PREFACE: I read a poem I didn't like, and I found myself wanting to talk about it. Then I immediately questioned this instinct, because I worry that I'm predisposed not to like this type of poem, and I hate when people write negative reviews of books that they dislike on sight and refuse to accept on their own terms. And I don't really believe that there are "good poems" and "bad poems"; you can't assess goodness without a framework, and we haven't all agreed upon a framework. But then, on the other hand, I respect and trust critics who talk about what they dislike occasionally, not just what they like, because it gives you a better sense of how they read. And on the third hand, I opened to this poem at random in a literary journal that was sitting on our coffee table (the Fall 2013 issue of Crazyhorse, which I received because a poem I co-wrote appeared in a recent issue); I had never previously heard of the poet. I hope you believe I had no preconceived notions about or agenda against the poet, or the journal.
So, all that said, here's the poem. It's by Danielle Cadena Deulen. (For what it's worth, she has a creative writing job and a couple of books; I wouldn't be doing this if it was the poet's first published poem or something like that; my hope is that a credentialed poet can handle a little pushback.)
The Needle, The Thread
What am I suppose to do with all of this
happiness? The needle that pierced through
then the thread that follows, that seems
immeasurable, but so thin, delicate. I run my fingers
along the healed seams in my skin, the patched
ruptures in the walls of my mind. But now
the storm has washed the pavement, lost water
rises from its unadorned body and the flowering trees
flood the gutters with pink. What am I
supposed to do with the scent of the weeds, the sharp,
impatient greenness of them, split, as I am
with a history of sorrow? When I breathe the sweet
June light, my lungs crackle, my hair stands on end.
What do I do with this swirl of pines, the wasps' nest's
astonishing swell, the rivets in the maple, rough
beneath my hands, and my God, the sky---the sky---
First, I think this poem's opener invites suspicion: "What am I suppose [sic] to do with all of this / happiness?" The typo, yes, irks me, but I'll grant that it's possible this is the fault of the editors and not the poet. In any case, the question amounts to a kind of humblebrag, so the author is setting the reader up for an overturning of expectations: The only way to correct for this abundant windfall of happiness is to allow some darkness to seep in later on, so that's what I expect as a reader.
What I get, instead, is a pretty flat register of emotion: awe all the way through. The poem ends on the same note of shocked appreciation as the first line: "my God, the sky" etc. And what comes in between? There are some hints at a more painful past, leading up to this beauteous moment: "seams in my skin"; "patched / ruptures"; "a history of sorrow." The problem is that these gestures toward pain feel false because they're turned into music. You'll notice that Deulen uses the "X of Y" construction throughout -- "walls of my mind," "scent of the weeds," "greenness of them," "history of sorrow," "swirl of pines" -- to the point that even phrases that don't quite fit the pattern start to feel like part of the tic: "all of this," "seams in my skin," "stands on end," "rivets in the maple." In contemporary poetry, the X of Y move has become a kind of syntactic substitute for real meaning. It sounds poetic, especially when the variables are plugged in with poetic words like "sorrow" and "rivets," but what is actually being accomplished? Is the occasion moving or are you just forcing me to go through the motions of being moved?
My issue with a poem like this is that there's no real tension. The poet is using beautiful language to describe beauty -- it's a five-star review of beauty. But beauty is not underrated; it doesn't need an advocate. The poem oozes sentimentality ("sweet June light"!) and the end is overdramatic. And I like drama! Give me a big Rilkean ending any day. But in a Rilke poem, you get 13 staid lines about a bust of Apollo before the flushed demand of the ending. There's a sense of subtlety, a sense of balance.
I could sort of see this poem having a place in a sequence of poems that demonstrate some tonal variance, but as a poem on its own, I don't think it works. And I guess that is on the editors as much as the author. I see journals publishing stuff like this all the time. It's a fine example of paint-by-numbers "craft"; you've got your assonance and your nice "line breaks." But in the end it's just the poetry equivalent of Oscar bait. Beauty without depth; wafer-thin.