Phoenix Rising: The Next Generation of American Formal Poets

John Poch

Phoenix Rising: The Next Generation of American Formal Poets
by Ed., Sonny Williams
Textos Books
2004
$20

The folks who say you can’t judge a book by the cover know that, much of the time, you can. Phoenix Rising, for instance, offers a cover image at odds with its title: a seagull with a big dead mullet washed up at its feet. How is this even remotely related to a phoenix besides that it’s a bird with its wings in the air? There’s also some sort of black line running through the upper left corner of the image that looks as if someone’s wavy hair landed on somebody’s scanner, as if it’s not part of the painting. Even the title displays a lack of invention in that there are dozens of other recent books out there under the title Phoenix Rising.

More ugliness: I counted nearly a dozen typos throughout this fairly brief anthology, and I wasn’t even proofreading. I probably oughtn’t bring this up, as the writers within must be giving the publisher and editor what-for, furious to have their poems butchered so. My copy looks like the printers were dealing with an ink shortage, the print is so thin. There’s really no excuse for this kind of sloppiness. And in a book of formal poems! One expects letterpress.

Phoenix Rising purports to represent the next generation of skilled formal poets, but where are the poems of Chad Davidson, Austin Hummell, Barbara Orton, Natalie Shapero, Geoffrey Brock, Karen Volkman, or Randall Mann, just to name a few of the younger poets whose work shows formal skill as well as vital imaginative capability? One expects in any anthology to overlook or miss some of the possibilities, but negligence to this degree is only more sloppiness. Though, perhaps this is an anthology of poets who work only in traditional forms?

Judging from the representative poems, only one quarter of the poets here are making strong poems (Genoways, Gylys, Osterhaus, Pelizzon, Stallings, Stephens, and Williamson), and only half of these poets have even the potential to carry forward the baton from the likes of a Hecht or Schnackenberg or Wilbur. Greg Williamson is, by far, the most accomplished of the crew, and a poem like “Origami” is one for all the anthologies and classrooms and living rooms and libraries and coffee shops, formal or not. Williamson is, at once, intelligent, moving, subtle, charming, witty, and bright. Did I mention that he’s smart? And in the poem “Origami,” he’s writing about failing to write a poem! At least the editor thought to include Greg Williamson (though how does Williamson’s amazing poem “Riddle” not make the cut?) A.E. Stallings’ poem “Explaining an Affinity for Bats,” also included, is about as perfect a sonnet as you will ever find. This brief poem is worth wondering over for a good long while, knowing that you’ll be coming back for more.

However, this book is the worst book of formal poems since the last book of formal poems, Rebel Angels (talk about a sorry title!), was published in 1996. Not all of it is awful. But so much of it is mediocre, all carrots and potatoes, no wonder most young poets continue to work in free verse rather than traditional forms. Actually, some of it is awful:

I’ll spend the day fishing
and drinking my beer
without ever wishing
I’d brung you out here.

(from “I’m Gonna Leave You, Chére”)

No, there’s no pain, but neither is there sleep,
Nor appetite. I’m tired by the dawn.
Simplicity’s the company I keep
After the last of dusk is dead and gone.
And no, I have no penance to demand.
And yes, I’ve lost the faith to understand.

(from “Not Even in Dreams”)

Hardy, in his great poem, “Hap,” maintains
he would be comforted to find his pains

were not what they in fact appear to be–
expected outcomes of “Crass Casualty”–

but the fulfillment of some higher will
intent on doing Thomas Hardy ill.

(from “Perspectives”)

Can’t forget my dear Nadine,
Helped by tanning and saline,
Next Natasha stole my heart,
Red hair, her ass a work of art;

(from “The Playboy”)

I don’t object to “brung” as much as the “beer”/”here” rhyme. “…dead and gone”? Why bother dumbing down Hardy’s great poem in mediocre verse? And do rhyming clichés cancel each other: “stole my heart” and “work of art”?

But who knows what time will tell? Maybe a few of the poets in this anthology will rise from their dead mullet (dull meditations?) and find their wings. In the mean time, just buy the books of the poets named above and continue to construct your own formal anthologies.

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