The Ellusive Allusion of Poetry

Be forewarned: this post is full of lit-speak and self-indulgence.

Enter Sixfold, a peer-reviewed publication that couples the reviewing process with a cash prize.  They charge a small reading fee.  If you choose to submit your work, you automatically become a part of other writers’ review panels, ranking their work in three rounds (1 to 6, six high), and leaving them critical and appreciative commentary.

After a year of hemming and hawing and deleting the emails from Sixfold, my hunger for a workshop-like environment got me to disregard my self-imposed reading fee guideline (as a practice I don’t pay reading fees for anything less than a chapbook length manuscript), and submit some work for review.  I ponied-up the $5, and entered the contest.  Now, I was strategic.  I didn’t enter to win.  I selected five poems that I wanted help with. The poems I chose met the following criteria:

  • Both JT and I considered them well written, among some of my best even.
  • They had been rejected by multiple magazines, over a multi-year period.
  • I was “stuck” in seeing a path to improve them.
  • They were each quite different from the next, stylistically.

I was hoping that in the peer-review process, some talented writer or another would say something like, “You had me until the third stanza, when you lost me on the phase, ‘xxxx’.”  I was really eager to figure out exactly what was preventing these poems from being published, and in doing so, revise them.  As a bonus, I’d be able to make more informed editorial decisions in my newer pieces.

The contest started, and I gave my detailed reviews, including reading suggestions, line edits, and other goodies to my assigned poets.  Of the 18 sets of poetry I read, 2 moved me. I found myself again wondering why my particular poems weren’t being picked up. Compared to the bulk of what I was reading, they were solid.  Not the best, but solid. (Spoiler, I did NOT win this contest – My set ranked 32/334, progressing to round 2, but not round 3 of the event).

So three weeks or so after we started, we receive not only our final ranking, but our individual scores (1 to 6, six high) from everyone who read our work, and our comments from those writers/readers.  This is what I’d been waiting for.  Imagine my confusion at my rankings (note: I received no 4’s and no 2’s):

6 – 5/16 gave me the highest score possible.
5 – 6/16 readers scored me at 5.
3 – 2/16 readers scored me at 3.
1 – 3/16 readers scored me at the lowest possible score.

What? So. Not. Helpful. 

11/16 of these people left comments on my work. Generally speaking, I received very little useful feedback (one reviewer helped me change one line of a poem for the better — Yay!), and what was useful came from the people ranking my poetry relatively high.  BTW: How do you give someone a “1” and then tell them that their poems are “very well written?” Beyond me. But I digress.  I was here for some writerly advice, and this called for a meta-analysis of the commentary on the poems I’d submitted.

Taken together, some these readers had something particular to say about my writing. Let’s take a look:

  • [T]hese are so far superior, in texture, in historic and literary allusion, in assuredness to the others I’ve read in this round that it gets a ‘Best.'”
  • “This is quite ambitious work, however it is also not accessible enough to make for pleasurable reading, being difficult to understand without the context of an academic.”
  • “Ultimately, I judged the other entry to be slightly superior based on a slight edge in comprehensibility.”
  • “[T]he literary complexity on display may hinder some readers.”
  • “I haven’t quite figured out what each [poem] ‘is up to.'”
  • “I’m probably not as well read as you.”

And there it is.  It’s all about the allusion.

As moviegoers, we like allusion, the tucked away Easter egg. We like that the inscription on Nick Fury’s gravestone reaches back to Pulp Fiction It adds a layer of bad-assedness to old Nick (see what I did there?) that we didn’t even know we needed.  But offer readers to (metaphorically) hyperlink a bit of poetry to something else, and now we’ve got problems. Readers, even many poets, are intimidated by a literary history.

I take three distinct issues with this:

  1. There is a long and powerful tradition of writers — even iconoclasts — calling on the works of their predecessors for strength.  You don’t have to have read The Tempest to appreciate Huxley’s title, Brave New World, but if you know that Miranda, speaking that line, was awed and innocent, suddenly there’s a painfully powerful juxtaposition to navigate. How cool.
  2. I take issue with a refusal to re-read, and read deeply, particularly in any community of writers.  Bear with me.  I have known many, many, new poets.  And a common ailment among our breed is a refusal to read any poetry (or much literature at all, really) other than what we write ourselves.  How can our spidey-sense go off at a probable allusion if we have no internal library to access?  This bewilders me.  I can’t imagine a contemporary artist who wouldn’t identify a bit of cubism or an overindulgence in blue as a nod to Pablo Picasso.  And yet, a line of poetry with four stressed syllables split by a caesura…and we’re lost.
  3. I am an associative thinker.  The interwebs is my jam.  I like to link-and-link-and-link. I like to read this way. I like to write this way. I love this way.

So what do I get for the (not-so-new) realization that my poetry is getting in its own way? Four really well-written but probably unpublishable poems that I’ve decided not to rework.  They are what they are.  And they have a really cozy home in my OneDrive.  I’ll put them in my next chapbook and let the readers skip them.  (The fifth poem that I submitted to Sixfold, “Bridges a Refrain” has since been picked up by Print Oriented Bastards.  Yay!  It’s the least comprehensible, in the narrative sense, of the five I submitted, and yet relatively light on the allusion).  Oh yeah, and this little bit of fun I wrote just so I could spend the time hyperlinking it at the end of this post.  Enjoy!

I Never Tell You I Love You*

because of Neruda. In those flowering,
dark places where waiting is soulwork,
work is love.  This is to say: I see Levine
in the weary faces of my siblings, and hear
Hayden in my father’s most lonely name.

I write you no love poems, because battered,
ravished by Donne, my heart thinks only
of death.  And dying, in comma and coma,
I leave to Dylan’s sufficient rageLee,
on the edge of the bed,

folds my hair to braids. In
the cinnamon of sex, Ondaatje
keeps me.  And good translation,
I’ve plenty from Heaney. The sun
and moon were bridegifts from Hafiz.

I know I am supposed to say: Emily
AdrienneJane, DeniseSylviaSharon,
Rita – but among us, we love like starfish.
It’s you I can’t bring myself to need.

When meter and marching make war,
I’ve Owen, in an ecstasy of fumbling, Fiacc,
like a lonely, winter robin. It’s for Crane,
I like my heart bitter, bitter.  And forgetting
is so long.  If you blame my cold love

on another man, always begin with Neruda.


Note: this poem is about a poet’s relationship with the poetic community and the patriarchy that still dominates it.  I tell JT I love him every day. 🙂

*Gratitude to Havik for publishing this poem.