Category Archives: Contempory Poetry

Good Taste vs. Good Judgment

This essay is a modified version of Lammon’s editorial introduction to Arts & Letters #9, the spring 2003 issue. The closing references to living in a post-9-11 world, America on the brink of war in Iraq, and other observations seemed (unfortunately) still relevant fourteen years later:

I’d be content to imagine an America where leaders and citizens alike took more time to examine the “content of their character” and less time engaged in rhetoric about an “axis of evil.”

(Martin Lammon’s note; July 21, 2017.)


Is There Anyone Out There?

When I was in college and graduate school about 25 years ago, writing teachers often looked you in the eye and talked about “finding your voice.” Back then, I spent my twenties trying to cultivate a voice, which I took to mean my style. I searched my poems for recurring words (night, fish, river, corn) and themes (family, farms, death). I tried writing long elegiac poems, then longer surreal poems, as if I were trying to choose between singing bass or baritone. I was acutely conscious of trying not to sound too much like James Wright, an Ohio poet (a tenor?) who so dominated the poetry stage of that time.

Now, I look back on those days and wonder who I was searching for. Over the past dozen years or so, instead of cultivating one voice I’ve tried to allow poems to become whatever they need to be. Some poems want to be longer, more narrative, less attentive to music and linebreak. Others want to be lyrical, their essence found more in the way words sound than in what stories they might tell. But if I’d been paying better attention when I was 25 years old, I might have noticed how James Wright’s poem “A Blessing” (“Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom”) differed significantly from his prose piece “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62”:

   Ralph Neal was the scoutmaster. He was still a young man. He liked us.

I have no doubt that he knew perfectly well we were each of us masturbating unhappily in secret caves and shores.

The soul of patience, he waited while we smirked behind each other’s backs, mocking and parodying the Scout Law, trying to imitate the oratorical rotundities of Winston Churchill in a Southern Accent.

“Ay scout is trusswortha, loll, hailful, frenly, curtchuss, kand, abaydent, chairful, thrifta, dapraved, clane, and letcherass.”

Two voices, one man. These works were originally published in The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), probably written about 15 years apart. Although a critical reader could find stylistic and thematic links to the same writer, only a dogmatist would insist that both works share one style or “voice”, let alone a style particular to James Wright. Each work is unique, but not because one can find a discrete “voiceprint,” as if identifying a writer’s style were a matter of scientific calibration.

Ain’t That Sweet

As a writer, as an editor, and as a teacher of writing, I’ve come to realize that searching for one’s “voice” was really a matter of learning the difference between indulging one’s personal taste (however good) vs. cultivating good judgment. There’s a kind of poem (or story, or essay, or play) that I prefer to read, but if the only works I ever read (or wrote) were of one kind, my life would be impoverished and malnourished, as if all I ever ate were ham and cheese sandwiches, smoked almonds, and java chip ice cream. I certainly have a taste for all those foods!  But obviously I’ve had to broaden my culinary choices and make judgments based on more than mere taste. I’ve even learned how much I like asparagus, grilled salmon, and yogurt—all those foods I wouldn’t go near when I was a boy.

There are limits to metaphor, of course, but one more will help illustrate what I mean. Perhaps the most clichéd description of the relationship between authors and their works (and this description applies to editors and their journals, too) is the comparison to a parent and child. This comparison also has everything to do with taste and little to do with good judgment. Parents will love their children to a fault, a point often overlooked in this common familial analogy yet observed all the time in younger writers who love their poems and stories too much. How often do teachers witness this phenomenon among their students, who, despite insightful suggestions for revision, cannot bear to change one line of their beautifully crafted and well-intentioned poetry. They have a rationale or an affection for every word, every line, every trope. (Older writers—and some are friends of mine—are just as prone to indulge their personal tastes.)  Such poets are like mothers who have learned the very smell, taste, and texture of their adorable baby sons, who will love them even if they grow up to become serial killers. Such authors are like fathers who believe their sweet daughters are brilliant no matter how dull they might be. Such progenitors have imprinted themselves on their infant poems and stories and will never willingly relinquish them.

Enough of metaphor and analogy, which will take us only so far, because those doomed sons do deserve to be loved and those good daughters are brilliant. But poems and stories require a more disinterested judgment, and if writers and editors make choices based only on their good taste alone, then their work will surely suffer aesthetic consequences.

Casting Stones

No matter how disinterested an individual may be, no writer or editor can make consistent good judgments alone. Personal taste will always insinuate itself. Editors I know tell me they read everything, judge everything, and select everything for the journals they edit, and I wonder if they truly can temper their judgment with humility. Writers and editors must be arbiters of writing, but such arbitrations can (and I think should) depend on a process by which the individual listens to the intelligent voices of others. That process holds true at both the writing workshop and the editorial table. Over the years, I depended on assistant and associate editors to read and advocate for works submitted. I have often deferred to the judgments of my colleagues who served as poetry, fiction, and drama editors. Although I may sometimes have disagreed with their choices, I abided by them.

I do not think that I eschew responsibility, to borrow language from the wonderful poem “Ethics” by Linda Pastan. In the poem, an ethics teacher asks the students a philosophical question: If a museum were on fire, which would you save, a “Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?” Pastan replies, “why not let the woman decide herself?” and is chastised for “eschew[ing] the burdens of responsibility.” The poem ends:

This fall in a real museum I stand

before a real Rembrandt, old woman,

or nearly so, myself. The colors

within this frame are darker than autumn,

darker even than winter—the browns of earth,

though earth’s most radiant elements burn

through the canvas. I know now that woman

and painting and season are almost one

and all beyond saving by children.

Passing judgment is about deciding whether something will happen or won’t happen, and ultimately, whether something lives or dies, another reason why the analogy to the parental relationship becomes horrible when applied to authors and their works, as if they faced a kind of “Sophie’s Choice.” If I write a poem that fails, then I should let the poem lapse into obscurity, or if personal taste overwhelms my better judgment, then other readers—editors or publishers or good friends—will surely help the poem find its inexorable dead end.

When we are children, we are intellectually isolated, egocentric. We pout when we don’t get our way. We believe that the group laughing in the corner is laughing at us. We have no idea what death is. Only a thoughtful, informed community of readers and writers (a community defined more by experience and maturity than one’s age) can ensure that mature, disinterested aesthetic judgments are possible. Individual writers and editors will ultimately make their own decisions, but no one should have to make such decisions alone.

Higher Stakes

I write about making poems, stories, plays, and essays, about editing a journal. Yet as I write, it is the first day of a new year, and as a country we stand at the brink of war. Since 9-11, our personal freedoms are more and more threatened by a “War on Terrorism” that reminds me of the “Cold War” at its worst, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

It is the year 2003. When I was a boy, I imagined I’d be visiting cities on the moon, that we’d have landed on Mars, and that, just maybe, we’d have discovered there was life beyond our world. Older now, I’d be content to imagine a society where we valued teachers more than athletes, movie stars, and pop singers. I’d be content to imagine a country where people in airports were not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’d be content to imagine an America where leaders and citizens alike took more time to examine the “content of their character” and less time engaged in rhetoric about an “axis of evil.”

I imagine that James Wright’s piece about Ralph Neal and his boy scouts is one that the poet must have agonized over, a work of lyrical prose that balanced precariously between indulging his personal tastes and exercising his better judgment. Which is to say, it is like all essential writing that perseveres before, like everything, it ultimately perishes. Perhaps what I like best about “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62” is how Wright imagines that their leader, Neal, loves them not because they were handsome and talented—they were “dreadful and utterly vulnerable little bastards,” like the one who grew up “doing life at the State Pen in Columbus,” or the man who drove “one of those milk trucks where the driver has to stand up all day and rattle his spine,” or Hub Snodgrass who spends “a good hour…trying to scrape the Laughlin steel dust out of his pale skin”—but instead loves them because…

he knew damned well what would become of most of us, and it sure did, and he knew it, and he loved us anyway. The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American. The country is enough to drive you crazy.

Finally, what I learn from reading Wright is how a deeper imagination transcends rhetoric, how good judgment supercedes mere good taste. I also learn that I cannot do this alone. I try to imagine all the Ralph Neals in my life, all the Hub Snodgrasses, and how what I do next depends on all of them.

My Heart Beats Fast

Since 1980, I’ve devoted much of my life to teaching at colleges and universities in Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Georgia. Lately, I mostly teach poetry workshops and seminars to juniors, seniors, and graduate students. But one of the greatest lessons I learned about teaching happened long ago in a seventh grade classroom.

It was 1989. I was working at a small college in Central Pennsylvania, driving thirty-five miles each day from my house in Altoona. I often veered away from the main route, instead following a country road that meandered along a river then rose up and crossed an Allegheny Mountain range. I’d have to gear down, slowed by switchbacks that looped around the mountainside. Few people lived up here. The woods were full of deer and wild turkey. Once, I saw a bear.

I’d recently met a woman who taught at a nearby Junior High School. The little town lay in the flat valley near the river road I followed on my morning drive. She confided to me that she dreaded teaching her poetry unit and asked me for help. “Sure,” I said, “I’d love to.” I didn’t tell her that I’d never tried teaching poetry to such young students. But I was up to the challenge. Besides, I wanted to impress this teacher and, perhaps, ease her anxiety about teaching poetry.

“Boys and girls,” the teacher announced, “I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Lammon. He’s a poet. He’s here to teach you poetry.” Twenty-two children fidgeted in their standard issue wooden desks, the kind where the right armrest wraps around a student’s torso and makes a small, flat writing table. Left-handed, I hated those desks when I was a student, my elbow dangling in mid-air while I wrote.

It was 2:00. I had about one hour to teach the class about poetry. Some students whispered, others shuffled their feet, but mostly they were quiet. My first task, I figured, was to wake them up.

“What do you think of when you hear the word poetry,” I asked.

“Boring,” one boy said.

“Love,” said a girl in the front row.

A cluster of boys let loose a collective expression of distaste, as if the word yuck filled up at least half a dictionary’s page of derogatory explanations and synonyms.

“She’s right,” I said, reaching for the girl who said “love,” as if she were my lifeline that afternoon. “Lots of poems are about love, but you’d be surprised what else poets write about. Some poems are even about sports.” I had the boys’ attention then, so I pressed my luck. “Today, I’m going to teach you about poetry,” I said. I paused, then finished. “Later, you’re all going to write a poem.”

“No way.”  A boy in the front row, sitting aslant in his desk chair, gave me a long look. I’m not kidding, the look meant. But I wasn’t kidding either.

I spent the next 40 minutes reading poems, talking about rhyme and meter, and explaining how poems didn’t always have to rhyme. We played some word games, conjuring up verbs that could mean “to walk,” such as stroll, hike, and stumble. We searched for rhyming words, and I explained what “near-rhyme” was, how moon and bone might make a more interesting combination of sounds than “love” and “dove.” The students played along, but I knew that I was talking more than I should.

“All right,” I said, “it’s time to write your own poems.”

The boys groaned. But at least a couple of the girls seemed eager.

I’d invented a poetry writing exercise to help the students get started. On the blackboard, I wrote: “Like a ___________ my heart beats fast when I…”  Then I explained what I wanted them to do.

“In the blank, I want you to write down an animal. Any animal you want. A hawk, a lion, a zebra, even a mouse.” I scanned the room. Even the boys seemed a little more intrigued. “But you need to become the animal you choose. You need to imagine what would make your heart beat fast. Are you afraid?  Excited?  Where are you?  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What do you smell?  Who—or what—is with you?”

I told them all to start writing. We had about 15 minutes left in the class, and I figured my work was done. The students could get started on their poems, mull them over, take them home and work on revisions. I thought I might be able to return later to see what my young poetry students had wrought.

Less than five minutes later, the boy who insisted he wouldn’t stoop so low as to write a poem raised his hand.”

“Can I read mine?” he asked.

He was polite, perhaps too polite. This cool boy surprised me—mostly, because he’d finished his poem so quickly, not so much because he’d actually written one.

“Sure, go ahead.” To my surprise, the boy actually stood up and faced the class. Then he began to read, a little too fast, but clear enough for everyone to hear.

“Like,” he read out loud, “a maggot, my heart beats fast when I eat out the eyeball of a dead deer. How sweet and soft the eyeball is, how I love to suck out the juice…”

And on he read. A few boys giggled. One girl squealed. In just 20 seconds, he finished and sat down. Grinning, he was obviously proud of grossing out his classmates. But the other boys and girls, not to mention the teacher, were motionless, no doubt waiting for me to scold this impudent kid who had no respect for poetry.

“Wow,” I said, and everyone was waiting to hear what I had to say. “Your poem is excellent. Full of vivid details and images. Good job!”  The boy’s grin turned lopsided, as if he were still proud of himself, but for the wrong reason now. I’d praised him for actually writing a poem.

Another boy raised his hand.

“Can I read mine?” he asked. A little girl raised her hand, then another. In all, nine students stood up and formed a line, all of them waiting to read their poems out loud. The last boy in line, shorter than the others, was round-faced and plump in the waist. He wore thick-lensed glasses. He was the little boy in Lord of the Flies that the bigger, mean boys teased and called “Piggy.” But when his turn came, he read to the class, and as they had done after each classmate finished, all the students clapped their hands together, applauding this little boy’s poem.

The school bell rang, and the children began collecting their books and papers, preparing for the bus ride home. The teacher reminded them about their homework for tomorrow. Then, in less than a minute, the room was empty. Now that her students were gone, the teacher talked to me about the little boy who was last in line.

“Marty, that boy never volunteers for anything,” she said, “let alone stand up in front of everyone. How did you do that?”

She was asking for answers I didn’t really have. I was almost as surprised as she was, never expecting the students to finish so fast, then see so many of them want to read their poems out loud—to their classmates’ applause, no less. What these children had written was, of course, a little ragged and raw, but their sense of detail was more remarkable than I would have expected. Somehow, asked to write poems, the students had truly become the animals they claimed to be and discovered a language for what made that animal’s heart beat fast. Even a maggot’s heart.

Two years later, Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter?” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. His essay was savvy and insightful, full of dire observations about how poetry didn’t matter to important people such as doctors, lawyers, and presidents. “American poetry now belongs to a subculture,” the essay begins. “No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.”

For Gioia, if books of poetry weren’t selling millions of copies, or if poets did not influence public life and opinion the way business and political leaders did, then poetry did not matter.

But I’d learned a different lesson, a lesson I’ve continued to learn not only teaching in colleges but also working with both children and adults in various kinds of workshops. In 2006, I joined other colleagues and students at Georgia College to establish a Creative Writing program for 7th Grade Students enrolled in the GC/Early College Junior/Senior High School. This blog post features a recent image of Early College students reading from their work, and their university student writer mentors.

I can’t remember how often I’ve asked students young and old to write the poem that begins, “Like an (animal) my heart beats fast when I….” But every time, I’ve learned how much poetry could matter, the way it mattered in 1989 to a shy boy who faced a class full of children who might laugh at him. Yet he did read that poem he’d made with his own hand, his own heart.

This is how poetry matters. Not because it changes the world, but because it changes one person at a time—both the solitary writer and the solitary reader—one poem at a time. Sometimes that solitary person is a 7th grade student and the student’s family; sometimes it’s a nationally prominent poet such as Miller Williams, asked to write an Inaugural poem by the President of the United States.

It’s a lesson I hope I never forget.