Reading the Powows

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The Powow River Poets: Anthology II
edited by Paulette Demers Turco
(Able Muse, 2020, 149 pp., $22.95)

For those not in the know, the Powow River Poets (or Powows as they often refer to themselves) are a collective or a workshop or an interest group of people who write poems with dedication and serious attention to craft. Founded and for many years led by the remarkable and seemingly ageless Rhina Espaillat, they meet in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on Saturday mornings to share and critique work in progress. They also organize periodic public readings featuring invited guests and fellow members, followed by an open mic during which visitors (who often do not expect much from such sessions) may be startled to hear one or more strikingly good poems.

This is the second in-gathering of their work the Powows have published. The first, edited by Alfred Nicol, was issued in 2006. Some of the stalwarts of the group appear in both volumes, but the present book brings us a number of new talents, giving the anthology a mix of fresh and familiar voices. Among their number are apprentices, journeymen, and master craftsmen, many of whom have honed their skills to a fine edge over the years. And since poetry at its best involves not just verbal dexterity and an innate rhythmical sense but a certain cast of mind, a curious blend of analytic thought, odd imagination, and access to the deeper wells of feeling, qualities possessed together in high degree by only a very few (and even such rare poets strike it rich only seldom), we may be surprised to find ourselves not only pleased and amused much of the time as we read through the poems here, but occasionally stopped in our tracks and awestruck.

Rather than single out particular poems for praise or blame, and thus by implication invite invidious comparisons, I will record here some observations that this ambitious collection has prompted. For it is ambitious, in that it hews closely to an aesthetic of formal verse at a time, more than a century after the revolt against meter and rhyme was launched, when popular taste (reflected or led by poetry editors of major journals) still favors a prosy looseness and an associative structure sometimes dreamlike, sometimes discordant, sometimes indecipherable.

The strictures of formal verse, on the other hand, work against the inveterate human tendency to ramble on. The need (imposed by a preset plan) to finish one line and begin another forces a poet to plot syntax against a recurring infinitesimal pause that can be used for suspense, irony, or the delivery of a bomb in the following line. Rhymes call for like-sounding rhymes and implicitly warn experienced poets against succumbing to the obvious. Fixed-length forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, and the sestina declare that whatever one intends to say must be said in only so many lines, and that the arc of thought and feeling must rise and fall within that compass.

Not all metered and rhyming poems are in closed forms, of course. Simple couplets or quatrains can multiply like bacteria, in a way that gives new meaning to the term “organic form.” In such poems there is no inherent force or mechanism for compression. Likewise, a poet writing in terza rima is propelled ever onward by the need, in each new stanza, to discover two rhymes matching the second line of the preceding stanza, while creating a new line that awaits its match in the stanza to come, so that only an act of concerted will – and a violation of the pattern – can bring the enterprise to a halt. Loquacity is an ever-present threat. Even Shakespeare was not immune: Ben Jonson wrote that he “had an excellent fantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.” Many of our contemporaries are Shakespearean in this sense. One of the rarest attributes among poets, and one of the most needful, is a self-regulating valve that forces the most plentiful ideas into the fewest words. Had this book run to 100 pages instead of 150, it might have been still better, though probably harder to sell.

Other pitfalls lurk. Close observation of the poems by a reader who hears the rhythms and contours of language as it flows (what Frost called the sound of sense) will reveal, in the work of some less experienced poets, those points at which they made a natural phrase slightly less natural in order to accommodate the meter. Or where they likely inserted an adverb (almost always superfluous) to fill out a line. Or where they recast a sentence in the passive voice, thereby weakening it, to achieve a needed rhyme. Those are the places where we see the writer, as yet unaccustomed to the chosen form, struggle against its constraints. Conversely, in the work of the several experts inhabiting this book, their chosen forms seem their most natural means of expression, and their diction is thoroughly under control. In such poems you might find a verb pregnant with a double meaning, one that shifts as needed to suit either the literal or the metaphorical thrust of the argument. (Such a word is called a pun by the unsympathetic, but in the right hands it can be an inspiration.) Or you might find an idea introduced, seemingly unrelated to the material at hand, that suddenly illuminates the entire subject – something known all along but never before understood in all its ramifications.

The outstanding poets whose work is instantly recognizable in this collection, as it would be even if it were presented anonymously, understand the uses of irony because they see beyond surfaces. Their minds gravitate toward paradox. Their rhetoric makes abundant use of antithesis and oxymoron, which are simply expressions of a faculty for seeing connections among disparate areas of experience. They can write in casual idioms without becoming slangy or trite. They avoid cliché. Beyond that, their ideas and inspirations tend to be complex. They are seldom merely descriptive or scenic; their poems do more than reminisce: they expose what might otherwise have remained hidden. Discerning readers will readily identify such poems, and applaud their authors, as they browse through the selections, five or six to a poet, included in this book.

Observant readers will also recognize that the fixed forms that have become popular among formalists are not necessarily quick avenues to success. The sestina might look like a lark: choose six words as line ends for a six-line stanza, then write five more stanzas using the same end-words recombined through a simple formula. Sum up the poem in three more lines incorporating all six words. But repetitions can be tedious, and unless the final three lines have been imagined with some care before the crucial six words are chosen, the result may not be all its author hoped.

And how many people can write a decent villanelle? Any form that forces a poet to repeat lines imposes a huge challenge. A small but persistent voice in the reader mutters, “Yes, I heard you the first time.” So it becomes necessary for the poet to contextualize each repeated line so that it takes on new meaning in its new setting, or to vary its expression so that the repetitions are not exact but similar with a key difference. If this is not done with great skill, the result will be little more than the tinkly melody captured by William Ernest Henley:

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle, It serves its purpose passing well.

The form is tempting, since it looks like a machine for producing poems. Experts can make a villanelle both moving and memorable. But beware – it’s not as easy as it looks.

Sonnets offer more chances for achievement, partly because poets find within their fourteen-line structure considerable freedom to group lines according to the development of thought and to rearrange rhymes in unconventional patterns. (To cite a poet not a member of the Powow group and thus not included in this collection, Ernest Hilbert’s standard scheme, in his Sixty Sonnets, is abc abc def def gg – a pattern that falls more gently on the ear than abab (etc.) and might prove a useful template for aspiring sonneteers.) There are some good sonnets in this anthology, which my hypothetical discerning reader will readily identify.

But reading through the poems, ably assembled by Paulette Turco, is not simply a matter of feeling sonnets and villanelles for bruises and bad spots, as though one were buying avocados at the market; it’s a matter of surveying everything on offer with an open mind and a heightened awareness of language’s – and imagination’s – possibilities. Ignore the authors’ names, if you can. Look just at the poems, as if, to change the figure, you were walking through an animal shelter, looking for a dog or cat (or maybe more than one) to take home. Some will ingratiate themselves at once; others may take longer to bond, but the bond, once made, may prove even more lasting. Depending on your idiosyncrasies, the poems you most respond to may be more captivating than endearing, but no matter: you’re likely to find more than a few in this intriguing book.