimes the way something is made or woven is the beauty, or adds to the beauty. I'm just looking for honest discussion of the pieces, as opposed to the more general--"Oh, this is nice" or "I don't get it" that I've read on more than a few critique boards, speculative and non. What makes these pieces the best of 2008? Why these and not others?
Apr. 7th, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC)
By the way, here are all the entries in which I've talked about Goblin Fruit. You're mentioned in at least three of them!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


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