Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The COVID-19 Poetry Challenge

Poet / author Phil Fitzpatrick
On Memorial Day I received an interesting email from a writer/poet friend with The COVID-19 Poetry Challenge in the subject line. Naturally this intrigued me. His email began like this:

Dear Friends of Poetry, near and far,

Welcome to the COVID19 Poetry Challenge, an interactive, tournament-style elimination game in which 32 well-crafted poems (see below) about writing poetry are gradually whittled down to a Crowd Favorite, the champion, if you will. This is purely for enjoyment; no literary criticism is required or requested, implicitly or explicitly.

The tournament matches the format of the NCAA's March Madness playoffs in that poems are paired off in brackets and each week teams (poems in this case) get eliminated.

I love creativity of all stripes, and as a method for sharing great poetry with fans of poetry, this was truly a rewarding ploy.

The first four weeks will feature the Regionals, beginning with the Lift Bridge Regional, May 25-31. Poems competing in this first round are as follows, though not in this order.

1. Alexander, Elizabeth -- “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe”

2. Frank O’Hara -- “Why I Am Not a Painter”

3. Berry, Wendell -- “How to Be a Poet”

4. Bly, Robert -- “Words Rising”

5. Bukowski, Charles -- “So You Want to Be a Writer?”

6. Collins, Billy -- “Workshop”

7. Collins, Billy -- “The Trouble with Poetry: A Poem of Explanation”

8. Dickinson, Emily -- “Tell the Truth, but Tell It Slant”

Other regionals have names like The Hawk Ridge Regional, the Hobey Baker Regional, and the Poet Laureate Regional.

As soon as I received this email I couldn't help but start my day by reading all eight poems in the Lift Bridge Regional. There were no easy decisions here, all eight poems being worthy of a vote. Each decision came down to the wire, one game going into overtime.

Billy Collins is always a fun read, so I will end this by sharing one of his here.


Not Billy Collins
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.

What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging—
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.

Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.

The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?
There’s something about death going on here.

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.

But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he’s describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

* * * *

Thanks, Phil for the thought-provoking and entertaining diversion. I can hardly wait till we get to the Final Four.

Related Links
Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins
Bill Collins, Poet Laureate
Phil Fitzpatrick Talks About His New Book of Poems, Hawks on High: Everyday Miracles in a Hawk Ridge Season
Three Feet Away by Phil Fitzpatrick

Meantime, he not busy bein' born is busy dying.

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