File this under fascinating-but-disturbing news: I read yesterday that an editor of a prominent journal, one I respect and enjoy reading, has announced to the world that poets should never submit love poems to his journal and only rarely submit poems about nature. Of course, it is his magazine, and he can and should publish or not publish whatever he likes. Moreover, what he likes is often excellent by any standards. With those disclaimers in place, I believe he’s wrong.
It’s not clear to me what to characterize as a “love poem.” All Hallmark, soppy, and sentimental verse aside, how do we distinguish between poems that traditionally celebrate a beloved from other poems of desire, fantasy, and loss? Grown-ups know that life is finite, and the proclamation that love conquers death is not particularly convincing. Poems that are written with this knowledge are easy to distinguish from greeting cards. They often question every premise of love and desire, and if they perform this interrogation well, we as readers may find ourselves looking beyond a few abstract nouns and experiencing the poem as real perceptions: sweat, skin, the texture of hair, the quarter-moon of a fingernail, even the damp spot on the mattress.
Is this kind of questioning of emotional states off limits to poets? Are poets supposed to say there have been too many love poems, too much information, too many public displays of affection? Are we moving toward a new decorum in poetry, where love and desire can’t exist outside of irony or victimization? This would be a loss for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is that love poems are a way other people become real to us. A love poem often tells us far more about the speaker than it does about the person the speaker loves. Sometimes, the poem can also be the occasion for ruthless introspection. I think about Auden’s magnificent “Lullaby,” which announces the limits of his love in its opening lines: “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm….”
As for nature poems, in the middle of the 20th century the West Coast poets (Snyder, Rexroth, et al) who wrote poems set in the Sierras were derided as poets who only wrote about “bear shit in the woods.” An intimate knowledge of the natural world is hard to come by these days. I envy those poets who have spent enough time in that world to have such knowledge, and I certainly don’t want to be denied their poetry. In the 1980s, I was an editorial assistant at a prominent review, where I begged and pleaded that the magazine publish poems submitted by Alaskan homesteader John Haines, poems that had been buried in the slush pile for 6 months. Sadly, I was not successful.
What does it say about us as a culture that important editors (the one I reference above is not alone) have decided that they will not publish poems about two areas of experience that poets have explored for thousands of years? This is a very different demand from Andre Breton’s “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be at all,” or Pound’s “Make it new.” This implies that the good poets, the ones these editors seek for their pages, should only write (or only submit) not-love poems and not-nature poems.
It takes work to imagine what such poems would have in common, but it occurs to me that they would turn away from the physicality of the world, from trees and rocks as well as fingers and lips. They would be poems about cell phones not turkey buzzards, collapsing buildings not palm fronds or swamps in Minnesota. Perhaps they would exist as mature considerations of history and language or elegant personal narratives of loneliness and isolation. I have nothing against poems like those, but I can see no reason why we should give up love poems and nature poems as a condition of reading other types of poetry. It doesn’t speak well for a county or an epoch when editors reject any kind of poetry out of hand. If nothing else, it means abandoning those subjects to sentimental or commercial projects, and our sense of what it means to be a person will inevitably be the less for that abandonment.
Finally, I have not named the editor who declared love or nature poems out of bounds for submission because I hope his statement won’t be noticed, that some brilliant poet will send him a love poem so emotionally real and complex that he will change his mind entirely. It could happen.