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Letters to the Editor – March 2010

Editor’s Note
The Contemporary Poetry Review is pleased to publish selected letters to the magazine, some of which have been edited for content and clarity. The editor can be contacted here.


Concerning: Joan Houlihan on First Lines

I liked Joan Houlihan’s piece on first lines. How right she is to emphasize their importance. Whether as a way to cull a good book from a worthless heap or to assess a particular poet’s grasp of the art, scanning through first lines is an interesting exercise. Many poets, I think, are oblivious to the gravity of this. An opening line is an overture, a first impression, a doorway, a vital sign. It’s also like a first date. It had better be beautiful or handsome or smart or scintillating or charming or at least well dressed. If it’s lame or dull or muddled or tediously self-involved, who’ll want to buy it a drink?

Joan was right to study this, and I hope she expands her essay into something longer. Have others poets written pieces about this? It warrants further discussion. Consider these first lines:

Here I am, an old man in a dry month

Oh, but it is dirty!

While that my soul repairs to her devotion

Each of these lines carries the DNA of its author’s style and voice. From each can be extrapolated a way of speaking, a tone, and a tendency of mind. Looking at first lines is a great way to filet a book when reviewing it. Experienced poets should take note of Joan’s piece, and beginners should print it out and tape it to their bedside walls.

As for Joan’s comments at the end on the state of literary publishing and distribution, I fear she’s right, though I wish she weren’t. As for me, I will always be ready to pay the price and hold a book in my hands. What if the power goes out, the computer doesn’t work, the printer is broken, and I want to read “Gerontion” or “Filling Station” or “Church Monuments”? I can take my book and sit on a rock in the sun, and read.

John Foy


Concerning: Hannah Brooks-Motl on the Atlantic divide

Dear Editor,

Hannah Brooks-Motl, in her excellent article contrasting British and American poets of our time, notes a number of well observed differences, which she ascribes mainly to the different historical perspectives of the two cultures. She suggests that being born in America pretty well locks you into one sort of perspective, while being born British makes inevitably for a longer view of literary history. Maybe so, but most American poets also spent formative years absorbing poems by Gascoigne, Jonson, Donne, Dryden, Rochester, Wordsworth, Keats, and – yes – Hardy along with their Dickinson, Robinson, Eliot, Frost, and Stevens. Many, indeed, might like to describe the world as it actually is (assuming that’s knowable), and no doubt many do. But the poems that appear in journals and books are largely controlled by editors, and editors operate with certain ideas about literary virtue, appropriate styles and approaches, and the public taste. How these ideas are formed and perpetuated among what one might call the editorial subculture would be a fascinating but difficult study. But I would wager that an “English” sort of poem, submitted to ten journals in America, would fare far worse than the same poem submitted to ten journals across the pond. And perhaps vice versa. I have personally found ready acceptance in some English journals of poems that went begging for a while in the US, but I can’t claim a wide enough sample to generalize with confidence.

Perhaps other readers of CPR can lend their views or share war stories.

Jan Schreiber

This post was written by:

- who has written 38 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.

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