with critique by Tracy Koretsky
My friend Susi and her boyfriend
were in the bleachers when someone
launched a home run.
like a corsage over their heads.
That's when she said Robert
leaned over and proposed.
The whole ballpark was cheering.
What did you say? I asked.
"I couldn't hear over the crowd
a word he was saying.
But the cheering got me excited
and I stood up jumping like crazy
and my boyfriend thought I
had said yes. He threw his arms
around me and five years later
we have a gaggle of children."
Praise for Wyatt
As a bachelor the only thing I could cook
was the smoke alarms.
You steam vegetables in woks,
flip crepes deftly, paddle creams and butters,
and aren't afraid to try new recipes
whether from Beijing or Tuscany.
Your skills at laying cables,
editing audio tracks, playing drums
and writing impromptu songs
at jamming sessions makes me think
that everything comes easily to you.
I admire your confidence
but I love your kindness more,
and I pray for your good health,
for a cure of your diabetes.
You don't remember receiving
your first injections, 18 months old,
or your tiny fingers bleeding
four times a day...your cries
needles through my heart.
Copyright 2010 by Bob Bradshaw
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
If you are a frequent reader of the type of literary e-zines included in the Best of the Net Anthology, you have probably encountered the work of the much-published Bob Bradshaw. His talent for the refreshingly apt and original metaphor, coupled with his charmingly self-deprecating humor, give Bradshaw's deceptively simple poems a distinctive voice popular with editors. So when I received a letter from him containing poems that, he said, had been rejected numerous times, I became deeply curious as to why. Little did I know his poems would lead me to question the very nature of poetry itself.
You see, Bradshaw favors poems that tell stories, usually of the head-scratching variety. The reader is left thinking, "Well, who would have seen that coming?" or, "Isn't that just amazing?" The narrative poem is often accessible, which explains why it is so frequently enjoyed, but it is problematic too. What makes a story a story and a poem, a poem? Indeed, what, in fact, is a poem?
Consider for a moment that the Latin origin of the word "verse" means to turn. The word "story", on the other hand, comes from the word "history"—a series of events. In fiction, one event generally causes another, or is, at least, related in some way. Furthermore, story—as opposed to history—has a beginning, middle, and end, though, as any first course in writing will teach, they do not necessarily have to be presented in that order. Nevertheless, causation is the logic of plot, and therefore of story.
Not so for poetry. Poems "verse"; they turn, sometimes several times. They may leap from the logic of the story to a metaphor bringing in a wholly new idea or image. They may leap to another level of meaning, suddenly more universal or personal, serious or surreal. The address—that is, to whom the poem is speaking—might redirect. Even something as subtle as an alteration of verb tense can affect a turn.
Sometimes poems open as if they have windows within them, bringing in another context or reality and then rebounding to the original one. Often the turn comes at the end, so that the reader lands in a new place, not one hinted at by the original story or subject or theme. Making this leap is the work of reading poetry, its surprise and delight.
It is this quality that, in my opinion, "Marry Me" lacks. Here Bradshaw has put forth a story in its chronological order. The single metaphor: "Fireworks burst/like a corsage", while not the freshest in Bradshaw's oeuvre, is wonderfully resonant in its context, but does not really constitute what I mean by a "turn" in that it does not depart from that context.
Reworking the poem to end with the metaphor might be one way of building a turn. In this case the poem would transit from the literal to the metaphorical. In so doing, the poem would move from the drama to the setting, landing the reader in a new location in the end. This would require rethinking the order of the story's plot, which in any case might be a good idea here. Beginning with "The whole ballpark was cheering," for example, would bring the reader immediately into an active scene. Another strategy might be to begin with Susi and her gaggle of offspring and move chronologically backwards. Every story has multiple points of entry; it is always valuable to investigate several.
Actually, our second piece, "Praise for Wyatt", provides an excellent example of the concept of turning a poem. In line 12, Bradshaw moves from "you" to "I", taking the poem in a more personal direction. In line 15, there is a sudden change of tone. More significantly, though, the poem moves from the present to the past in its final stanza. We come to understand that the narrator has known the subject all his life, that Wyatt is, in fact, most likely a son. This shines a whole new light on everything we have read so far, complicating and enriching it.
But "Praise for Wyatt", because it is not based upon a plotted story like the one in "Marry Me", is not strengthened by the logic such a story provides. This is another difference between poems and stories: the ways in which they unify. Poems can be brought together through music or other formal or structural elements. For example, Bradshaw could rework "Praise for Wyatt" as a litany, perhaps by repeating the phrase "I admire", or even more subtly, by creating parallel grammatical structures in his second through fourth sentences.
Most often though, in free verse narrative poetry, unity is achieved via the extended symbol. In other words, the logic of the piece is created by the development of its central trope. At this point, I would say, "Praise for Wyatt" lacks such a cohering trope, and so reads like prose. Focusing on Wyatt's hands might be one solution; they're already present in the final stanza, and certainly the activities depicted in previous stanzas rely upon them.
Both poems might also be nicely complicated with more abstract titles, offering thematic suggestions to the reader. The point is not to be obtuse, but rather to create some layers of meaning. Because, unlike stories, which are like exciting trolley rides, speeding along on greased rails, poems are like gifts for readers to savor as they unwrap.
Where could poems like "Marry Me" and "Praise for Wyatt" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Oregon State Poetry Association Contests
Postmark Deadline: August 31
Twice-yearly contest from local poetry society offers prizes of $50-$100 in categories including traditional verse, humor, open theme
Naugatuck River Review Narrative Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by September 1
Prizes up to $1,000 for narrative poetry, plus publication for many runners-up, from a new literary journal based in Western Massachusetts
Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: September 15
Contest for Massachusetts poets offers $100 and reading at annual poetry festival in Somerville, near Boston; previously published work accepted
Firstwriter.com International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 1
Prizes up to 500 pounds for poems up to 30 lines (published or unpublished), from UK-based writers' resource site
Lucidity Poetry Journal Clarity Awards
Entries must be received by October 31
Twice-yearly free contest offers prizes up to $100 for poems in any form dealing with people and interpersonal relationships, by authors aged 18+
Leaf Books Short Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by November 30
Welsh contest for poems up to 16 lines includes 150 pounds and publication in a pocket-size anthology
These poems and critique appeared in the August 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.